Switzerland County- Vevay (1862-)

The 1862 Switzerland County Courthouse in Vevay.
The 1862 Switzerland County Courthouse in Vevay.

Let me do some quick calculations here: I’ve driven more than 10,000 miles to courthouses in four states, and I’ve spent more than 170 hours behind the wheel- that’s an average of nearly 58 miles per hour. I’ve made decent time! I’ve covered all of Indiana’s courthouses, most in central Michigan, all of western Ohio, and random spots in West Virginia thanks to a wedding I attended there. Though this project has only exposed me to a small portion of the midwest, I can say without a doubt that the most scenic part of it has been down around La Belle Riviere, apparently a secondary name for the Ohio River according to Wikipedia.

I’ve only been down in that area two or three times, but that’s enough to know that Vevay is probably the most breathtaking of Indiana’s riverside county seats, especially from a distance! The first time I went there on my own was sometime in late 2011. My girlfriend and I ran into construction signs just south of East Enterprise on Highway 56. A mix of naiveté and bravado persuaded me to ignore them- it was one of those “closed on or about this date” signs, and I thought I was well within its tolerance so down the eleven mile trek I went. It turns out that I wasn’t well within the tolerance.

The courthouse features a metal clock tower with a copper-clad dome and cupola, with a weathervane that caps the whole affair.

Ten miles after the sign, I discovered that the road ended in a pile of rebar and rubble. Over the side of a bluff to the left, I could see gorgeous downtown Vevay along with a barge chugging slowly past it amidst the setting sun. With no other option, I scrambled back to East Enterprise towards Markland Pike and Tapps Ridge Road to get to IN-156 towards Vevay from the northeast. I’ll never forget the sight of the city fading into the sunset as I scurried towards it knowing that my efforts to get there while it was still light out would likely be for naught and that I’d have 120 miles to stew over it before I got home.

I’m happy to say that I made it to the courthouse! Unfortunately, with another one in Madison to get to before dusk, I didn’t spend much time there during that first trip. No matter, since I restarted my project in three years later and went down a second time, making sure to build in enough time for roadwork. Sometimes I do my best work after a revision. Between my two trips, my photos in Vevay are a perfect example.

The first people to arrive in Switzerland County were -prepare yourself for a surprise- Swiss, who arrived there about two hundred years before I did, intending to make wine. To this day, Vevay is the home of the first commercial winery in the country. Maybe that’s why I found it so welcoming, though I can’t even tell a red from a white and get made fun of it at corporate dinners. After its establishment, Vevay’s economy was based on river transport and agriculture, evolving by the 1840s into a center of hay production. Local farmers shipped the stuff down the river to New Orleans, where it sold for twice the price it did in Indiana. That boom generated lots of businesses and Vevay thrived. But as roads improved, railroads were built, and the river was usurped as the main source of transportation, Vevay became “a quaint old town, nestling at the foot of lofty mountains, in the midst of vineyards and gardens of beautiful flowers1” as it was described during its 1877 incorporation. Still- that’s the kind of place I could see myself living. To be honest, it hasn’t changed much since.

The front of the courthouse features columns atop an arched base.

The first courthouse in Vevay was built in 1816, just two years after Vevay was founded. It was brick, built by John Tandy, and measured 36 x 32 feet, costing the county $17052. Along with several adjacent buildings meant for county offices, that courthouse served until 1862, when it was demolished in the face of the burgeoning Civil War. Its replacement -the courthouse we see today- was erected two years later.

Now, I doubt that you or I could design a courthouse from scratch. Switzerland County officials couldn’t either, so just like that kid who couldn’t keep his eyes on his own paper during Geometry, they glanced over at Jefferson County’s work and grabbed Mathew Temperly, the superintendent of construction for their courthouse. His mission? To cop architect David Dubach’s blueprints for the courthouse there in Madison. For the most part, Switzerland County officials echoed Dubach’s design3, and aside from some small changes and subsequent renovations, the courthouses still appear very similar.

The copper-clad dome, cupola, and weathervane of the courthouse are landmarks in Vevay.

The Switzerland County Courthouse is three stories tall, built mostly of brick but with limestone and a whitewashed wooden trim. The front of the building features a tall, pedimented portico supported by Corinthian columns that rise from a rusticated, triple-arched, limestone base. Beyond the front pediment, the courthouse’s roof is hipped, with six chimneys surrounding a metal dome with twelve rectangular, louvered, vents. The building is capped with a copper dome with four projecting clock faces, a cupola, and a weather vane. 

I mentioned some renovations. In 2005, a two-story addition was constructed at the rear of the building. It adequately represents the spirit of the original courthouse, if not quite its scale. Like the old courthouse, the new wing measures nine bays by five, but it’s oriented perpendicularly so it extends widely from the original portion. A modern, glass hyphen links the two buildings together, mostly obscured by trees aside from the back parking lot. Overall, the new section is about as unobtrusive as they come. 

Here’s the old privy. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of the old limestone jail.

Behind the modern wing are two ‘can’t miss’ features. The first is a hexagonal outhouse, built in the mid-1800s, that was moved to its present site during the 2005 expansion.  Featuring four of its original six doors, the standing-seam metal roof is topped with a louvered cupola for ventilation, along with a small spire. We love potty humor here at Courthousery, so I’m glad that you’re now “privy” to its existence. Poop! Shit.

Across the parking lot stands Switzerland County’s 1876  jail: two stories of thick, blue limestone containing six cells and a single, steel entryway. Soon after its construction, a sheriff’s house was added to the southeast side of the jail4, though that part was removed during the renovation fourteen years ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of it.

A glass-and-brick hyphen connects the original courthouse, to the left, with its addition, to the right.

Despite maneuvering the commodes and removing the sheriff’s residence, the courthouse itself remains pretty much the same as it did when originally built aside from its color. Originally, the building was painted white5, though it was stained “battleship gray6” in 1941. It maintained that color scheme until some point in the 1970s, when it was sandblasted to its current shade of virgin red brick. Inside, the first floor features drop ceilings, though it retains its original doors and Greek Revival framings. All of the windows there retain their folding wood shutters, except for the four rooms that make up the building’s vault that were designed to be fireproof and have iron ones. Floors in the first-floor offices are carpeted, while those in the building’s entryway and corridors are vinyl tile. 

Here’s an old postcard I own from when the courthouse was painted battleship gray.

Interestingly, the basement, which you can get to from an enclosed, wooden staircase in the rear hallway, has exposed walls made of rubble along with arched openings and a dirt floor. But despite the basement’s intrigue, the building’s show-stopper inside is its second floor, most of which is taken up by a double-height courtroom. There, the northern side of the building contains a podium for the judge, along with a balcony at the southern wall. Like the first floor, the windows and doors there have Greek Revival surrounds, but a projection behind the judge’s podium features an archway framed by a set of columns and pilasters. At the rear of the courtroom, the balcony has a solid railing, simply decorated, while a plaster entablature connects the walls (painted gold with white trim) with the ceiling. A vintage speaking tube is attached to the west wall, a common feature of 1870s6 courthouses, along with 1970s playgrounds.

A rear addition to the courthouse preserves its standing, though not necessarily through matching its scale.

Though I only went up and down Indiana 56 -the Ohio River Scenic Byway- twice through Vevay, I wish I’d had the chance to spend more time there, particularly in its heyday. Readers from Muncie might be interested to know that its restored Hoosier Theatre on Ferry Street is in possession of the old asbestos curtain of our town’s Rivoli Theater. I’d love to get back to town with more time in order to check out the Switzerland County Historical Museum, the Schenck Mansion, the Armstrong Tavern, and the rest of what the place has to offer. Along with one of Indiana’s few pre-Civil War courthouses, the old jail, and that hexagonal outhouse, Vevay packs quite a historic punch- road construction or not!

Switzerland County (pop. 10,526, 85/92)
Vevay (pop. 1,681)
39/92 photographed
Built: 1864, expanded 2005.
Cost: $29,724.90 ($454,978 in 2016)
Architect: David Dubach
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 8/23/15

1 National Register of Historic Places, Switzerland County Courthouse, Vevay, Switzerland County, Indiana, National Register # 09000435.
2 Enyart, David. “Switzerland County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 12/8/19.
3 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Switzerland County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 12/9/19.
4 Atlas of Switzerland and Ohio Counties, Indiana.(Philadelphia: D.J.Lake & Co., 1883).
5 Switzerland County Commissioners’ Record, Book D, p. 48.
6 Switzerland CountyCommissioners’ Record, Book 2, p. 57.
7 Paul Kenneth Goeldner, Temples of Justice: Nineteenth Century County ^ ^

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