Some of our courthouse squares are thriving, some are moribund, and others are in stasis. Some feature a courthouse that dominates the center of downtown, some are threatened by the removal of the courts to greener pastures almost outside city boundaries, and some just flat-out don’t exist anymore at all. Despite the differences, studies have indicated that the presence of an old courthouse downtown can act as an anchor that draws people downtown1– you know, akin to the W.T. Grant, J.C. Penney, or Sears that drove us to the malls in the suburbs during the 60s and 70s.
A natural extension of studying old courthouses is the study of the actual types of town square they stand on. As mentioned a few weeks ago, Indiana tends to feature three kinds: Most prominent is the Shelbyville Square, which takes the form of a regular city block. Much less common is the Lancaster Square, which seems like an enlarged traffic circle with the courthouse in the middle. A third, even more uncommon style of courthouse square is the Harrisonburg design, which is found in three Hoosier counties and combines the other two types. There, the square is divided up first like a regular city block, but with additional streets coming in at the center of each side2.
But what about those towns that never bothered to plat out a courthouse square? Here’s one example of am courthouse thriving outside of its normal ecosystem- Marshall County’s in Plymouth.
Though the town now sits near the important confluence of US-31 and US-30, Plymouth was originally platted in 1834 along the banks of the Yellow River- the highways came later. In 1836, it became county seat. Early Plymouth was wilderness! Originally the town plat was covered in trees and bushes, the only cleared land being the blazed (but not yet constructed) LaPorte Road, and the partially-cleared Michigan Road, an ambitious highway that connected Madison to Michigan City by way of Indianapolis. The forest was so dense, in fact, that early resident’s couldn’t even find the courthouse square without the aid of a surveyor3.
As people stumbled around looking for the future courthouse site, businesses began to spring up around lot one, at the east side of the future Michigan Road and on the north side of the river near present-day LaPorte Street. The first enterprise was a “grocery,” a nice way of saying saloon. Soon, other shacks housing typical pioneer businesses like dry goods and hardware stores were erected nearby, as was a ramshackle, 20 x 30 foot courthouse that city officials built in order to lock down the title of county seat. By 1840, the temporary courthouse had become obsolete and was sold off for use as a cabinet shop. Since Plymouth’s development along the river hadn’t left room for a proper town square in its midst, the next courthouse was built where the first had originally been intended to be- the county square three blocks northwest of the city center. Apparently, the area’d been cleared enough for citizens to more easily find it by then.
So that’s why the courthouse in Plymouth sits far away from downtown- no one could find the square, so they just wound up building their downtown elsewhere! Though many counties were building brick courthouses by the 1840s, Marshall County’s second was another frame building measuring 50 x 80 feet with a cupola and spiral staircase- still wood, but still a marked improvement over its rickety predecessor. The building stood for thirty-one years before it wore out its usefulness and was moved to make way for the current structure4. Those thrifty Plymouthians loved to repurpose their old courthouses, and the second courthouse was converted to a stave factory, possibly supplying the thin wooden pieces to the barrel factory by then located in the first courthouse. Unfortunately, it burned down three years later.
For their first brick courthouse, Marshall County officials selected architect Gordon Randall, a Chicago architect who would later go on to design Indiana courthouses in Fowler and Williamsport. Completed in 1872, the building features what I’d call an “American exuberant” mix of the Italianate and Renaissance Revival styles. The courthouse’s arched windows, limestone quoins, and heavy cornice are elements pulled straight from the Italianate mode, though its prominent porticos and columns, along with the modillions underneath the Italianate cornice are clearly Renaissance Revival. For what it’s worth, Randall himself described the mishmash as “an emulation of works by James Gibbs and Robert Adams, two of the most distinguished architects of the 18th century5.”
Architecturally among our state’s portfolio, the courthouse probably looks most the one just northeast in Goshen, aside from the appearance of its clock tower. And as far as those go? To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a clock tower is just a clock tower. In Plymouth, it rises from a pedestal, featuring a central portico on each side that frames three arched, louvered openings to the belfry. The dome is really more of a concave mansard roof topped with a steeple6, and it rises 100 feet above the houses that surround in.
A few renovations have been made to the courthouse over the years. In 1913, county officials decided to modernize (“modernize”) the building’s interior by covering the main staircase, trim, and wainscoting with white marble, along with partially bricking in the courtroom’s tall windows and adding stained glass to several others. Work in 1949 removed twelve obsolete chimneys from the building’s roofline, but by far the biggest project ended in 1990. After fifteen months and $4 million, the courthouse was renovated and a prominent, two-story annex measuring 62 by 92 feet was added to the structure’s north side7.
Though it’s a big, boring, box, architects Mathews-Purucker-Anella, Incorporated8 designed the annex -officially, the Marshall County Courts Building- with some understated cues taken from the old building. At its corners, the annex features implied brick quoins, as well as arched moldings above its narrow, double windows. It’s a stretch to say that, other than materials, the addition even vaguely matches the original courthouse. Thankfully, a two-story, arched atrium constructed from glass connects the two structures on the first floor.
Obviously, I’ve shown a lot of photos of it here, but I almost didn’t take pictures featuring the annex. When I started this project, I wanted to focus on straightforward images of our historic courthouses that someone with my own simple abilities as a former seven-year-old could easily draw. I had no enthusiasm for our modern justice centers, and I still don’t. Gradually, though, my opinion changed. Like them or not, newer alterations are often necessary to keep an old courthouse viable. And that’s just out on the outside! Most of our old courthouses have long since been gutted and destroyed with drop ceilings, partitions, and elevator shafts anyway.
All these additions and subtractions are just part of the cost of doing business in a collection of old buildings. Ultimately, I’m a fan of preservation -whatever it takes- and I can definitely understand the predicament of modern architects, who probably have enough trouble designing a cost-effective, visually appealing annex for a symmetrical, 150-year-old structure centered on a cohesive square. I should be glad that they didn’t just bulldoze it and start over.
For any building to last a long time, it’s got to be functional. The same goes for government- for a county seat to last, it’s got to be easy for most of its constituents to access the courthouse. Usually, that happens when the courthouse sits smack-dab in the middle of the business district. The Marshall County Courthouse has defied that logic since downtown Plymouth grew up elsewhere without it, but its new addition ensures that the grand building will remain functional for a long time.
Marshall County (pop. 146,498, 30/92)
Plymouth (pop. 9,960)
Built: 1872, expanded 1988
Cost: $109,294 ($2.15 million in 2018)
Architect: Gordon Randall
Style: Renaissance Revival/Italianate
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 100 feet
Current Use: County offices and some courts
1 Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
2 Price, Edward T. “The Central Courthouse Square in the American County Seat” Geographical Review. American Geographical Society. Vol. 58, No. 1. 1968. Print.
3 McDonald, Daniel. “A Twentieth Century History of Marshall County, Indiana, Volume 1.” The Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. 1908. Print.
4 Enyart, David. “Marshall County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.
5 “Order in the Courthouse” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 22, 1990. 31. Print.
6 National Register of Historic Places, Marshall County Courthouse. Plymouth, Marshall County, Indiana, National Register # 83000139.
7 “Marshall County courthouse bond issue on the way.” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. May 20, 1986. 10. Print.
8 Deacon, J. “Elkhart County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.