Today we’ll time-travel back to 1830, hopefully landing in the town of St. Joseph located at “the portage of the St. Joseph and Kankakee Rivers1,” according to the Allen County Public Library’s Genealogy Center, which calls out the location as two miles south of South Bend’s center. A Google Maps search shows no such portage, but this town was nothing more than a piece of paper, though, since residents were immediately dissatisfied with its proposed locale.
To make matters worse for the plan, commissioners had already been holding sessions at the home of Alexis Coquillard closer to South Bend. After a petition circulated around the burgeoning county attracted 125 signatures, the county seat was officially moved back to South Bend in 1831, where it hadn’t really left in the first place. Several early settlers in the community, Coquillard among them, donated land to lay out a larger county seat there, which included spaces reserved for a public square, churches, and and a school2.
By 1832, county officials determined that they’d need a permanent courthouse after Coquillard kicked them out of his own dwelling and another pioneer, Calvin Lilly, was unable to provide suitable long-term lodging. In January, commissioners drafted an entry to their records, stipulating what they desired in a new building. Despite their lack of accommodations and today’s notion that beggars can’t be choosers, officials were pretty picky, specifying that the courthouse would need to be a forty-foot square brick building, with a foundation sunk one foot into the ground. The walls, rising three feet above the foundation, would have to be twenty-two inches thick on the first floor and tall enough to provide a twelve-foot ceiling. The record went on to describe the necessary wall thickness and ceiling height for the second story, the type of timber used in the building’s guts (poplar), the number of chimneys (four), the type of flooring (white oak), and the specific arrangement of the oaken attic girders (two ten-by-twelve inch beams to support the cupola). Factor in a designated hipped roof, a three-level spire covered in gold leaf, and a wooden fish topper3 and much of an architect’s work was already done. So commissioners hired contractor Peter Johnson to build it, which he did for $3,000. A 20×40 foot addition to provide offices for the county clerk and recorder was added to the structure in 1838.
By the 1850s, St. Joseph County had become prosperous with the advent of expanded agriculture, the railroad, and the telegraph, along with the area’s status as the hub of what would later be called Michiana. It soon became apparent that a forty-foot courthouse wasn’t keeping with the times, so county commissioners again advertised plans for a new one. This time, the list of requirements wasn’t so heavy-handed, and John Van Osdel -considered by some to be the first Chicago architect4– took the bid. Prominent among Van Osdel’s portfolio today are Chicago’s second Palmer House Hotel, the Illinois Governor’s Mansion, University of Arkansas’ Old Main, and at least the old LaPorte County Courthouse in Indiana though he probably also designed the 1853 Porter County Courthouse in Valparaiso, too5. Many of his designs were destroyed during the Chicago Fire, but Van Osdel was clearly an architect of some status. His courthouse in South Bend is unique as one of the few remaining Greek Revival courthouses in the state.
Van Osdel’s courthouse was once described by residents as “the finest public building in the state”. Constructed of cream-colored Lemont limestone from Illinois, the building features six two-story columns at its front, supplanted by a large portico below a clock tower. Inside, the first floor originally housed a room for a grand jury, as well as offices for the sheriff, clerk, treasurer, auditor, and recorder- no more would an addition be necessary to maintain county business. The building’s second floor was home to a single large courtroom, judge’s chamber, and jury room. Interestingly (and necessary to know later), the building weighed 28,000 tons6…
In 1873, a circuit court judge ordered that the courtroom be remodeled in order to improve its acoustics. To adjust it to the prevailing style, workers redid the building in the Victorian designs of the day and included intricate murals, stenciling, brackets, and a vaulted ceiling7. But the building, even in a renovated state, wouldn’t last long as a courthouse. By 1893, commissioners again decided to build anew, and they wanted something that reflected South Bend’s prominence as the city approached the new century. Something neoclassical would work nicely, they thought.
But there was a problem: Van Osdel’s courthouse was originally located on Main Street facing east- the perfect plot of land for a courthouse! Naturally, county officials wanted to build their new courthouse there, but frugal as they were, they couldn’t say no to saving money by not tearing the old one down. What would you do if confronted with this problem? Well, officials solved it by jacking the 93 by 61-foot building up -all 28,000 tons of it- and loading it onto logs (see, its weight was important!). Turning it 180 degrees by the power of a team of mules8, they rolled it to the other side of the block in order to face Lafayette Street. This was no mobile home, wind turbine blade, or trailer- it was a feat of civic engineering. By 1898, the current courthouse was built, and the county’s second courthouse was in its current place. All was well.
For a few years after the courts left it, the old building was home to the local Grand Army of the Republic post. In 1907, the Northern Indiana Historical Society moved in. Unfortunately, conspicuous as it once was, subsequent development around the structure rendered the building nearly invisible except for those who sought it out. But after sixty years, construction of South Bend’s tall County-City Building opened up new possibilities for the old courthouse- literally. The project involved tearing down an old jail to its south, which was developed into a terraced lawn, as well as a building to the north, leaving only South Bend’s Art Deco Tower Building at its northern flank. Though the old courthouse became visible once again, the project laid bare some significant deficiencies it had. For starters, the eaves and gutters needed repaired, and a new fire alarm system just had to be installed.
In 1994, the historical society moved to a new location and the building reverted to county ownership in a mothballed state. 1998 begat a $4.7 million renovation, and the courthouse was restored to its original appearance, as well as, improbably, its original function- holding court. The remodeling restored elaborate stenciling and brackets along the courtroom’s ceiling, along with a mural of the Indiana state seal originally found behind the judge’s bench. Luckily, a hundred-year-old photo was located in order to remake the building as close to its Victorian state as possible. Original, hand-carved wood was restored, and David Bainbridge, senior curator for the Northern Indiana Center of the History described the restored courthouse as “one of the most important touchstones to our history9.”
Additional projects were necessary to turn the building back into a courthouse after so many years as a museum. The second floor needed reinforced, as did the ceiling, which had been weakened during the 1873 renovation. A new tunnel was needed to connect the structure to the County-City Building, and air-conditioning and handicapped-accessibility was obtained via a 26×56 addition at the building’s rear, facing the courthouse’s 1908 successor. But it all worked out, and today, if you’re a resident of St. Joseph County, you’ll go there next time you’re involved in a misdemeanor or traffic case unless you blow off your date with the long arm of the law- then, you might go to the 1898 courthouse. At any rate, regardless of where you’ll go when you get in trouble, major props to the county for keeping both of their historic courthouses inn full working order despite the modern building located next door.
A year or so ago, I was talking with a friend at work who’d expressed some interest in my courthouse project, or maybe I’d expressed some interest in it to him and started to blather. I explained how counties often got their seats through infighting, and he stopped me, saying he had “a different theory”. Call it hokum, bunk, flimflam, or whatever you will, but my imaginative colleague suggested that, years ago, large, itinerant courthouses once roamed the Indiana Territory, settling down roughly equidistant of one another and burying their War-of-the-Worlds-styled armatures in the ground, only to rise again in anger at some later date. Naturally, cities sprung up around these stationary giants, and that’s how Indiana’s 92 counties got organized.
I know of several county seats that moved independently of their courthouses, but despite all my research, I’ve never found any proof of my buddy’s theory. Yet the 1855 St. Joseph County Courthouse, moved half a block to its new location, might truly be the missing link. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we can celebrate this elderly structure, still serving its original purpose in good repair next to its replacement, after nearly ninety years on the sidelines.
St.Joseph County (pop.363,014, 5/92)
South Bend (pop. 101,860)
Built: 1855, moved in 1896
Cost: $35,000 ($931,000 in 2016)
Architect: Maurer, Van Ryn, Ogden, & Natali
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 92 feet
Current Use: Some county courts
1 Enyart, David. “St. Joseph County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 9/19/19.
2 Howard, Timothy Edward. “A History of St. Joseph County, Indiana, Volume 1.” The Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. 1907. Print.
3 “History of St. Joseph County, Indiana.” Chas. C. Chapman & Co [Chicago]. 1880. Print.
4 “HISTORICAL TIMELINE”. Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. 2006. Retrieved 2018-06-06.
5 Indiana Landmarks (2013). St. Joseph County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 9/19/19.
6 “Old Building Emerges from Surroundings” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 19, 1970. 9. Print.
7 “Courthouse’ The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. August 11, 2000. 9. Print.
8 “A Look Back: 1855 Courthouse in South Bend has had many uses” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 2, 2018. Web. Retrieved 9/19/19.
9 “Old Courthouse renovations nearly done” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. August 11, 2000. 8. Print.