Today’s courthouse, in Elkhart County, is another one that’s personal to me. I recently joined the Facebook group I Grew Up in Elkhart, IN because, well, I did. At least in fits and starts. What I mean is that I grew up there for two-day, biweekly periods from the age of six or so up through my sophomore year of high school when I lived there. I’m probably the least qualified member of that group, come to think of it.
In the late 1990s, my dad moved to Elkhart to work for the musical instruments conglomerate Conn-Selmer. His house was so far out of town that we’d usually go to the closer communities of Goshen or Dunlap whenever we had anything to do. Obviously, Goshen has a phenomenal historic courthouse that we talked about here, but since I rarely spent time in the downtown Elkhart proper, it never occurred to me that there was a superior courthouse there until long after Dad died and my frequent time in Elkhart County ended. At least now, on Facebook, I’m in the right place again- unlike those Russian bots sent to disrupt the county’s RV industry and our economy at large.
As a kid, dad lived on just under an acre with a huge backyard surrounded by forest. At one point he bought a pop-up camper, and one of my favorite things to do at his house was sit in the camper’s dinette and read Calvin and Hobbes. The little kid and his stuffed tiger all but mesmerized me as early as second or third grade, when I discovered an anthology at his house. I was hooked.
Flash forward two decades. I’d been back to Elkhart County to take photos of the courthouse in Goshen and was doing additional research about it when I discovered the superior courthouse in Elkhart and checked it out on Google Street View. Almost immediately, a passage from Calvin and Hobbes firmly planted itself in my head: It’s early morning, mother’s day, and Calvin has written his mom a card. The first few panels illustrated how sweet the card’s sentiment was; clearly Calvin’s mom was touched at what he had to say. The final panel, though, revealed how the card ended.
Happy Mother’s Day to you. There, I said it, now I’m done. So how ’bout getting out of bed and cooking breakfast for your son?
“I love brutalism!” I exclaimed. “There I said it- now I’m done.”
I really do love brutalism! But this courthouse? Ehhh, not so much. Typically, I love the honesty that massive, concrete walls provide, and I love the unadorned, modular forms generally associated with the style. Here in Indiana, we have two of these buildings, aside from Elkhart’s- courthouses in Muncie and Monticello were rendered in the brutalist style. In the context of a courthouse, I appreciate how the buildings are able to make a statement without resorting to excessive ornamentation, and I respect the monumental and permanent image of government that the style represents. I think this style of building has stood out to me since I was a kid, but after researching our state’s courthouses and realizing the ephemeral existence of many of our old clock towers and mansard roofs, I like it even more. Through brutalism, at least we get a lasting view of what the architect intended. Nevertheless, upon first glance I didn’t find any of that in the Elkhart County superior courthouse, except for the poured concrete.
So anyway, let’s back up. What’s a superior courthouse, and how’s it different from a normal one? As we all know, the Supreme Court differs from the regular court in that it has tomatoes and sour cream and costs forty cents more at Taco Bell. The differentiation between the superior court and a regular court, though, is a bit more esoteric. To copy my explanation from a previous post, apparently the superior court is only ‘superior’ compared to lower courts with limited jurisdiction. But confusingly, that differentiation has largely fallen by the wayside in modern times. Today, both circuit and superior courts enjoy have general jurisdiction across all civil and criminal cases. Therefore, Elkhart’s courthouse stands ready to take on any case outside the capacity of Goshen’s own Elkhart County courthouse ten miles to the southeast. A dry description, to match a very dry building.
There’s not a lot of information about the courthouse -officially, the Elkhart County-Courts Building- online. However, an interested resident of Elkhart, Jeff Schumacher, did me a huge favor by going to the local library and digging through a half-hour’s worth of microfiche to help me out. According to sources, the building’s story, interestingly, starts with the history of Elkhart High School. In 1908, Elkhart’s Central School was built on the southeast corner of 3rd and High Streets downtown to serve students from grades one through eight. Three years later, Elkhart High School joined it to the east, supplanting an older building at the corner of Lexington and Vistula that still stands. By 1919, Central School became Elkhart central Junior High School2, and nine years later, a vocational annex containing music and shop classrooms was added to the southwestern corner of the site3.
Over time, the building continued to grow, even into an adjacent church and the old Carnegie library. In 1953, North Side Middle School was built on (surprise!) the city’s north side, and the old Central Jr. High was absorbed by the high school. Students kept pouring into the city’s only high school and, by 1966, a new “Senior Division” building was constructed at Rice Park. The venerable high school became the city’s “Sophomore Division” school, housing underclassmen until the opening of Elkhart Memorial High School in 1972.
By this point, the Elkhart County courthouse in Goshen was a hundred years old and showing its age despite an extensive reconfiguration in 1909. To address the building’s deficiencies, the county issued a general obligation bond for nearly $4 million. But the funds weren’t just going to Goshen’s courthouse- they’d also be used towards the construction of a new jail across the street, as well as a new courthouse -the subject of today’s post- on the site of the former Elkhart High School. Contracts were awarded by August of 19705, and the new courthouse was completed the following year.
A two-story4, white-colored building of poured concrete, the courthouse was intended to hold six county offices: those of the County Commissioners, the clerk, the sheriff, the county planning commission, and superior courts one and two. Elkhart architects K/M Associates designed the building so that its west side would be totally secure, featuring a county police garage, evidence storage area, secure elevator, offices, and cells for men, women, and irascible kids. The secure elevator was designed to go right up to the two courtrooms on the second floor, which also features jury rooms, conferences rooms, and judges’ quarters, along with a juvenile court room. A basement that spanned half the building’s length was designed to capture any overflow for more offices to be added in the future5. Today, my favorite feature is the weird, trapezoidal beds that resemble what one might find at a skate park and sit at the buildings east and south faces. How was I not supposed to Tony Hawk off that planter after years of Playstation and Xbox encouraging me to do otherwise?
But I left my old deck and Razor scooter at home (never learned to use it anyway) and evaluated the main building’s appearance today. It’s pretty easy to dismiss it as a bad example of 70s architecture, as I’ve done. But there’s an opposing argument to be made as well. Its architects were pioneers in what was called the ‘systems analysis’ of design and construction. This school of thought prioritized the use of modular, prefabricated subsystems, which significantly lowered construction costs and lead time. This philosophy has caught on in many other areas, too – even, like, modular furniture that can be configured 400 ways. Whether it’s an appealing architectural style is a matter of taste, but the concept is a good one. To my understanding, this was K/M’s first systems foray into government buildings. Prior, they’d used the technique at Riverside Hall at Indiana University- South Bend, as well as the school’s science building. Even prior to that, they’d used their prefabricated methods on Ossian, Indiana’s Norwell High School in 1968. The group applied their new knowledge of prefabricated modules to additions to the Adams Central, Mary Beck, Oakdale, Madison, and Columbia City High schools, along with several other new constructs. I must say that, despite the method’s poor ability to age, which was obvious given its pioneering style it certainly made sense in the context of the firm’s prior successes.
A contemporary news article mentioned that, while the vocational annex would be remodeled to be incorporated into the new building, the old high school- at that point, the old “Sophomore Division,” would be demolished for parking. Both events ultimately occurred and today, we’re left with a few reminders of what once stood here.
First off, we’ve got a historical marker that designates the courthouse’s parking lot as the site of the former Elkhart High School. The school’s former vocational annex was indeed remodeled, and sits where it has for the past ninety years, at the site’s southwest corner. Today, it’s connected to the white courthouse by means of a bizarre, postmodern addition built in 1994. Today, the old annex holds superior court 6, county probation, community corrections, and juvenile court, according to a member of that Facebook group I joined.
But despite the modern structure, there’s an even older superior courthouse across High Street. The original Elkhart County superior courthouse- built in 1915, remains in government service today as the community’s city hall. Interestingly, the building was designed by the same guy, E. Hill Turnock, that designed the old Elkhart High School on the same block. In fact at one point, three of the four corner buildings were built from his designs, including the old Presbyterian church that sat on the corner’s southeast side.
I do love brutalism but all said, we should just look at the 1971 Elkhart County superior courthouse as supplementary to our state’s historic courthouse portfolio- particularly since we have that great example still extant just down US 33 in Goshen, as well as that original superior courthouse now serving as the Elkhart City Hall. While trips up to Dad’s almost never resulted in trips to downtown Elkhart, we passed the courthouse in Goshen nearly every time we arrived and departed. Its superior -architecturally and historically- in every way but the type of court it holds. Har har!
Not sure there’s a modular courthouse in our state aside from this one. For that reason, at least Elkhart’s is a novelty, but my time on the Elkhart-memories Facebook page has been deluged by those who wish the old school still stood and had been repurposed, asking what progress truly looks like. To them, I respond with one more Calvin and Hobbes quote:
“Scientific progress goes “boink!”
Elkhart County (pop. 197,559, 6/92)
Elkhart (pop. 52,558)
Built: 1971, remodeled 1994
Cost: $1.34 million ($8.3 million in 2018)
Architect: K/M Associates
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: County offices and some courts
1 Watterson, B. “Calvin and Hobbes”. Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. Kansas City. May 14, 1989. Print.
2 Stinespring, J. “100 Years Elkhart High School 1872-1972”. 1972. Print.
3 Konrath, R. (2013, June 13). Re: The Old SCHOOL. [Facebook comment]. Web. Retrieved 1/16/19.
4 Deacon, J. “Elkhart County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved 12/17/18.
5 “County-Courts Building Contract Awarded” The Elkhart Truth [Elkhart]. August 21, 1970. Print.
6 “Courts Building Opens Wednesday; County Officials Tour Facility” The Elkhart Truth [Elkhart]. November 2, 1971. Print.
7 Poice, J. “A Case Study In Systems Building”. Stanford University Planning Lab [California]. 1970. Print.
8 Watterson, B. “Scientific Progress Goes ‘Boink’ “. Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. Kansas City. 1991. Print.