Pike County- Petersburg (1922-)

The 1922 Pike County Courthouse in Petersburg

I like to go fishing- to me, there’s nothing better than a cool morning with a spinning reel tied to a heavy Texas rig. This year’s been tough down at the banks, though, as I was reminded today when I received a voucher for $5.03 towards a purchase of three or more cans of tuna as part of the settlement of Hendricks v. Starkist Co. You see, in 2015 I joined a class action lawsuit on a whim against the Starkist Tuna Company alleging that they were systematically under-filling its 5 oz. cans of tuna. If I’d managed to catch a total of five ounces of bluegill or bass this year, I’d be extremely shocked- it was rough! 

I’m a casual but frequent consumer of tuna, and I’m not litigious- I knew I’d purchased more than enough of the stuff over the course of the settlement. I wouldn’t have even joined if I hadn’t read about it online! Obviously no one’s fishing for tuna in Indiana, but did you know that the White River, which flows for 362 miles in two forks across Indiana, provides nearly half of our state’s inland commercial fishing harvest? I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t the recipient of the river’s bounty around Muncie this year, but further south -particularly around where the east and west forks of the river converge just northeast of Petersburg- fishing provides decent business.

In 2016, Indiana’s total inland commercial fish harvest was 102,593 pounds1! That’s small potatoes for, say, the Pacific Northwest, and here the numbers are dwindling.  But being a commercial inland angler serves two purposes: First and foremost, it provides families and small businesses with a livelihood. Secondly, it helps tie my new tuna coupon in with possible content for this blog. Today, we’ll be talking about the 1922 Pike County Courthouse in Petersburg, right in the thick of all the fishing action. 

A maple tree -bright orange in fall- dominates the southeast side of the angled courthouse square.

Pike County wasn’t named for the fish, although it is home to the bizarrely-named Fish Hut Pizza restaurant. Actually, the county’s title honors Zebulon Pike, an early American explorer for whom Pikes Peak in Colorado was also named. Unlike other areas where communities fought and jostled for position as the county seat, Petersburg -named after Peter Brenton2 in the same convention that I named all my SimCity metropoles Tedville- has always been the seat of government here, probably due to its prominent position on a hill overlooking the White River. The original plat was laid out so the streets would be parallel to the river’s course3. Because of that, the courthouse square doesn’t correspond to the cardinal directions; it’s essentially tilted forty-five degrees off the typical Y-axis. 

Weird delineation aside, Pike County’s first courthouse -built just a year after the county was founded- was predictably assembled from logs like many of its peers, though it was a substantial structure two stories tall and measuring 32 by 24 feet. Located off the square, it was replaced by a 36×36 square-foot coffee mill pop-socket design in 1836. That second courthouse lasted until 1866, when the county selected Robert and William Hawthorn to build a $33,264 courthouse that looked pretty close to its contemporaries, the current courthouses in Vevay and Madison- aside from its small belfry4. 

Though the near-twins in southeastern Indiana still stand after more than a century and a half, we would have had a set of triplets today if it wasn’t for the rapid oxidation of materials in the exothermic process of combustion. Over the last two hundred years, twenty-six courthouses have been totally destroyed over the course of forty-four fires5. Pike County’s was one of them, annihilated in a 1921 inferno that incinerated all of the county’s records. Reeling, commissioners selected Elmer Dunlap to design a new courthouse- one that would absolutely have to be fireproof.

The courthouse is slightly asymmetrical, as seen from its southwestern face.

Now, Elmer Dunlap was no slouch. In 1911, his drastic redesign of the Jackson County courthouse in Brownstown totally changed its appearance, as did his 1912 treatment of Brookville’s Franklin County Courthouse. In 1916, he moved on to designing his own courthouses, starting with Delphi’s in Carroll County and then Rockport’s in Spencer County. The Pike County Courthouse was his third new build. As we’ve discussed, all three are very similar, and they all fit into a decades-long evolution of Indiana neoclassical courthouse designs that.

Unless you’re going from their surroundings, it’s hard to tell most of these boxy, neoclassical courthouses from one another. Pike County officials directed Dunlap to be frugal6, and though its overall floorplan -two and a half stories, rectangular, with understated classical influences- is common elsewhere, the Pike County Courthouse carves out a unique name for itself. First off- check out that yellow Huntingburg brick! It’s striking. Indiana’s old courthouses (and even our new ones) compose a colorful bunch! Petersburg’s one of the best, though, especially since that yellow brick is applied to an uncommon format here. What nearly stands out as much as its color, to my eye, is how modern the building looks in comparison to its cousins. 

The building’s main entrance is inconspicuous and framed by light horizontal rustication.

I personally have two cousins on my dad’s side who are six feet tall (I’m 5’ 8” in steel-toes), and I’ve got cousins with long hair, short hair, big noses, small noses, and the features that run the gamut. Me particularly? I’m short and fat. But somehow, we all manage look enough alike. As far as the courthouse, though, there are no arches here, nor are there decorative cornices, flourishes, or clocks. The Pike County Courthouse, despite its simple, stately design, is clearly from the same thought that the rest of Dunlap’s designs are, along with others designed by John Bayard, John Gaddis, and the rest- just like all of us Shideler cousins are. 

I don’t mean to “flounder” (Haha- a fish joke) over our similarities here. The neoclassical courthouse sits on a small hill and manages to usurp its surroundings in height while staying a short-rise structure. Measuring 114 by 109 feet in length, its square is betrayed by pavilions on its north, south, and western fronts that slightly project. The main facade of the building looks towards Main Street- IN-57.

A series of businesses and abandoned storefronts gaze forlornly at the courthouse from across IN-57.

That yellow brick we mentioned serves as the veneer to a poured concrete structure. Since the building was designed to be fireproof, clay tile and concrete provide much of the building’s interior structure. Behind its parapet, the roof was recently covered with rubber membrane, though a protruding, octagonal skylight that illuminates the rotunda of the courthouse is visible from a distance. Overall ,the building is functional and frugal, though classical elements abound like the recessed windows featuring limestone stills and limestone drip molding. As many neoclassical courthouses did, two-story pilasters with Doric capitals serve to draw the eye towards the short building’s verticality, making it seem taller than it actually is.

Like many of these early 20th century neoclassical courthouse, the interior of the Pike County Courthouse features a central rotunda and a cross-axial floorplan. An art-glass skylight7, illuminated with lights in the attic since it was stripped of its glass exterior and mentioned earlier, crowns the building’s curvy interior, while courts and offices radiate around the central aperture. Overall, the courthouse is stunning inside, yet tasteful from the street. 

The courthouse exhibits an understated, modern update to the neoclassical structures built immediately prior to its construction.

Though that exterior view of the Pike County Courthouse won’t win any hot stove league arguments from grizzled anglers, receiving my canned fish settlement coupon led to a great oppor-TUNA-ty to write about a building I’d thought about leaving to salmon else. I hope you haven’t found my fish jokes a pile of carp- I wouldn’t be cod dead bringing bad jokes to the masses. Nevertheless, I think my puns have been fin-tastic, and ultimately the courthouse in Petersburg that they support is truly a so-FISH-ticated example of neoclassical Hoosier courthouse design. When it comes to the Pike County Courthouse…I’m hooked! 

Pike County (pop. 12,365, 83/92)
Petersburg (pop. 2,307)
86/92 photographed
Built: 1922
Cost: $236,000 (1930). ($3.4 million in 2016)
Architect: Elmer Dunlap
Style: Neoclassical
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 2.5 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 7/10/2016

1 “Net maker keeps craft alive as fishing culture on Southern Indiana’s White River changes” Evansville Courier & Press [Evansville]. October 3, 2019. Web. Retrieved 10/15/19.
2 History of Pike and Dubois Counties, Indiana. Goodspeed Brothers [Chicago].1885. Print.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Pike County Courthouse, Petersburg, Pike County, Indiana, National Register # 08000913.
4 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 10/15/19.
5 Enyart, David. “Pike County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/15/19
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Pike County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 10/15/19.
7 “Pike County Courthouse Dome (Petersburg, Indiana)”. courthouselover. Flickr. July 19, 2010. Web. Retrieved 10/15/19.

2 thoughts on “Pike County- Petersburg (1922-)

  1. How you missed a quip on the scales of Justice is beyond me. I guess I won’t be buying you that Bass ale after all.

    Those yellow bricks have me imagining the building’s construction, with a bunch of short, happy workmen skipping to the job site each morning as they sing “follow the yellow brick load”. I know, pretty crappie.


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