I’ve mentioned my family’s property near Cadillac, Michigan before; we own just under eighty acres of forest. The accommodations are primitive. We have two small cabins, no power, and no indoor plumbing. Originally, I’m sure that attendees to the property relieved themselves in the woods with a pinecone or leaf. After some period of putting up with those conditions, an A-frame outhouse kit from Sears was erected to provide a place to at least sit and read the old Mad Magazine paperback or Gun Digest. In the years before I was born, the A-frame was retired to the status of a storage shed, as it stands today, and a new outhouse was constructed in a different location. Maybe ten years ago, a third hole was dug and the old outhouse was replaced by a regular old port-o-potty.
I’m glad they moved the port-o-potty when they put it in, because doing so exposed a valuable treasure of anthropology: It seems that the feculence of my ancestors is particularly fertile! Future visitors to the property will be able to chart a timeline of our bathroom habits there based on a series of heavily-vegetated squares surrounded by dead pine needles that correspond to the floorpans of our former facilities. I’ve been told I’m full of crap many times, but at least the record confirms that I come by it naturally.
Regardless of logistical issues regarding keeping it where it was, if the outhouse had stayed in the same place, future researchers in the field would never come across that valuable information. Like, say, hmm -oh, I don’t know- the Warren County Courthouse in Williamsport, just to get us back on track. When architect Gordon Randall’s 1872 courthouse burned down in 1907, his successor J.W. Royer was instructed to use what was available from its foundation and retaining walls to keep costs down on the new building. A prudent choice, but not one that gave me any other relics or cool sites to see when researching and taking photos of it.
Adjacent to the Illinois state line, Warren County is small: It only has four incorporated towns. The place has Indiana’s third-smallest population, as well as its lowest population density. Today, about 8,500 people are spread out over 365 square miles of county- 23 inhabitants per square mile. To contrast, Indiana as a whole -58% of it being prime farmland1– averages 184 people per square mile. Back when the new courthouse was built, the situation was about the same. It’s no wonder that county officials preferred to use what was left over, future wannabe historians and archaeologists like myself be damned!
Early speculators didn’t know that things would turn out so sparsely. A year after the county was founded in 1827, a settlement called Warrenton was selected to serve as the seat of government, and seven full blocks of eight lots each, along with a public square, were laid out above where Big Pine Creek dumps its waters into the Wabash River2. Despite enthusiastic response at a public land auction (free whiskey provided by the county to embolden bidders may have played a part3), Warrenton’s prominence only lasted for about a year before a decree was approved ordering the county government to move to Williamsport just three miles southwest. It’s unclear why the county seat was required to relocate, though it’s said that Warrenton residents didn’t provide monetary “donations4” in line with what the inhabitants of Williamsport were giving to the county.
Officials assumed that the county would be better off if its government relocated to a more philanthropically-minded community, and maybe it was. One of the guys cutting the checks was William Harrison -Williamsport’s founder- and officials held courts in his cabin for five years5 until they built a 40×40 brick courthouse that lasted until 1870. In 1872, Gordon Randall’s courthouse -a much larger brick building with a limestone foundation and arched windows- was completed in what’s now called “Old Town” Williamsport adjacent to the Wabash River. With its hipped roof and prominent squarish turret at one side all capped by an iron balustrade, the courthouse appeared very similar to what’s left of the Benton County Courthouse in Fowler, another one of Randall’s designs. It looked even closer prior the the removal of the clock tower there- Williamsport’s courthouse was topped with a 155-foot-tall appendage.
Bizarrely, the courthouse was torn down in 1886 and relocated to a newer part of town that grew up due to the railroad passing through, and I believe that its former site is now home to Williamsport’s Old Town Park. The remade courthouse stood up the hill and past the railroad until January 20, 1907, when it caught on fire and was mostly destroyed as I’d mentioned before. This is when architect Joseph Royer of Urbana deviated from my family’s outhouse location plan by building the courthouse we see today on the same site, with some of the same materials like its foundation and several interior walls aside from a new northern entrance that projected slightly from the original6.
Architecturally, most courthouses built around 1908 were either Beaux Arts- a style incorporating French neoclassicism, Gothic, and Renaissance elements- or Classical Revival, a mode which sought to call back Greek and Roman influences. Though the building has elements of both, it’s neither: I’d call it Italian Renaissance Revival based on one main factor, the red, s-shaped tiles (called pantiles7) that cover its prominent dome, forty feet in diameter. Buff brick complimented with lots of ornamental limestone drive home the Italian effect for me, though obviously a much different interpretation from the Morgan County Courthouse that we’ve already talked about.
Overall, the courthouse measures 105 x 78 feet, and rises 75 feet tall, including the 21-foot height of the dome and its drum. The rusticated base, heavy entry massing, balustrades, and classical proportions of the building just scream Classical Revival to me, while the ornamentation of the building’s parapet, entryway, monumental staircases of iron and marble7, and dome recall Beaux Arts. I’m not an expert, though, so please feel free to come to your own conclusions regarding its style. Whatever it is, it’s certainly a unique bridge between modes- its own fusion dish, if you like, mixed with a heavy dose of oregano on top.
Inside, the building hasn’t changed a lot. Rather than featuring office blocks arranged around a central rotunda like both Beaux Arts and Neoclassical courthouses tended to do at the time, the building’s public spaces are its hallways, which measure fifteen feet wide and feature pink marble wainscotting. The walls of the building are plastered structural brick painted white and terminating in a coved ceiling, giving each room’s cross-section almost a rounded rectangle appearance. The building’s first floor is largely devoted to the offices of elected officials, while the circuit courtroom -measuring 55×38 feet and larger than each of the county’s first three courthouses- mostly takes up the second.
As we’ve seen in several recent posts, courthouses of the early 1900s were almost exclusively neoclassical or Beaux Arts, and by the end of the first World War architects seemed to have gotten their design down to a science by slapping some rooms around a central dome and enclosing the whole thing in a box. Not only was that the cost-effective thing to do, but it implies a distinct shift in architectural styling, one that the Warren County Courthouse, thankfully (to my tired eyes) avoids. Perhaps beyond the importance of bucking the trend was the desire of officials to construct a fiscally-responsible building due to the county’s small size, its lack of preparedness to accommodate a scorched courthouse, and the general disdain from a citizenry loathing to spend money.
As the structure’s application for the Nation Register of Historic Places points out, commissioners opposed replacing the 1834 courthouse -even as it decayed- right in front of their faces until 1871, and they may have only conceded then since a new lot was donated. In 1906, commissioners acted with further fiscal misfeasance by reducing the insurance coverage of the courthouse to less than half, representing a loss of $10,000 ($272,000 today) due to the fire. The formula I introduced regarding the courthouse in Newport, just two counties to the south, holds up with regards to Warren County.
Price and context aside, I’ll do us all a favor and not illuminate my readership with an architectural or fiduciary comparison of the Warren County Courthouse with my family’s succession of outhouses, though some counties exhibit courthouses that a reasonable comparison could be made to. Due to a variety of circumstances, the Warren County Courthouse is absolutely a unique entry into our state’s portfolio. Wannabe historian and archaeologist that I am, I’ll have to go back and take a look around Old Town Park to see what I can (figuratively) dig up.
Warren County (pop. 8,415, 89/92)
Williamsburg (pop. 1,878)
Cost: $105,000 ($2.79 million in 2016)
Architect: John W. Royer
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 75 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “Farmland” Indiana Bureau of Reclamation [Indianapolis]. 1999. Web. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
2 Sharp, Allen. “Political History” A History of Warren County, Indiana. Warren County Historical Society [Williamsport]. Print. 1966.
3 Goodspeed, Weston. “Towns and Villages of Warren County” Counties of Warren, Benton, Jasper, and Newton, Indiana. F.A. Battey and Co. [Chicago]. Print. 1883.
4 Goodspeed, Weston. “County Organization” Counties of Warren, Benton, Jasper, and Newton, Indiana. F.A. Battey and Co. [Chicago]. Print. 1883.
5 Enyart, David. “Warren County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. June 21, 2019.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Warren County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 6/21/19.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Warren County Courthouse, Williamsport, Warren County, Indiana, National Register # 08000195.
8 Counts, W. & Dilts, J. The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. Print. 1991.