Monroe County- Bloomington (1908-)

The 1908 Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington.

Welcome to 2020, courthouse fans! This year offers so much possibility that we’ve wrapped it up straight out of the oven to preserve its freshness for you, and it marks the third of our current format here. As the new decade starts, we’re getting near the end- there are only twenty-seven counties left to discuss in Indiana, even though some feature more than one courthouse. That said, those remnants are only going to take us just past the middle of next year. Thankfully, we’ve also got thirty-seven courthouses in Ohio, eighteen in Michigan, and seven in West Virginia to put us through the beginning of 2021 so far, along with a few modern superior courthouses in northwestern Indiana that I originally skipped. 

Though my recent travels have taken me to far-flung courthouses in the no-man’s land of Ohio, today it’s back home in Indiana and we’re headed to Bloomington. The Monroe County Courthouse there has a fish on its weathervane. Why? I’m not sure. But read on, and maybe we’ll find out together. 

This shot is one of two of the dome that didn’t turn out. Above it, you can see the fish.

There have been three courthouses in Bloomington. The first, built in 1818, is said to have been a “double building” with two sections measuring 20×20 and 20×12 with a sidewalk between them1. Measuring only ten feet to the eaves, each cabin had an east-facing window for natural sunlight. After only a year of service, the buildings were deemed insufficient for county business, so commissioners contracted architect William Low to draw up plans for a replacement. 

While wishing for a new courthouse is quick work, actually building one -to paraphrase Aristotle- is a slow-ripening fruit. At least that’s how it turned out in early Bloomington, as it took hapless builder John Ketchum seven years to produce the city’s second. That’s long enough for a whole war to happen2! Thankfully, the first two courthouse structures were positioned at the south side of the square and could still be used during construction.  

So what did Low and Ketchum come up with in the same amount of time it takes for the human body to replace all its cells3?  A coffee mill-styled structure measuring 45×40 feet that was occupied by May of 1826. For our visual learners out there, it pretty much looked like the old trio of courthouses in Wilmington, Corydon, and Rome- two stories each with three bays capped with a hipped roof and simple, octagonal, cupola.

That same year, Austin Seward, an 1820 settler of Bloomington, created a three-foot-long fish of gilded copper that was added to the weathervane above the clock tower4. After twenty-five years, a substantial, $7,000 ($231,000 today if my inflation calculator can be trusted) addition that some consider to be enough of an alteration to consider the result a brand new courthouse5 was finished. It added two wings, each two stories tall, that stretched out beyond the building’s old entrance enough to accommodate a set of four pillars beneath a pediment, creating a recessed entrance. By the 1870s, the courthouse featured a thin, multi-tiered, Second Empire clock tower with a mansard roof that replaced its original, more sedate cupola6

The building’s secondary facades are indicative of a Neoclassical style rather than its Beaux Arts faces. That’s the fish up top.

Despite the additions, the building again became too small for Monroe County’s needs, a theme we’ll continue to pick up on today. Just after the new century, Fort Wayne architects Wing & Mahurin, veterans of Indiana’s Knox and Hancock County courthouses along with a replacement tower at the Adams County courthouse, were selected to design its replacement. Last week, we talked about the courthouse in Warsaw, designed by Brentwood and T.J. Tolan. Well, both Wing and Mahurin were initially employees of the Tolans! George Wing served as chief draftsman before being replaced by Brentwood, and Marshall Mahurin acted as an apprentice before defecting (not defecating). Later on, Mahurin, along with a nephew, went on to design the DeKalb County Courthouse in Auburn after Wing retired. They definitely weren’t courthouse slouches! 

I sort of wonder how many tons of limestone Wing and both Mahurins are responsible for quarrying with each of their massive courthouses- hell, we might as well throw in the Tolans for good measure! Their first two were both of the Richardson Romanesque mode, but Bloomington’s is definitely part of the Beaux Arts movement via its monumental staircases, statuary, arched windows, symmetry, and classical details7. Know what else? They made room for Austin Seward’s inverted fish weathervane.

Statuary like this cements the courthouse in place as a Beaux Arts construct.

Despite its prominence in the community, as well as one of Wing & Mahurin’s masterworks, the courthouse’s design hasn’t always been appreciated by officials- it’s actually had quite a bumpy ride over the past 112 years. The sixties weren’t kind to the old building. In 1961, Floyd County officials in New Albany demolished their old courthouse (along with an entire city block of historic structures including the former Scribner High School and a post office) in exchange for a modern City-County Building that revitalized downtown. The following year, it seemed like commissioners in Bloomington were headed for a matching decision since the needs of county government had overgrown the space that the old courthouse could provide. But frugal minds prevailed, and the structure was left standing- albeit with a huge alteration: New offices were added to stack up through the building’s rotunda, obscuring Gustave Brand’s stained glass dome for all but those who ventured to the third-floor superior courtroom. 

The courthouse sits on a raised berm behind a retaining wall, making photos difficult to capture. But I’m also not great to begin with.

Though the interior remodel worked well as a Band-Aid, it didn’t help that Monroe County’s government was tending to a punctured spleen or a noxious pancreas. By the early 1980s, officials determined that they needed even more room, and they brought forth a new proposition to replace the building entirely. Thankfully, a grassroots campaign of supporters armed with petitions and protests slapped it down pretty handily. So handily, in fact, that commissioners dramatically changed course from demolishing the 75-year-old building to outfitting it with a $2.3 million renovation8 that removed the intruding floors, opened up the glass dome, and recreated intricate plaster moldings around ceilings and columns that had been lost to time9. Eventually, the put-out county offices moved to a new building at the corner of College Avenue and West 7th Street. 

The 35-foot-tall Alexander Memorial, dedicated in 1928, stands at the southeastern corner of the courthouse in remembrance of Monroe County’s soldiers.

We should all be glad that the restored building hasn’t been lost to time, and neither has that fish, especially since it was re-gilded in 1950. Unfortunately, I still can’t tell you why there’s a fish a hundred and eight feet above the town square10 since no one seems to know. But I can tell you that the courthouse fish was named “Hoagy” by kids aged 4-14 in 2019 as part of the county’s bicentennial celebrations11. Whether named after those kids’ favorite type of sandwich (unlikely) or Bloomington’s favorite composer (getting warmer), here’s hoping that Indiana’s only courthouse fish continues to spin freely for many more years to come on top of its great building.

Monroe County (pop. 141,888, 12/92)
Bloomington (pop. 82,575)
70/92 photographed
Built: 1908
Cost: $250,000 ($6.65 million in 2016)
Architect: Mahurin & Mahurin
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 108 feet
Current Use: Some county offices
Photographed: 3/27/16

1 Allison Lendman (April 6, 2002). “A Brief History of the Formation and First Year of Existence of Monroe County Indiana”. Monroe County History Center.
2 “Seven Years’ War” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Britannica Group, Inc. July 20, 1998. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
3 Opfer, Chris. “Does your body really replace itself every seven years?” HowStuffWorks. Infospace Holdings, LLC. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
4 “The Copper Fish” Bloomington, Indiana. Visit Bloomington. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
5 Enyart, David. “Monroe County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
6 Krause, Carrol. ”Step back in time with Monroe County’s courthouse” Houses and Books. Web. 8/4/2013. Retrieved 1/4/2020.
7 Klein, Fogle, and Etienne. Clues to American Architecture. Starhill Press [Washington, D.C.]. 1986. Print. 38.
8 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Print.
9 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Monroe County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
10 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. 1913. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
11 Jackson, Lindsey. “Bloomington Residents Vote To Name The Courthouse Fish ‘Hoagy’”. WTIU. Indiana Public Media. Web. Retrieved 1/4/2019. 

One thought on “Monroe County- Bloomington (1908-)

  1. What’s weird about this one is that all the courts decamped to the ugly modern building that, like that of Muncie, makes second class citizens out of non-local lawyers, who do not have ready access to the inside corridors behind the courtrooms. I have been invited back a time or two, and it’s a heady feeling.

    It seems to me that the County Auditor, Recorder, Assessor and the rest can do their thing anywhere, but judges should hold court in the grandest and most majestic surroundings possible, which these old buildings provided in spades.


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