Wells County has a great courthouse in Bluffton, one that I’m more familiar with than most since I frequently drive past it on my way to Fort Wayne. I can’t believe I haven’t written about it yet!
From 1957 to 1979, eight Indiana courthouses were torn down and replaced with modern structures- that means that eighty-five counties here retain at least one historic courthouse although though several of them no longer hold government offices1. Like AM radio, our courthouse portfolio is pretty stacked with the oldies: for every one that’s been torn down, we’ve got at least ten that still managed to survive- I’m looking at you, Limbaugh.
The average age of our lost courthouses at the time of their destruction was eighty-three years. As of this writing, that’s how old my grandma is, and she certainly gets a pass for slowing down a little compared to her days digging for dinosaur bones in Grand Junction, Colorado! Nevertheless, it’s sometimes hard for grandparents and courthouses to keep up with the times. Seven of the eight demolished structures met their fate because they were too small to serve their growing constituents; too run-down to be feasibly saved; or, paradoxically, too strongly-built to easily reconfigure on the inside (one was flattened by a tornado2). I’m happy to report that, aside from her strongly-built constitution, none of those problems afflict my grandma- she has definitely withstood every recent tornado, though she still mostly refuses to use a smartphone.
The ability to reorganize an interior layout has saved many a midwestern courthouse3 by carving out new office space from an attic or hallway or making room for a connector for a new addition. Rare indeed it is when a historic courthouse was built too big to start with! But that’s what happened in Bluffton when commissioners there, along with architect George Bunting, planned ahead by requisitioning and designing an enormous structure to replace their antiquated, 1845 Greek Revival courthouse that had been condemned by a county judge as insufficient and even unhygienic4.
George Bunting was the perfect architect to usher Wells County into a new era of government, responsible for seven courthouses across the state before he was brought in to design Bluffton’s. Though he made his name drawing up structures influenced by the Second Empire and Beaux Arts modes in lots of Indiana cities, his 1891 Wells County Courthouse -along with its cousin in Liberty- differ clearly from his established designs in that they’re both Richardson Romanesque. What that means is that the buildings look like a castles with large, rusticated stone blocks, square clock towers, recessed entryways, round arches, and narrow windows. Stylistically, the Wells County Courthouse is probably most similar to Blackford County’s just to the south in Hartford City, particularly with regards to its use of yellow Michigan Stoney Point sandstone.
I’ve approached the courthouse from every direction over the years, and it looms in front of you whichever way you come from as the tallest building in town by a long shot. You can’t name a town Bluffton if it doesn’t sit on a bluff, and the courthouse sits at the top of one that rises along the southern bank of the Wabash River, which adds to its height. The courthouse also sits on a quarter-block, rather than its own square, so it’s mostly flush with its neighbors other than a limestone plaza to its north which helps the transition from the surrounding two- and three-story commercial buildings to the massive edifice.
The courthouse is huge; by design, as we discussed earlier. Originally, county offices only took up only slightly more than the courthouse’s main floor! In fact, it’s only been relatively recently that the courthouse used all of its space. The ground floor was first rented out for commercial use and held a barber shop where the trustee’s office is, a restaurant where the extension service now sits, and even a small cigar factory in the space now occupied by the license branch. The Bluffton library utilized several corner rooms before moving to a Carnegie in 19055, and a barricade cordoned off the completely-uninhabited fourth story6.
Today, the courthouse is at capacity, and the government’s even expanded enough to take over that old Carnegie Library as an annex. Without going into extreme detail, the courthouse’s National Register of Historic Places listing says that only fifteen out of its forty-nine rooms have been subdivided by modern partitions, and only four room ceilings have been lowered. At least as of its nomination in 1979, concessions for electricity, new furniture, and office equipment have, by and large, been the building’s only “upgrades”. I’d call that a win.
As always, I’m more concerned about the building’s exterior. There are some really unique features here. The base of the five-story tower originally held the sheriff’s office. The building’s north-facing gable still holds the courtroom, so most of the symbolic carvings are found there- including a huge pentagram (an early symbol of the Biblical King Solomon, a teacher of wisdom7), and a statue of a winged lion at the top of the clock tower, where it once supported a flagpole. For nearly forty years, a ceramic owl statue stood atop the building’s roof, though it was removed for fear of blowing over in the 1930s. A lion statue, holding a Wells County shield, actually did blow off its perch above the courtroom gable’s window in 1967. Despite the alterations, a bevy of carvings still exist, namely a serpent that wraps around the courtroom gable’s southern corner, and other snakes and scrollwork that surround the recessed, eastern entryway to the courthouse.
To me, the Wells County Courthouse evolves like a Monet painting- you get an overall impression of its scale and grandeur from far away, but only by venturing up close will you see the elements that, on simultaneously small-and-large scales, make it what it is. I doubt that the pioneers who settled in Bluffton in 1836 ever dreamed that their town would, one day, be home to such an impressive courthouse! A year after Bluffton was platted, Wells County was forrmed, named after Captain William Wells who was captured by Indians as a boy and adopted by the famous Miami chief Little Turtle8. He eventually became a scout for General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the namesake of Fort Wayne as well as, cringingly, the city’s NBA G-League team, the Mad Ants. Wells died at Fort Dearborn during the early days of the War of 1812, though his name lives on around Bluffton.
The community first held courts at the house of settler R.C. Bennett on October 19, 18379, moving to a new, two-story, log structure three years later. In 1845, the condemned Greek Revival Courthouse, designed by George W. Webster, was built, and in 1891 we got what we see today, the current Wells County Courthouse. Though it hasn’t been a wild ride in comparison to some of Indiana’s more dramatic counties, what a ride it’s been in keeping the 1891 structure close to its original design, along with certainly its intent.
I’m grateful that the 1891 Wells County Courthouse still stands proudly in the middle of Bluffton, and I’m thankful that my chosen comparison to the building, my grandma, helped instill in me a sense of wonder and curiosity along with a notion that I was actually empowered to act on those impulses and go out into the world to learn. Anymore, I most often pass this courthouse on my way to visiting my Great Aunt Connie in Fort Wayne, another passionate advocate for my projects. I wish everyone had the type of encouraging family infrastructure that I’ve been blessed with, just as I wish every county had a courthouse like Wells County’s to be proud of.
Wells County (pop. 27,8140, 55/92)
Bluffton (pop. 9,948)
Cost: $119,879 ($3.19 million in 2016)
Architect: George W.Bunting
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: No Square
Height: 100 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
2 “Tornado-Stricken Monticello Rebuilds for Brighter Future” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis] February 26, 1976: 6. Print.
3 “Grant County Courthouse Solution Eyed by Committee.” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. October 3, 1963: 25. Print.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Wells County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquares.org
5 Carnegie Libraries in Indiana. Hoosier Indiana. Web. Retrieved December 18, 2019.
6 National Register of Historic Places, Wells County Courthouse, Bluffton, Wells County, Indiana, National Register # 79000028.
7 Morgan, Gerald (1979). “The Significance of the Pentangle Symbolism in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight””. The Modern Language Review. 74 (4). Print.
8 Tyndall, John W. & Orlo, Ervin L. Standard History of Adams and Wells Counties, Indiana. Lewis Publshing Company. Chicago. 1918. Print.
9 Enyart, David. “Wells County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 12/18/19.