My dad never missed an opportunity to provide me one of his most pertinent pieces of parental advice: “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.” It was a lesson always close at hand during the time we spent together, exhibited in such disparate circumstances as building an eight-foot tall trebuchet in his backyard, buying an antique oddly-sized 16 gauge shotgun just to use up some loose shells we found, or accommodating my childhood love of architecture by encouraging me to design a major addition to his house when I was twelve. I’m sure his college buddies and roommates could recount a tale or two of his doctrine now that the statute of limitations has passed.
Of course, there are downsides to a lack of moderation, and they probably caused his premature death at the age of fifty. Today, there’s no grave to visit -dad was firm in wanting it that way- but I think sometimes the best memorial is the one left through our recollections. There was no one quite like my dad, but I’m kind of convinced that he was a reincarnation of a Victorian-era Tippecanoe County Commissioner. If so, an enormous physical monument to his overindulgences stands in the middle of Lafayette, Indiana.
Built in 1884, the Tippecanoe County Courthouse is the county’s third, succeeding several minor frame buildings. Over the last several years, I’ve developed a loose system for categorizing our state’s courthouses in tiers of magnitude. Until Allen County’s -the undisputed heavyweight- was finished up in 1902, Lafayette’s reigned unmatched. It still does today, albeit as the only member of my second tier. But don’t take my word for it! Mark Twain came to town a year after the courthouse was built and even he – sardonic old humorist that he was- left impressed, calling the courthouse striking. “Very striking indeed,” he quipped. “I should judge that the courthouse struck the taxpayers a very hard blow!1”
Twain was right- the courthouse ended up costing $500,000, twice its original estimate2. The 212-foot tall building (Indiana’s second-tallest historic courthouse) features nine statues, a hundred columns, and a 3,000-pound bell3. This is a true monument to civic pride that rivals and exceeds some state capitols, yet it’s hard to pin the courthouse down architecturally. It’s sort of a casseroles of styles, albeit one that is ultimately quite tasty and leaves the cut-up hotdogs where they belong at a kid’s birthday party. For starters, six of the courthouse’s turrets are pyramidal mansard roofs with dormer windows, echoing the Second Empire mode of architecture. All those columns are certainly neoclassical. The building’s white limestone finish reflects early Beaux Arts influences, and its layout, roughly in the form of a 150-foot Greek cross with arms of equal length demonstrates a Byzantine influence. Throw some Worcestershire sauce and shredded cheese in there and we’ve got a tasty combination! Just be sure to bake it at 375° for forty minutes first to help soften the limestone.
Nine statues is a lot. The demolished courthouse once positioned in my hometown of Muncie’s -elaborate as it was- only had three, along with a bell just a third of the size of Lafayette’s. Visages of George Rodgers Clark, George Washington, and Tecumseh prowl the north and south rooflines of the Tippecanoe County Courthouse, while statues of Justice, Industry, and Agriculture stand watch over its east and west entrances. Originally, the 14-foot statue atop the courthouse’s tall dome was thought to be an allegorical goddess of Liberty, though spring cleaning in the building’s attic found a set of scales, since added to the statue, that led historians to believe that it’s a second representation of justice4. Other statues decorate the courthouse walls as well but I wasn’t able to find much out about them. Maybe a tour is in order?
In sports, a coaching tree is diagram that shows how today’s crop of coaches trace their status back to and through their predecessors. They’re pretty interesting, and Indiana courthouse architects have their own tree as well: since many of their paths crossed, they competed with one another for jobs, or they otherwise interacted. So who do we have to thank for this astonishing courthouse in Lafayette?
Well, the name of the architect wasn’t initially certain, actually. Its design was long held to have been drawn up by Elias Max, a local contractor, though that attribution seems to have been in error5. In the early 1880s, James F. Alexander, a Lafayette architect, submitted plans for a new courthouse to the commissioners but was unsuccessful in winning the job. Later, it became apparent that, aside from some small points of contention, the “Max Plan” was awfully similar to Alexander’s disfavored design. Today, the historians behind the courthouse’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places credit Alexander, long held to have simply been the “Superintendent of Construction.”
Its a bummer that we can’t neatly compartmentalize this wonderful building as one of Edwin May’s, the Tolans, John Elder, Gordon Randall, or some other prominent architect of Indiana courthouses. But -as previously mentioned- Alexander’s design superseded two other earlier Tippecanoe County buildings. First off, a small, three-bay, colonial brick structure once sat on the courthouse square. It was two stories tall and featured a squat bell tower and a large, concave steeple with a prominent weathervane. A bigger, classically-influenced courthouse that cost $5,000 replaced it in 1845. Its most prominent features were two Greek columns at the main entrance. In 1857, an artesian well was drilled at the northeast corner of the square (Twain commented on it as well, comparing it favorably to the town’s dried-up portion of the Wabash-Erie Canal), though the water’s sulphur content led it to be plugged in 1939.
It was raining both times I visited the courthouse square, so I didn’t spend as much time appreciating it as I should have. Nevertheless, it features some interesting items. In 1887, a Lorado Taft statue of Marquis de Lafayette was added on top of a fountain at the square’s northeast corner6. Two cannons, donated by the Grand Army of the Republic, were added a decade later, and today the grounds feature a Howitzer in the northwest corner and a Parrot cannon in the southeast side. Squawk!
Like many historic courthouses, Lafayette’s features monumental stairways to provide access to the ground floor which sits upon a raised basement. Over time, these staircases have dwindled due to accessibility needs- some counties have removed them completely. Thankfully, Tippecanoe County officials were able to compromise. Rather than demolish them entirely during a renovation in 1966, the stairs were left in place with just their central segments cut out to provide ground-level access to the building. The move ensured that the profile of the courthouse wasn’t substantially changed, along with ensuring that everyone could safely and easily enter the building. And above those modern entrances, each of the eight original walnut doors weigh five hundred pounds- they’re huge.
Adaptability is crucial to surviving. In addition to the stairs being cut out in the sixties, the courthouse got its first elevator in 1906, and a 1991 restoration that cost $15 million over two years added a fourth floor and repurposed the attic into offices for the prosecutor and CASA. Though the renovation restored many of the building’s most elegant features, it was also intended to get the building into shape to ensure its survival- sometimes doing everything to excess can have a negative impact, whether it’s to an old building or a person. Periodic maintenance is important for durability and endurance. To that end, I eat a vegetable every other week. Another renovation, this time to replace the roof and repair the dome, cost $3.5 million and was completed in 20167.
The key I think, for buildings and people, is to approach and perform maintenance in a way that reigns in some of the excess but preserves your personality and what makes you unique. Tippecanoue County Officials recognized this earlier than my dad did, and we have them to thank for retaining their historic building. As I get older, maybe that’s the bigger lesson to keep close by.
Tippecanoe County (pop. 180,174, 7/92)
Lafayette (pop. 70,373)
Cost: $500,000 ($13.3 million in 2016)
Architect: James F. Alexander
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 226 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
1 Kriebel, Bob. “Mark Twain visited, poked fun at Lafayette in 1885.” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette]. March 31, 2017. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.
2 Enyart, David. “Tippecanoe County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.
3 Counts, Will, Dilts, Jon. The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. 1991. Pages 164-165. Print.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Tippecanoe County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Tippecanoe County Courthouse, Lafayette, Tippecanoe County, Indiana, National Register # 72000013.
6 “Tour the Courthouse Exterior” Tippecanoe County Courthouse. Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette. 2010. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.
7 Bangert, Dave. “A climb to the top of the courthouse dome” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette]. September 20, 2016. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.