Indiana’s history is full of times that politics had a say in shutting down an old courthouse in order to move the county government elsewhere. Other times, politics has worked in favor of our historic buildings. Today, we’ll examine a county that exhibits both of those traits.
Lawrencebug, along with the rest of Dearborn County, was founded in 1810 as part of the Indiana Territory. That year, a simple, brick courthouse was built. Just like simple origami, Lawrenceburg’s early advantages were twofold: As county seat, it was naturally the epicenter of trade and politics. But the town’s strategic trading location on the Ohio River helped it become an early commercial powerhouse, despite a few neighboring communities (Wilmington- seven miles southeast and Rising Sun- eleven miles south of Wilmington) springing up in 1815 and 1816 to threaten it. 1816, of course, is when Indiana became a state.
Lawrenceburg’s first courthouse burned down in 1826. A new one was built two years later, but Dearborn County was a changing place. Rising Sun was growing rapidly as a seasonal flatbed stop for traders2, shifting the population center towards it. Soon the state took note and, in 1835, demanded that the county seat move to Wilmington, right between the two fledgling cities3. The move happened during the next year, and a $4,000 brick, two-story coffee mill-style courthouse with a central cupola was put up. Residents of sleepy, landlocked Wilmington were ecstatic- politics worked in their favor!
Hooray! Politics that help the common man! But, as you can imagine, business owners in Lawrenceburg were not ecstatic- their prosperity had a lot to do with being the county seat and without it, the time was right for Rising Sun to rise up as its own undisputed center of trade. Rising Sun residents, on the other hand, were bursting at the seams with joy and probably laughing their asses off. They’d been campaigning to get their own county for nearly twenty years, only for the government up north to slap them back into submission time and time again. It was nice for them to get a taste of their own medicine, the bastards! But then again, people in Rising Sun still really wanted their own county. So they put aside their differences with Lawrenceburg and hatched a plan.
The scheme went like this: If Lawrenceburg would help petition the state to form a new county with Rising Sun as its seat, that new county would absorb enough residents to move the center of population back to Lawrenceburg and shut Wilmington down for good. It took seven years, but by golly, it worked! Ohio County was formed out of eighty-six miles of Dearborn County’s land and Rising Sun became its new county seat. Back in Dearborn County, the courts and government moved back to the previous courthouse in Lawrenceburg like nothing ever changed4. As far as Wilmington goes? Welp.
Again, politics to the rescue, this time in Lawrenceburg’s favor. It was again business as usual there for two more decades before officials noticed Floyd County’s new, Greek Revival courthouse in New Albany. Enamored5, they commissioned architect George Kyle to design a larger version for themselves. The project took two years, but by 1873, Dearborn County had a new courthouse.
Facing south, the building rises three stories tall and measures 101 feet long by 73 feet wide. Its ground level is composed of dressed, rusticated limestone and rectangular window openings. An enormous pediment, supported by four Corinthian columns, shelters the central portion of the building’s five-bay facade. If you step back far enough from the courthouse, you’ll see a white, rectangular platform with an understated iron railing rising from the roof. It’s not there for external aesthetics, nor is it the remainder of a decapitated clock tower- it simply houses a skylight for courthouse’s domed rotunda.
Though the inside of the original building’s been remodeled several times, it contains a few cool features from years past, particularly the glass dome and main, cast iron staircase6. Many of the offices feature their original wooden doors, and the black and white marble floor around the second floor rotunda is original- you can see shells visible in some of the pieces left over from construction.
Underneath that marble is something interesting. Victorian builders tended to resort to novel methods of soundproofing and insulating the floors of their large buildings. The 1879 Hamilton County Courthouse, for example, features five inches of dirt between its floors to deaden the noise7. In Lawrenceburg, builders L. Farman and Thomas J. Shannon went a different route, using a mix of dirt, gravel, and horsehair! It’s amazing to think of what lies just under the surface of some of our state’s most beautiful buildings. Another case in point: Originally the second-floor courtroom had a thirty-foot tall ceiling, featuring a balcony, plaster moldings, cherubs, and paintings of stars and clouds. But during a trial in 1902, a cherub went rogue and dropped into the jury box. The judge immediately ordered the ceiling dropped, though today the original is still preserved just above its stamped-tin replacement8.
Changes to the Dearborn County Courthouse didn’t just occur inside, they also happened across its grounds. In 1954, a new, 42-cell jail was built immediately southeast of the old courthouse9, and expansions in 1991 and 2013 gave the complex -now called the Dearborn County Law Enforcement Center- a sprawling layout that radically altered the makeup courthouse square. Some might balk at the size of the jail given the relatively-paltry population of the community that it serves, but that’s politics again: Dearborn County sends more of its citizens to jail than nearly any other county in the nation. Around 1 in 10 adult residents there are either in prison, jail, or probation, and evidence of the high incarceration rate even ruins the southwest view of the courthouse. Ugly, utilitarian jail fencing hides most of that side.
I suppose that that’s what courthouses are there for, though, to try and, in many a fair amount of cases, convict citizens. I’m no county budget expert, but maybe officials spent too much money on building incarceration centers and not enough on the place that trials were held, since Dearborn County’s court infrastructure historically struggled to keep up with the zeal of its prosecutors. In the 1990s, a three-story, brick administration building was completed to the rear of the courthouse to take over most of the county’s offices. It seemed to work, but by 2004 it was clear – again- that the county needed more room to manage its operations. Studies commenced and plans were considered, but nothing really happened until I came by to take these photos in 2016. Weeks after I left, work started to connect the courthouse with the administration building by way of a 40,000 square foot, classically-inspired annex.
Designed by architects DLZ, the expansion added two superior courts, a prosecutor’s suite, a meeting room, a new public entry, and a new basement for future use- all there to keep the county’s prosecutorial policies fueled. Architecturally, the $11.7 million annex appears to have been done very well- its paired, fluted columns with Corinthian capitals reference those at the old building’s entrance, and the dressed, limestone facade and six-over-six windows of its first floor match the old courthouse nearly perfectly. Though the annex only rises two stories to the original building’s three and there’s an awful lot of glass used around its semicircular entryway, I really have no complaints. If all of our modern justice centers looked this good, I’d have happily included them in my project. I wish I could show you!
Nonetheless, I’m glad that Dearborn County was able to build such a well-thought-out addition. Though other, lesser plans were considered, it was great that officials went whole-hog and managed to keep the 1873 courthouse viable in the process. While early political wrangling determined the locations of five different area courthouses, later political decisions regarding criminal prosecution kept the old building functioning, albeit with some help over the years. As much as I’d hate to have been an early speculator in Wilmington, I’d hate even more to be busted in Lawrenceburg with a couple of legit kidney stone pain pills. Contemplating the veracity of a county’s prosecution strategy is far beyond my pay grade, but their decisions have certainly allowed the retention and expansion of a historic courthouse to take place.
Dearborn County (pop. 49,904, 27/92)
Lawrenceburg (pop. 5,031)
Cost: S135,775 ($2.71 million in 2016)
Architect: George Kyle
Courthouse Square: Modified Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: Some county offices and courts
1 “Indiana Land Area Rank” USA.com. World Media Group, LLC. 2019. Web. Retrieved 10/1/19.
2 History of Dearborn and Ohio Counties, Indiana. Chicago: F. E. Weakley & Company. 1885. p. 448.
3 Enyart, David. “Dearborn County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. July 18, 2018.
4 Enyart, David. “Ohio County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. July 18, 2018.
5 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Shelby County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 10/1/19.
6 National Register of Historic Places, Dearborn County Courthouse, Lawrenceburg, Dearborn County, Indiana, National Register # 81000008.
7 “Envisioning a new look for our courthouse” The Noblesville Ledger [Noblesville]. February 13, 1993: 2. Print.
8 “Dearborn County, Indiana Courthouse, Lawrenceburg, Indiana”. History In Your Own Backyard. YouTube. March 23, 2017. Web. Retrieved 10/1/19.
9 “Dearborn County Is To Build Jail”. Anderson Daily Bulletin [Anderson]. October 6, 1954. 13. Print.
10 “A Small Indiana County Sends More People to Prison Than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., Combined. Why?” The New York Times [New York]. September 2, 2016. Web. Retrieved 10/1/19.
11 “Dearborn Co. Courthouse Annex On Track For Fall Opening” Eagle Country 99.3 FM. Wagon Wheel Broadcasting. September 5, 2017. Web. Retrieved 10/1/19.