A couple of months ago the guy across the street from me died and workers have been over cleaning and making extensive repairs to his house in order to list it. This past week, a team of Amish handymen were there replacing the roof. A fastidious group, they had the shingles and flashing removed, the underlayer installed, and about a third of the front of the house shingled within the first day. The remainder of the shingles were left in bundles on the top of the house overnight.
Here’s some advice for all of you could-be courthouse contractors: while top-loading a house with roofing materials may be just fine for a suburban ranch, try it at your peril while rehabbing an old courthouse. You’d hate to suffer the same fate that our neighbors down in Brookville did back in 1877. In an attempt to address the leaky roof of the 1852 Franklin County Courthouse, workers started stacking heavy building materials atop the building’s flat roof 1. All that lumber (cue the Donnie Baker voice) proved too much for the twenty-five year old roof to handle- It buckled, and its contents -slate, bricks, and several contractors- plunged into the courtroom below, where about twenty people stood in the middle of a trial. Miraculously, no one died2, but the incident shook commissioners, as well as, I’m sure, both the offensive and defensive falling parties.
The 1852 courthouse, which replaced an octagonally-backed3, brick coffee mill structure assembled in 1817, was Italianate and flat-roofed in nature as designed by architect Edwin May, who was responsible for nine Indiana courthouses- a Hoosier record. Of those, only Greensburg (the one with the tree in the tower), Vincennes, and Noblesville remain. Well, Brookville’s does too, but it’s been substantially altered after the roof incident and very little of May’s design remains4. If you’re in or around Brookville and want to see his handiwork, head over to St. Michael’s Catholic Church. Actually- don’t do that! A renovation in 1901 changed the building completely. Instead, go to the Brookville Presbyterian Church at the northwestern corner of 6th and Church. Actually- don’t do that either- it’s been demolished! I guess it’s a trip to Vincennes or Greensburg for you purists.
Now, the year after the courthouse roof caved in, the building was substantially altered: its flat roof gave way to a triangular pediment supported by five heavy arches, and an enormous clock tower took shape near the building’s west-facing front. Here- I’ve got a postcard of it. Evidently, any structural problems plaguing the old courthouse roof had been fixed by then, but nevertheless it only took twenty-eight more years for the building to become too narrow and small to adequately conduct county business. Commissioners turned their eye towards a new one by hiring Elmer Dunlap -another prolific designer of Indiana courthouses- to study the situation5.
Just thirty-seven6 and fresh off a revitalization of the Jackson County Courthouse which enlarged and dramatically changed the appearance of the old Second Empire structure there, Dunlap proposed keeping the basic parts of the courthouse in Brookville though he also advocated altering it substantially. He began by adding three-bay wings to the north and south in order to provide more space, while reconfiguring the building’s windows from Italian-inspired arches to flat rectangles in keeping with the aesthetic of the times. A new, recessed entryway supported by two central Ionic columns was built at the west face of the courthouse7, and a new, smaller clock tower replaced the massive old one.
Overall, the courthouse is quite similar to his renovation of the Jackson County Courthouse in Brownstown the year before, but both vary wildly from his later, blocky, neoclassical courthouses found seemingly all over the state. That’s really no surprise, since for fifteen years starting around 1914, architects of new neoclassical courthouses continuously de-emphasized the role of a clock tower until they were eliminated entirely by 19168. Come to think of it, after Dunlap’s redesign of Franklin County’s, only one courthouse -Clay County’s in Brazil- features a dome visible from the street. Three of the eight neoclassical courthouses built after 1914 were Dunlap’s designs.
He went on to draw plans for many municipal buildings, a lot them additions to schools. But Dunlap’s design of the Franklin County Courthouse remains as perhaps the tallest of all his constructs. Not only does it tower above his revitalized courthouse in Brownstown, it extends far beyond any of his other structures, including the V-shaped Indianapolis Public School #26, his addition to the old Kokomo High School, and his other three courthouses. The Franklin County Courthouse flat out dominates Brookville’s skyline as soon as you curve in from the north on US-52 or IN-101. It’s just huge in comparison to its normal-sized surroundings.
Though Elmer Dunlap’s design created a courthouse that would stand the test of time beyond the sections of its 1852 and 1877 buildings, the Franklin County Courthouse wasn’t quite large enough to provide space for the county’s needs into the new millennium. County commissioners rehabilitated the old Brookville High School, vacated in 2002, in order to hold a newly-christened Franklin County Government Center which now holds the offices of the assessor, auditor, commissioners, recorder, surveyor, and treasurer’s offices. Despite the change, courts are still held in downtown Franklin, though they’ve not been subjected to anyone falling through the ceiling in recent years.
I’ll go out on a limb here by suggesting that that’s good, and it’s also good that Franklin County has kept their old courthouse, built in 1912 for all intents and purposes, while maintaining the old Brookville High School through adaptive reuse. I can’t say that Franklin County’s efforts towards historic preservation have been limited entirely to Brookville since we have historic districts in Metamora and Oldenburg to appreciate, along what remains of the Whitewater Canal from the feeder dam in Laurel down to the county seat. I will say, though, that efforts towards historic preservation often seem to trickle down from the county seat. For those purposes, the Franklin County Courthouse has been a steady influence, having been listed in the NRHP since 1975 as part of the Brookville Historic District.
Next time you’re on your way down to the lake, Metamora, or Oldenburg, be sure to stop in Brookville, even just for a few minutes. Bring a couple of quarters, too, unless you intend to park down the hill on 4th Street. There’s a large greenspace enveloped on two sides by mature trees just south of the courthouse that features a pavilion and some benches. It’d be the perfect place to contemplate our state’s courthouse history. Even if the inimitable Franklin County Courthouse wasn’t right next door to this serene hideaway, and though it’s gone through more exterior renovations than the face of your favorite starlet, each of them combine to give us a courthouse that is unparalleled in style from the rest of them across Indiana. That, along with a compelling story, gives us a great historic courthouse in Franklin County. Now- about that roof!
Franklin County (pop. 22,951, 66/92)
Brookville (pop. 2,578)
Built: 1851, renovated 1878, 1912.
Cost: $96,000 (1878); ($2.38 million in 2016)
Architect: Elmer Dunlap
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 90 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 Atlas of Franklin County, Indiana. (Chicago: J.H. Beers & Company, 1882; reprint Knightstown: The Bookmark, 1976), p.25.
2 August J. Reifel, History of Franklin County, Indiana (Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen & Company, 1915), p. 107.
3 Enyart, David. “Franklin County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/20/19.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Brookville Historic District, Brookville, Franklin County, Indiana, National Register # 750000018.
5 August J. Reifel, History of Franklin County, Indiana (Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen & Company, 1915), p. 107.
6 “Elmer Edgar Dunlap” Find A Grave. Web. Retrieved 10/20/19.
7 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Franklin County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 10/20/19.
8 Enyart, David. “Elkhart County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/20/19.