Shelby County- Shelbyville (1937-)

The 1937 Shelby County Courthouse in Shelbyville.

Sorry for being a day late this week! I had a lot to do this weekend with midterms and some paid commissions- I’m a graphic designer and freelance commercial artist. One of the big projects I completed was a custom portrait of 26 old Pizza Time Theater and Showbiz Pizza characters for a place called Smitty’s Super Service Station in southern Mississippi. Stuffing that many robot animals into a frame -all variously sized and shaped- required some pre-planning to ensure the piece was blocked out in the best way possible. Early county governments had to do the same with their cities, and by extension, their courthouses.

We’ve talked about a lot of Indiana’s county courthouses here since February of last year- 39, to be exact! We’ve hit architectural styles ranging from Second Empire to Brutalist, from Richardson Romanesque to Neoclassical. We’ve referred to instances of geopolitical strife, bombings, fires, tornadoes, and gas booms. But one thing we haven’t much discussed is the courthouse squares themselves- the designs of the city blocks that provide the courthouse site. Today we will.

Three common courthouse square types exist within our state.

There are basically three different types of courthouse square layout in our state1, diagrammed above (discounting the six counties that never platted one), and we’ll approach them here from the least to most common. First off is the Harrisonburg square, named after that city in Pennsylvania. A Harrisonburg square features a central courthouse block intersected on each corner with a city street like normal. But the Harrisonburg square differs from a typical block by including streets that intersect at the center of at least two of the square’s bounding thoroughfares. Indiana courthouses in Franklin, Crown Point, and Evansville have Harrisonburg squares. It’s pretty rare. 

Secondly, we have the Lancaster square, which looks like a squared-off roundabout or traffic circle. The courthouse sits in the middle of the block and intersecting roads meet with its boundaries in the middle of each side. Five counties in the state -Dubois, Orange, Shelby, Steuben, and Washington- feature this type of plan, which makes it the second most common plat style among those communities that bothered to do so. We’ve got 92 counties in the state, which divides by 100 pretty evenly. It’s safe to say that about 6% of counties have no courthouse square, roughly 3% have Harrisonburg squares, nearly 6% have no square, and the rest of the pile has something else.

Four rectangular pilasters, as well as massive windows, characterize the prominence of the present courthouse.

If you’re like me, you tend to think of a city’s layout as basically a boring grid of streets. It’s pretty common around here, though the central square mile of Indianapolis is a notable exception. It turns out that the majority of Indiana’s counties -about 85% of them- feel the same way. They feature what historians call a Shelbyville Square- the “something else” I tend to think about. The Shelbyville square is just a regular old city block bounded on each side by a street and looking like a a pound sign. You know, the hashtag button, the octothorp. #, but not italicized. We have a Shelbyville in Indiana, as do six other states. Come to think of it, The Simpsons features a Shelbyville as well, neighboring their home town of Springfield. I don’t know what kind of courthouse square they have. Probably whatever type suits the plot.

Ironically, Shelbyville in Indiana doesn’t have a Shelbyville Square- it’s actually got a Lancaster square, although the courthouse isn’t even located there. You’ve got to travel four blocks south on IN-9/44 from the old square -now featuring a fountain and parking lot- to get to see it. But once you do, you’re in for a treat: The Shelby County Courthouse is one of only three art deco courthouses in the state. 

Like many Indiana communities, Shelby County went through a succession of courthouses before we arrived at what’s here today. Organized in 18223, officials first held court at the town of Marion -a few miles northeast and on the banks of the Big Blue River- in the house of David Fisher. They didn’t build a courthouse, though, or even lay out a square: The county conducted business at several private residences including Fisher’s until they could find enough money to build a brick courthouse. That first brick building sat in the middle of Shelbyville’s Lancaster square. Today there’s little left of Marion.

The rear of the courthouse is harmonious with its other fronts, but more workmanlike to allow for a modern, primary entrance to the structure.

By 1849 the courthouse in Shelbyville was obsolete and too small for the county’s business. Residents Edward Toner and Jeremiah Bennett4 donated a lot south of the business district4, and commissioners decided to build their new courthouse there. Apparently, a lack of community foresight meant that the city’s Lancaster square discouraged a courthouse big enough to conduct business, and a drive through town town today seems to confirm it. In 1852, the county hired Edwin May to design a new one on Toner and Bennett’s lot.

May was no schlub. In fact, he was a prolific area architect who also designed jails, the state capitol, and several schools. He only dipped his toe into county courthouses, designing nine from 1851 to 18795. Of those, only courthouses in Vincennes, Noblesville, and Greensburg still stand and resemble his original vision. May was paid $27,000 for his 75×100 foot design, which was expanded and remodeled in 1878 by architect D.A. Bohlen.

57 years later, county commissioners again deemed the old building outmoded despite Bohlen’s renovations. As you’d probably do yourself, they decided to build a new courthouse-, the one we see today. Their decision couldn’t come at a better time. Through New Deal legislation, the county was able to utilize a potent combo of funds, putting up county money plus Public Works Administration cash to complete the structure.

The 1937 courthouse -also designed by D.A. Bohlen (& Son, by that point)- arrived the same year as Indiana’s other two Art Deco courthouses in Fountain and Howard counties. For newbies, Art Deco was a style that originated in France prior to World War I. Associated with luxury and modernity, the format put extensive focus on expensive materials and craftsmanship, while translating its focus into a new, streamlined format that emphasized a building’s verticality. Think the Chrysler Building in New York. 

In Indiana, the style represented the final vestiges of any courthouse boom we once had. But the style itself translated into the windows of the two-story courthouse, transected by squarish pilasters that emphasized the building’s height- important, since it only rises two stories! The building’s main entrance, its eastern front, featured two outwardly-projecting, three-bay segments on its north and south sides, which lead to a symmetrical five-bay entrance wing featuring three sets of double doors atop two sets of stairs. In the middle, Doric pilasters rose to the building’s second floor, capped with metal relief panels. Tall lanterns were designed to perch along each side of the wide stairway. In front of the courthouse sat an expansive lawn, featuring sidewalks, mature trees, and a limestone memorial. Though the building didn’t dominate its surroundings then (and doesn’t really now), its setback does gives credence to its importance. 

Tall iron lanterns frame the building’s primary entrance.

The rear of the building features a similar design, though not nearly as prescribed as the front of it. Three-over-three windows reiterate the front’s motif, and the north and south setbacks still remain. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the building’s back side is more functional with an entrance vestibule, stairs that aren’t quite as ornamental, and a large smokestack that you can’t see from the front. A rear parking lot provides access to the Shelby County courthouse annex- a bland, tan-colored, two-story building that presumably holds all of the functions that the courthouse is still too small for. The southwest side of the courthouse’s parking lot is home to the Shelby County Jail, a boring brick structure that sort of looks like what would occur if an old Pizza Hut got a malignant tumor that expanded it into 60,000 square feet. 

Despite the building’s relatively squat shape, it still dominates the area south of Shelbyville’s downtown.

The Shelby County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places back in 20117, but its records aren’t digitized so I didn’t have enough information to give even a basic description of its interior. I can say, though, that 1975 alterations enabled a new county court to take up residence in the building’s basement6. But regardless of the building’s interior, the outside of the courthouse remains an impressive, central component of its area in Shelbyville. South of downtown, the building is surrounded by a few old homes that appear historic, some one-story businesses, and a two-story Masonic Temple located far enough south as to not cause disruption as to the authority of the courthouse. All in all, I enjoyed all three times I ventured to Shelbyville to snap photos of the county seat. I can’t place why I felt that way, but I think it had to do with the joy of going somewhere new on a solo road trip, the fall temperature, searching for decent reception on my car radio, and the rush of getting photos before night fell, if I can be romantic, frank, and honest.

The courthouse is unique, even among its Art Deco peers. And the downtown -regardless of its parking lot Lancaster square- is interesting and seems hospitable to a tourist like me. I could easily imagine living somewhere like that in the near future, especially with a casino, buffet, and horse track sitting just north of town. I’d just need to make a lot more money! 

After three tries, Shelbyville finally gained a courthouse that has stood -and will stand -the test of time.

Sometimes an initial plan is great and works forever. More often, I’ve realized, the plan needs fine-tuned, adjusted, and occasionally thrown by the wayside. That’s a lesson I’ve found throughout my life and especially through my art commissions. I’ve learned that I need to develop a basic premise to edit before rendering a final piece that satisfies the needs of my clients. Shelbyville seems to have gone through the same process. Though their Lancaster square worked for a while, eventually the county grew. Commissioners edited the town’s layout, considered their options, and moved forward with a plan that still works today. It’s a great lesson that I’ve strained to tie to my own recent experiences. This blog isn’t meant to be a shill, but I’d recommend going down to Shelbyvbille to spend a day and see its courthouse. The experience won’t leave you wanting.

Shelby County (pop. 44,729, 33/92)
Shelbyville (pop. 19,253).
22/92 photographed.
Built: 1936
Cost: $250,000 ($4.32 million in 2016)
Architect: D.A. Bohlen & Son
Style: Art Deco
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 2 stories
Current use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 8/18/15

1 Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “Shelby County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web.
3 History of Shelby County, Indiana : from the earliest time to the present. Chicago. Brant & Fuller. 1887. Print.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Shelby County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web.
5 The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.  Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1994. Print.
6 Shelby County, Indiana History & Families, Volume 1. Nashville. Turner Publishing Company. 1992. Print.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Shelby County Courthouse, Shelbyville, Shelby County, Indiana, National Register # 11000917.

2 thoughts on “Shelby County- Shelbyville (1937-)

  1. Inside? Lots of marble, as I recall, with stylish aluminum rails along the big central staircase. I think this one would be a good one to go into.

    I tried a case there. It was my last before I quit smoking and my first after smoking had been banished from the building.


    1. Will have to try and get in there! My attempts at interior access for photos have been somewhat limited so far, though a guy I work with’s dad is the head of maintenance at the Jay County Courthouse. Maybe once I get up to speed with a portfolio of interior photographs it will come easier.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s