You’ve got to be a real Indiana courthouse freak to make it down to Mt. Vernon in Posey County. At 249 miles away from my house via I-69, it’s the farthest courthouse from me in the state by a wide margin. It probably is for most people, actually, sitting about as close to the Arkansas state line as it is to Indianapolis. God help me if I ever wear out the county courthouses of the midwest and start doing Arkansas!
The distance to Mt. Vernon is a shame because the area has some neat history like the Ashworth and Hovey Lake archaeological sites, the Harmony Way Bridge, and the town of New Harmony, none of which I stopped at. What I came for was the courthouse, and it’s one of the most unique entries in our state’s portfolio.
Originally, the courthouse wasn’t quite as remote as it is now. Nor was it as unique. From 1816-1819, a log build served that role in the extinct community of Blackford1, a place intentionally intended to serve as the county seat by laying out several lots at its designated location2. In 1819 the courthouse -thought to have been a brick “coffee mill” structure3– moved to Springfield, nine miles to the north of Mt. Vernon and more centrally-located in the county. Courts were only conducted there for six years until Springfield dried up and the courthouse moved once more to its current location in Mt. Vernon4. Today, there’s nothing left of Springfield aside from a smattering of houses and trailers at the crossing of Springfield, Darlin, and Oliver-Springfield Roads- you know, just in case you’d like to dedicate a weekend driving there and back to see them.
If you do go to Springfield, do yourself a favor and drive the extra few miles to Mt. Vernon, where county officials built a simple brick structure (another coffee mill type) on the courthouse square in 1825, along with a small log jail behind it. In 1874, bids were solicited and received for a replacement courthouse, and Josse A. Vrydagh, a prominent Indiana architect born in Belgium, was selected to draw up its plans.
Vrydagh was a seven-year student of the Louvain Academie des Beaux-Arts in France, and worked as the Paris civil engineer before coming to America in 18545 After five years of travel (as well as a marriage), he returned to America for good, settling in Terre Haute. Almost immediately, he began to receive large commissions for public buildings, including the courthouse in Mt. Vernon- probably his finest remaining work given years of demolition and alterations to his buildings in “The High Ground.”
It took two years to build the Posey County Courthouse, but the end result was, and is, unlike anything we’ve seen in Indiana. After 143 years the 119-foot-tall, three-and-a-half story red brick building still appears remarkably close to Vrydagh’s designs aside from some minor alterations we’ll discuss later. Architecturally, the building’s design is hard to pin down. It contains obvious Italianate details like its contrasting roof brackets and window surrounds. But features like its segmented triangular pediments and the mansard roof of the building’s lantern give it a distinct Second Empire flair6. As I’ve become better-versed in history, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that sometimes buildings just defy categorization. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just call it’s Italianate/Second Empire. There are no bastard courthouses here as long as I’m on the prowl.
Like many courthouses, the building is essentially a rectangle, albeit one with some fun protuberances. It stands on a raised, limestone foundation (the .5 of the building’s 3.5 floors) that features small, grated windows, a plain belt course, and a water table. What’s a water table, you ask? It’s different than the geological one that causes artesian wells to flow on their own! In architecture, a water table is a feature of brick or stone that juts out from the first floor to deflect rainwater cascading down from the building’s walls away from the foundation to keep it from soaking into the basement.
Now, I’m a generally thirsty person and I always have been. During my trips to take photos of each courthouse, I’d usually guzzle my way through a couple of 44 oz. fountain Diet Mountain Dews in quick succession. Since I’ve been writing about them, I’ve managed to dial back to reasonable amounts of green tea, but nevertheless, after all that water table talk I’m thirsty for some cascading precipitation! Unfortunately, the sun’s out today, and we’ll just have to describe the rest of the building to draw my attention away.
Above the water table, the building’s primary facade -its western elevation- is nearly identical to its eastern face, and both sides feature projecting, gabled pavilions that surround a central, recessed entryway covered by a flat-roofed, iron-columned porch with a matching balustrade. The porch, which rises just to the second floor, is flush with the projecting areas that flank it, and that central mass represents a third of the building’s nine window bays. Two rows of two-over-two windows, the top three featuring shallowly-arched tops, take the building up to its heavily-bracketed cornice.
Each of the gabled parts feature two-over-two arched windows, rectangular windows of the same construction on the second floor, and matching windows with shallow arches on the building’s third floor. Sunlight penetrates the attic of the courthouse via a central “bullseye” oculus underneath the gables. At one point, the north and south sides of the courthouse were identical, but a recent, windowless addition that I presume to contain an elevator shaft obscures most of the building’s north face up to the pediment.
I got interested in courthouses at an early age. To a seven-year-old me, a clock tower or dome really called out the prominence of each one we passed, and the Posey County Courthouse’s is truly unique. If you asked me to describe a clock tower, I’d probably shoo you away in a huff, and I’d do the same in a heartbeat if you were to ask me to tell you what a dome was. But ask me about those elements in Mt. Vernon, and you’d better be prepared. I might have to buy you dinner beforehand!
The Boone County Courthouse in Lebanon has maybe the greatest dome of all Indiana courthouses- it’s huge. Above it stands a smaller, octagonal cupola known as a lantern. It’s distinctly a “topper” for the dome and features four clocks, a small dome of its own, and a flagpole. Whichever courthouse you look at that features a dome tends to have a similar arrangement: large dome, small lantern.
Posey County’s courthouse doesn’t though- here, the script is inverted. If we’re at Waffle House for dinner (my treat- remember?), allow me describe the elements of the dome for you after I grab a couple of small plates from the waitress. First, I’ll take two and stack them on each other. That’s the part of a dome known as the drum. If it’s a tricky concept to remember, just think of a drum- any old snare or tom-tom will do. Next, I’ll take a saucer and put it on top of the previous two, upside down. That’s called a saucer dome. If you look closely at the building’s east or west side, you’ll see that it features one. It’s hard to see, but it’s there.
What’s not at all hard to see is the building’s lantern- it’s big enough to look like a full-fledged clock tower, and I might ask the accommodating waitress for a juice cup to invert on top of our stack of saucers to illustrate the concept further. The massive lantern is my favorite feature of the building, one that’s not replicated anywhere else in the state.
Interestingly, the dome -and drum- of the courthouse is wooden, as is the lantern. Octagonally-shaped, the sides of the lantern that face the cardinal directions prominently demonstrate architectural features called aediculae, which means “small shrines” in Latin. Here, the aediculae are visible as the pilastered portions of the lantern capped with the arched pediments, and each surround an arched, two-over-two louvered window. Above these, the lantern culminates in a ribbed, gold-colored mansard roof with four circular dormers and a large flagpole.
Overall, the building is in remarkable shape and has barely been altered, aside from that elevator addition and a new arrangement of ramps and steps to the east to provide ADA access. Unfortunately, the ten chimneys of the courthouse were removed at some point7. The 1908 monument at the building’s main entrance commemorates Posey County soldiers and sailors, standing 24 feet tall atop a graded base, while a thirteen-foot bronze figure of Liberty caps the obelisk. Interestingly, the Posey County Courthouse is one of only two I’ve seen during my travels that features a “Ten Commandments” monument on its grounds.
Yes, the building’s out of the way and, yes, it’s an annoying drive to get there. I get that! But if I did it, you can too, and you’d be good to visit the rest of what Posey County offers while you’re at it. Hell- if you’re not doing anything else the next day, you might as well go to Arkansas! You made it this far, so you should celebrate.
Regardless of what you end up doing, though, here’s hoping that the Posey County Courthouse continues to stand proudly in its own unique manner for many more years to come.
Posey County (pop. 45,844, 60/92)
Mt. Vernon (pop. 13,380)
Cost: $95,000 ($2.27 million in 2016)
Architect: Josse A. Vrydagh
Style: Italianate and Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 119 feet
Current Use: Some county courts and offices
1 Enyart, David. “Posey County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. August 4, 2019.
2 Leffel, John C. “History of Posey County Indiana” Standard Publishing Co. [Chicago]. 1886. Print.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Posey County Courthouse, Mt. Vernon, Posey County, Indiana, National Register # 88003042.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Posey County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 8/4/19.
5 Counts, W. & Dilts, J. The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. Print. 1991.
6 Posey County Interim Report: Indiana Historic Sites & Structures Inventory. Indiana Department of Natural Resources, 1985. Print.
7 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved from http://courthousehistory.com. August 4, 2019.