People have a tendency to assign human traits and characteristics to animals and inanimate objects. Installing eyelashes on the headlights of a new Beetle or angry eyes on a Jeep is a perfect example of this behavior, known as anthropomorphizing. Sometimes it’s a fun, harmless activity. Other times, not so much- no matter how cute and cuddly your friend’s pet monkey looks to you, it could still rip your face off. It’s a wild animal, after all, no matter how you slice it.
Instead of fraternizing with any manner of exotic pets or untamed beasts, I tend to go the safer direction and anthropomorphize buildings- namely courthouses. It’s a prudent route, one where the only real sources of harm could be getting knocked out by a falling parapet or being flattened by a Mack truck barreling its way through downtown.
I’m okay with those risk factors. Mind you, I’m not a rookie at this; I started this practice as a little kid. Back in May of 2018 I described the Elkhart County Courthouse as greeting my brother and me on childhood trips to our dad’s house in Goshen like “a benevolent cyclops beckoning to the safety of his house.” I called it that because by the time we arrived it was always dark, and the courthouse’s clock face was always lit. OK- that’s maybe a bit of a stretch with that particular building, but feast your eyes upon LaPorte County’s exuberant 1894 courthouse, which resembles either a giant cyclops yawning from a long nap, or a one-eyed colossus in a serious amount of pain.
Regardless, the building’s open-arched clock tower that shapes its gaping maw -designed to let natural light flood through a massive 273-piece glass skylight1– is just one of the interesting features Brentwood Tolan crammed into his “freewheeling2” interpretation of the Richardson Romanesque style, his only foray into that mode after several Beaux Arts courthouses. I long wondered how tall the clock tower rises until an old Sanborn fire insurance map put it at 172 feet- I’d pegged it at 165-170 feet tall. I’m pretty good at this stuff! Inside, the only way to see that magnificent skylight is to go to the second floor since a modern elevator shaft covers it from the first and basement story. But even so, this building has no peer in Indiana: aside from that tower, the most glaring feature is the building’s color. That’s some serious red brick!
Red brick makes for some striking Richardson Romanesque courthouses, especially in Noble County’s Albion. But a closer inspection reveals that the LaPorte County Courthouse is actually built out of sandstone- Lake Superior red sandstone, to be exact, which was carried to Michigan City by boat and brought to LaPorte by rail. Several sandstone courthouses exist across the state, but this is the only one that features this particular hue. Iron oxide in the rock provides the crimson color3, just as the sands from Lake Michigan turned Ball jars blue back in the olden days of food preservation. And for the Ball jar enthusiasts among us, occasionally purple sandstone can found as well- made that color from the sand’s manganese content, a clarifying agent in early Ball jars that, over time in a kitchen window, can turn them amethyst as it reacts with exposure to UV rays.
Jars aside, though, another one of Tolan’s features is the presence of 45 “argyles4”, red sandstone sculptures of heads and animals generally used as capitals for the building’s columns around the exterior of the courthouse. Each are different, and they’re all probably misnamed, but LaPorte County historian Fern Eddy Schultz bizarrely refers to them as “argyles,” so I will too. They’re not really gargoyles anyway, since they’re not designed to funnel water away from the courthouse’s roof and sides.
I think it’s interesting that the building’s northeastern entrance, facing Michigan Avenue, was bricked in during 1937 to make way for a vast, fireproof vault that rises from the basement to the second floor. It was designed to serve as a secure repository for the county clerk’s recorded documents, and though I’ve not found anything to corroborate this I wonder if the vault was built in response to the fire that largely decimated the neighboring Porter County Courthouse in Valpo three years earlier and necessitated calls to fire departments in LaPorte (twenty miles away) to resolve.
Several early courthouses were lost to fires, but you’d be crazy to think this current structure was LaPorte County’s first courthouse. The original structure was frame, built in LaPorte sometime prior to 1832 by George Thomas. His 16×24 foot building was used until 1849 or so, when Col. Willard Place bought it and moved it to his own property to use as a house. What followed was a brick courthouse designed by J.C. Cochrane, who later went on to design that burnt Valparaiso courthouse along with the Lake County Courthouse in Crown Point. The structure in LaPorte -intended to be to be a statement- consisted of a 40×40 square building with three floor and a matching three-story cupola with a square base, an octagonal drum, and a dome with a spire on top5. Photos of that building exist with and without a front portico, and whether or not they depict the same building is up for debate. For what it’s worth, the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum believes both postcards are of their old courthouse6. For your information, the current courthouse incorporates its predecessor’s cornerstone7.
Now, an aside: Dr. Peter Kesling’s Door Prairie Auto Museum became home to the LaPorte County Historical Society Museum in 2004. Kesling designed the building’s cupola as a reproduction of the original courthouse’s, and you can still see his approximation today. During the first decade of the 21st century, my dad acted as a special docent for tours of the historical society’s W.A. Jones Collection of Ancient Weapons. Though he was a mental firearms freak down to the smallest fact and had served as a professor and professional editor, Dad tried to level with the common man and connect with him in a way I hope to in my writing here. When I was fourteen or so, he brought me a poster from the museum featuring photos from the macabre Belle Gunness murders that took place in LaPorte, including an image of a severed, revolting head on a shovel during presented during the trial of a Gunness accomplice. I loved it!
Gunness started killing around 1890. After a year, the county was rife speculation about her deeds as well as a the prospect of a new courthouse, but there was a chance that the seat of government would be built in nearby Michigan City instead. See, LaPorte had a population of 7,126 in 1890 per the US Census8, while Michigan City had grown to 10,773 people, an increase of 46.3% over the past decade. But circumstances are only temporary, and they have a funny way of changing: By 1908, Belle Gunness’s corpse was scorched from a fire at her homestead that may have been purposefully set, and the courthouse in LaPorte was fourteen years old. Sucks to be Michigan City, although the town received their own Superior court building just a year later to address the population concerns. What’s the difference between a regular court and a Superior court? Today, there’s really not one. LaPorte County -along with Elkhart, Lake, and Porter- have both main and satellite courthouses today to soak up all of the judicial needs of their localities.
Now that we’ve spent time anthropomorphizing the LaPorte County Courthouse by way of a cyclops and a severed head on a shovel, I’ll admit that, sometimes, my proclivity towards giving courthouses human features is annoying! But as humans, we can’t help it. According to the website PsychCentral, the same brain regions that cause us to think that way are the ones at work when when we copy an action done by someone else. We come by it honestly! Predicting the same results of interacting with an animal or something inanimate stems from the same place of interacting with a human.
Regarding the courthouse, though, there are still some things I struggle with, despite the psychobabble. An 1971 addition of a new jail, along with a new, secured, northern sidewalk to it has altered the makeup of LaPorte’s courthouse square,, as has the addition of a US-35 overpass directly northwest of the complex. Though access is improved if you’re traveling to LaPorte’s northern end near Pine Lake, the character of downtown has greatly suffered. To me, it’s a textbook example of a double-edged sword. Sure, more people may be able to go downtown easily, but there’s less of a downtown to get to. I’d rather see an old courthouse anchoring an old downtown than a mix of a courthouse and an unsightly overpass. But then again, I’d rather see both than just the overpass.
I’m fine with continuing to anthropomorphize our state’s courthouses, and I’m very glad that my brain’s never assumed that the LaPorte County Courthouse was going to smack me in the face after I photographed it. All said, this is a truly unique courthouse among its peers, and one that stands in full regalia in my top five list of Indiana courthouses. If you make it up to LaPorte, I encourage you to see it for yourself. I really love this one- scary cyclops and severed heads or not.
LaPorte County (pop.111,281, 16/92)
LaPorte (pop. 22,010)
Cost: $328,000 ($8.73 million in 2016)
Architect: Brentwood S. Tolan
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Modified Shelbyville Square
Height: 172 feet
Current Use: Courts and county offices
1 “LaPorte’s courthouse offered live entertainment” The Northwest Indiana Times [Munster]. Lee Enterprises, Inc. December 31, 2016. Web. Retrieved August 17, 2019.
2 National Register of Historic Places, Clinton County Courthouse, Frankfort, Clinton County, Indiana, National Register # 83000039
3 “Sandstone” Minerals Database. Minerals Education Coalition. 2019. Web. Retrieved August 17, 2019.
4 Ross, Doug “Laporte County Courthouse, Part 2”. YouTube. December 30, 2016. 6:04. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=265&v=8l3M1p0FHmw, August 17, 2019.
5 Daniels, E.D. “A Twentieth Century History and Biographical Record of LaPorte County, Indiana” Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. Print. Retrieved August 19, 2019.
6 “La Porte County Historical Society, Inc. and its Museum” La Porte County Historical Society. Web. Retrieved from https://laportecountyhistory.org/about/#board. Web. Retrieved August 19, 2019.
7 “Laporte County Courthouse” Indiana Historical Bureau. Indiana.goc. Web. Retrieved from https://www.in.gov/history/markers/417.htm. Web. Retrieved August 19, 2019.
8“Population and Housing Unit Estimates”. United States Census Bureau. Web. Retrieved August 18, 2019.