Vigo County- Terre Haute (1884-)

The 1884 Vigo County Courthouse in Terre Haute

I’ve learned a lot about Indiana’s historic courthouses after driving around and haphazardly taking pictures of all of them. One of the most interesting little tidbits I’ve picked up is that it seems as though building a 165-foot-tall clock tower was just about the pinnacle of architectural engineering during the late 1800s, at least around these parts. I can name five or six courthouses that stand that tall off the top of my head, along with all kinds of shorter ones. In fact, our state’s history is littered with tales of hubristic, self-taught architects who flew too close to the sun (I’m looking at you, J.C. Johnson) and had to deal with collapsing towers.

It took a certain degree of structural ingenuity to get a taller courthouse, one that only a few architects could attain. Courthouses in LaPorte (172 feet) and Greenfield (181 feet) are two examples, but what about those that surpass the threshold of 200 feet. Are there any? Unfortunately, another thing I’ve learned about these old buildings is that its often hard to get an accurate picture of their actual height, so, maybe. Sanborn fire insurance maps are a good place to start, but in some cases they deviate substantially from what other sources, like National Register of Historic Places applications prepared by local historians say. Getting a good impression of a building’s height often involves triangulating information the best I can from a variety of reputable sources.

Here’s a quick screengrab of some of Indiana’s tallest historic courthouses. Notice the plateau at 165 feet, along with one at 130.

Despite the difficulties, I’ve managed to cobble together a list of Indiana’s 200-foot-tall courthouses for you. They’re rare, making up about 6% of our portfolio- even counting the 1962 City-County Building in Indianapolis which rises 372 feet. Sanborn maps seem to indicate that its demolished predecessor hit 280 feet1, making it by far the tallest in the state. Of those old ones still standing, the list goes like this:

  • Allen County- Fort Wayne: 239 feet. 
  • Tippecanoe County- Lafayette: 226 feet.
  • Vanderburgh County- Evansville: 216 feet. 
  • Tipton County- Tipton (bizarrely): 206 feet.
  • Vigo County- Terre Haute: 200 feet (technically 196 but I’ll count its flagpole.)

The Vigo County Courthouse in Terre Haute brings up the rear of the the club, measuring right at 200 feet. Even though it’s at the tail-end of the grouping, there’s really something special about this courthouse- just look at it. Of course there’s also something about hitting that arbitrary milestone of 200 feet that just interests the hell out of me!

Clearly, Terre Haute didn’t always have a two-hundred-foot tall courthouse. Its first was a brick structure of the “coffee mill” design built in 1822, four years after the county was formed. Starting in 1866, county officials used what was first meant to be an office building to hold court while the actual courthouse was renovated, but the project fell through and the “temporary” structure served as a third courthouse for twenty-two more years2. 

Hannaford’s Greene County Courthouse in Xenia, Ohio is representative of his later style.

Construction began on the present courthouse in 1884 once county commissioners hired Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford to render some plans. Professionally drawing buildings up on blue paper since 1857, Hannaford was ultimately responsible for more than 300 structures, most around his hometown- though he later designed courthouses in Greene, Washington, and Monroe counties in Ohio that differ substantially from Terre Haute’s. Of those three I think I’ve only been to one:. The Greene County Courthouse in Xenia, Ohio is wildly different in execution.

This close-up shows the architectural distinctions between Terre Haute’s and Xenia’s courthouses. They are substantial.

Actually, a quick review of Hannaford’s other courthouses reveals that none of his others are close to his Second Empire design in Terre Haute3. Maybe that’s intentional4– French explorers did settle the area during the 1700s, describing its location above the Wabash River as the “highland,” which is what ‘Terre Haute’ translates to. Back then, this part of Indiana was claimed by both the French and British and was considered to be the border between Canada and Louisiana5. Regardless of his influences, Hannaford really put together a masterpiece here, which is saying a lot since he also designed Cincinnati’s Music Hall, City Hall, the Elsinore Arch, and the Cincinnattian Hotel6. 

This portico once featured a monumental staircase that provided access to it. Now, entry is gained from beneath.

Here’s what we have in Terre Haute: The courthouse is roughly cruciform from the top and stands three stories tall above an elevated basement. That underground story features rusticated stone with rectangular windows, though the second floor has arched windows in pairs and the third offers tall, rounded-arched windows with prominent keystones7 in contrast. Entrance to the building is gained through a pavilion at the center of each face, which include flat-roofed porticos, Corinthian pilasters, and  convex dormers. The building was originally erected with four monumental staircases, though today only one remains at its eastern facade that shows off to US-41. Aside from its proud display of entryless porticoes, the loss is minimal. Overall, the effect of the building is similar to its larger cousin further down 41 in Evansville. Or, it would be, if it wasn’t for that great, gilded dome! 

The cupola above the dome just barely hits the 200′ tall mark.

The dome, along with a small cupola perched above it, caps a three-tiered, octagonal tower that rises from the top of the building’s center, giving it much of its two hundred feet of height. We started this post talking about the height of the courthouse, and we’re going to finish it that way! Here’s what it’s like, along with how to get to the top. 

if you choose to ascend the tower, you’ll start in the raised basement underneath the rotunda, where some murals depicting the county’s history greet you. Next you’ll go to what’s now the second floor, where you can see the antique clock that kept time in the clock tower up until 2011. Proceed up some marble stairs and you’ll be at the courthouse’s third floor, which has a great view of the rotunda, above and below. It’s a step up from the third floor to a back hallway towards a bare, metal stairway to reach the first part of the tower, where you’ll get a good look of the stained glass daisy that caps the dome from above. If you’re following along from an exterior photo, we’re now at the lowest part of the tower, the segment with the triple-arched windows. Inside is unfinished brick, and most of the bricks have names and dates carved into them. Don’t look down, by the way- most of what you’re walking on here is just wooden slats. Until you get to the next metal stair, at least.

The bell is located behind that rectangular, blue window just above the courthouse’s main entrance.

“BY HIS WILL $500. OF THE COST OF THIS BELL WERE PRESENTED BY FRANCIS VIGO, VIGO COUNTY IND. A.D. 1887.” You’ll see the bell that Vigo bequeathed with that embossing after his death in 1836 if you go keep climbing up the curving stair. It’s interesting to note that the bell never swings; it’s struck by a swinging hammer, the original. It was designed that way.

One more ladder will take you to the clock faces. Until only nine years ago, someone had to climb up all those stairs to come up here when the clock fell back! Here, the rounded nature of the dome really shows its presence, and the stairwell up to the cupola above begins to look more like a ladder. At the top, you’ll see a trap door marked “Dome Sweet Dome8.” Climb out and feast your eyes on Terre Haute from 200 feet. You will get blown away, along with blown around. It’s windy up there! 

The height of the Vigo County Courthouse is impressive even through a grouping of trees. Despite being built nearly eighty years earlier, it still dwarves the city’s next tallest buildings, ISU’s Rhoads and Mills Halls, along with Terre Haute proper’s Sycamore Building, sixty feet below the cupola here.

I wouldn’t have a problem climbing up top, but getting down would be another story: I once walked a short rail trestle in flip flops and nearly soiled myself. Whew- I haven’t even been on this tour and I’m exhausted describing it! I’m good with heights if I’m locked in a roller coaster or airplane, but once the onus is on me not to be a dumbass and trip- forget it. If you want the nitty gritty, be sure to visit “The Haute” on YouTube, where you will be taken on the same tour I described, but via high resolution video. I strongly recommend its uncommonly in-depth description of one of our best Indiana courthouses.

Terre Haute is lucky to have one of five historic courthouses in the state that clear two-hundred feet, and I’m glad that we have a video that shows it in great shape from stem to stern. Though we’re running out of courthouses to talk about here, I’m hoping to eventually set up some articles and videos of a similar nature. We’ll see, but until then- let’s enjoy the Vigo County Courthouse as a true gem in the capital of the Wabash Valley. 

Vigo  County (pop. 108,291, 17/92)
Terre Haute (pop. 61,025)
56/92 photographed
Built: 1888
Cost: $500,000 ($13.3 million in 2016)
Architect: Samuel Hartford
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 200 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 3/13/16

1 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. Indianapolis. 1898. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 1/5/19.
2 Enyart, David. “Vigo County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/5/20.
3 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 1/5/20.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Vigo County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/5/20.
5 The Road from Detroit to the Illinois 1774. In Michigan Pioneer and History Collections, V10 p. 248. Archived March 21, 2008. Web. Retrieved 1/5/19.
6 Stephen C. Gordon and Elisabeth H. Tuttle (11 December 1978). “National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Samuel Hannaford & Sons Thematic Resources in Hamilton County”. National Park Service.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Downtown Terre Haute Multiple Resource Area, Terre Haute, Vigo County, Indiana, National Register # 83000160.
8 “THE VIGO COUNTY COURTHOUSE”. The Haute. YouTube. January 2, 2018. Web. Retrieved 1/5/20.

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