One of the first things I learned during this project is that I really hate the “new urbanist” style that defines the new central district of Carmel and other similar developments. For me, the trope is useless in today’s society- we’ve moved beyond the historic construct of a European city center, and the thought that those tight streets and massive steel constructs intended to appear as several tall buildings with mansard roofs in the middle of an open field suspends my disbelief a little too much. I can’t deal with Disney World’s Main Street, and I sure can’t deal with Carmel’s city center.
The second thing I’ve come to realize, incongruently, is that I really enjoy many of our modern courthouses. Now, I’m not talking about these new justice centers that use a smattering of columns or a pediment in order to sort of resemble their forbears, and I’m not talking about those that use Carmel’s colonial design language: I love Delaware County’s brutalist structure, Anderson’s modern glass county building, and White County’s modern fortress of a courthouse. As we all know, variety is the spice of life. Without newer courthouses to praise or lament, we might not know the value that their predecessors brought to the table. At the end of the day, we’ve got 92 counties here, I try to take all of those courthouses in as contributors to a greater portfolio.
All that said, I must admit that I really like additions to old buildings that try to match the old style of the original courthouses they’re joined to. I know, I know- I’m spinning yarns. It’s an incongruous opinion after my screed, but there’s an art to keeping an old building fresh. I’ve contradicted myself often on this project -and I’ll contradict myself again- but I think the best example of what I’ll call the “purposeful addition” phenomena across Indiana is found in the Scott County Courthouse in Scottsburg. An expansion there, completed in 1997, tripled the building’s size, but left the original courthouse viable as the new building’s westernmost wing while mirroring it on the east side of the square and adding a modern hyphen to connect the whole thing.
While not as small as Ohio County (profiled last week), tiny Scott County ranks 88th in our state in terms of geographic size by clocking in at a paltry 190.4 square miles1. In terms of population, the county ranks 65th2, definitely in the state’s bottom third but far from last. Per the most recent Census, the county ranks 81st out of 92 in per capita income, and sadly, aside from three extant towns -Scottsburg, Lexington, and Austin- there’s not much going on in the area but an HIV outbreak afflicting more than 200 residents3.
I think most people pass through Scott County on their way down I-65 to Louisville, or the opposite- going home from the derby back to Indy or Chicago. I doubt many stop. Scott County had one previous county seat, in Lexington, about ten miles to the southeast. Though a courthouse was there until 1874, it was used as a school until 1889 when it was demolished. Today, its location is home town elementary school, itself a historic building. Lexington’s too far east for travelers to run through, but the western edge of Scottsburg sits around I-65, and IN-56 -the main commercial strip- takes a traveler right downtown past the courthouse by way of Domino’s, Ponderosa, Burger King, a CVS, and a couple of Chinese restaurants including China Wind and First Wok. From there, the expansive courthouse lawn opens up to the south. And the building is impressive!
The original portion of the Scott County Courthouse took up the courthouse lawn’s westernmost segment. Designed by Andrew Baty and built by Travis Carter, the 1874 building was three bays wide and seven deep in a cruciform shape. Per the period, the building was made of unglazed red brick on top of a brick foundation. The bricks were laid in common bond, which means that a course of headers (evenly-spaced bricks) are inserted every five or six vertical rows. In the case of the Scott County Courthouse, the headers were placed every seven courses. Each elevation of the building features a low-pitched, gabled roof with a wide frieze ( a wide horizontal band), cornice returns, and mutuels -heavy stone blocks projecting from underneath the cornices, to decorate it4. All of these elements lend the courthouse an Italianate feel.
The main entry of the courthouse is its north face, where a set of stairs lead up to a central entrance of paired doors that are topped by a fixed transom window. Just above the arched transom is a semicircular limestone panel detailing the building’s original construction superintendents, and flanking the main entry are a pair of classical, four-over-four windows with limestone sills. The second story repeats the plan.
The courthouse served for nearly 120 years, but county officials commissioned Indianapolis’s Ratio Architects to design a major addition to the structure in 1995. As I said, it’s one of the best revitalizations of a courthouse that I’ve ever seen, even while tripling the building’s square footage! Ratio concocted a new east wing that measured an identical three bays wide and seven bays deep, while concealing a wheelchair ramp for accessibility via a snaking brick wall. The two wings are functionally identical, though the new, eastern wing has a semicircular projection on the second floor that fits within the rectangular floor plan. A modern atrium, five bays wide and projecting one bay out from each of the building’s wings, serves as a two-story entry pavilion featuring arched lintels and projecting brick piers capped with wooden capitals. Though the original building never featured one, the current courthouse has a contemporary aluminum cupola that complements both portions of the building well5. I’ve never seen a historically-sympathetic addition add so much to a building, while encouraging it to retain its identity. A walk into the main entrance in the atrium encourages a look at the original western face of the previous structure, which was largely left in place. The additions are all impressive, but lets not consider their origin: though the original structure cost only $20,000 at the time it was built, it still serves its constituents after more than 130 years of operation.
That look at the original courthouse facade is part of what I really appreciate about Scott County’s courthouse. Though a historic building existed there, it was outdated and was expanded to create something entirely new- not some addition curated by a glass atrium, but nearly an entirely different courthouse curated through a mix of modern and matching styles to create something entirely new. Carmel officials could take a look at this courthouse and really learn a thing or two!
Despite Scott County’s problems, downtown Scottsburg is ripe for innovation- it’s the typical downtown, with an old courthouse square, a theater, a few churches, and lots of commercial buildings to boot. Nearly twenty-five years ago, commissioners there had the foresight to preserve their old courthouse and incorporate it into an entirely new structure. Though some tarps were up when I visited, the current structure does the old building justice- it doesn’t totally ape its style, but manages to share all of its significant elements. The entry atrium -modern in approach with historic input- does a great job of repeating the original courthouse’s major elements while translating them into the new wing. While it might seem to the passerby (myself included) that Scott County doesn’t have a lot to offer, I absolutely recommend making a stop at this courthouse to see how modern construction can interact, and even add to, a building that sat alone on the square for twelve decades. I think any visitor would be pleasantly surprised. I know its constituents are grateful for the updated facilities!
Scott County (pop. 6,731, 65/92)
Built: 1873, expanded in 1997
Cost: $19,790 ($395,282 in 2016)
Architect: Andrew R. Baty
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2.5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “Indiana Land area in square miles, 2010 by County” indexMundi. 2019. Web. Retrieved May 19, 2019.
2 “Indiana Population Projection Maps and Visualizations”. STATS Indiana. Indiana University. Web. Retrieved May 19, 2019.
3 “Mike Pence Is Still to Blame for an HIV Outbreak in Indiana—but for New Reasons” The Nation. The Nation Company, L.P. [New York] May 21, 2009. Web. Retrieved May 19, 2009.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Scottsburg Courthouse Historic District, Scottsburg, Scott County, Indiana, National Register # 03000547.
5 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Scott County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved May 19, 2019.