When I first started my courthouse project in 2011, I worked in a 600+ person call center in Muncie. It sucked. After quitting to go back to school, I found my stride during four years in corporate marketing for brands I really grew to love. After a layoff and a few more disparate stops, I found myself working at the call center again, though it had swelled to 800 people in the interim and had a new name. I hated it!
The place sucked so much that one of the more positive things I realized during my tenure was that people die, particularly those who you aren’t close with. It sounds bad, but I know of three or four people there who perished during my tenure, folks who I’d never interacted with more than an occasional head nod in the hallway.
I didn’t go to any of their funerals. I had no business being at any calling or funeral for people I’d only occasionally nodded towards- I wasn’t a treasured member of any of my deceased colleagues’ inner circle, so I stayed home. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to contemplate the minor part you might experience of a major event, even if it’s just a major event for one person or family. Call it the Forrest Gump effect.
We all remember where we were on important dates like when the space shuttle Challenger exploded or on 9/11. I was taking a spelling test on 9/11 in fifth grade, and I was at work on a Saturday afternoon at the call center on February 11, 2017, blowing up the phone of a delinquent student loan borrower with a large balance when the woman who answered on the other end of the line screamed, “Oh my God!” and slammed on the brakes. I could hear them screech. When I got home I read that someone, later identified as a 23-year-old from the small town of DeMotte, had jumped from a moving van in the opposite lane, hurt himself, then crawled across the cable barrier into the median and across the southbound lanes of I-651 where he was struck by the person in front of the woman I had on my phone. She was in shock after the guy got pummeled by a van, and I couldn’t bring myself to ask whether she’d like to pay her delinquent balance via debit, credit, or check. A few weeks later the call was reviewed and I was reprimanded for not asking for a payment. That’s one of the reasons I hated the place!
About a year prior, my trip up to the region for this project started innocently enough on US-31 from Kokomo to South Bend. I took got photos of every courthouse from there to Crown Point and finally started my descent back to civilization down I-65 when the radio informed me that there’d been an accident and traffic was backed up substantially. No matter! I’d simply get off the interstate at the exit for Fair Oaks Farms on my way to Rensselaer and make do with IN-14 and US-231 for the last courthouse of my day. Only later did I realize that it was the bus carrying the Griffith High School basketball team and staff that had overturned, injuring twenty people who were all taken to the hospital. Here I was, mildly inconvenienced and annoyed while those kids and their faculty were sent off to the emergency room with life-threatening injuries. It turns out that the driver of a Kia sedan spilled her drink and tried to grab it, sideswiping the bus in the right lane, which responded by going off-road and rolling over2. Unreal, and emergent (the definition of emergency), as I had just secured my own fountain pop and was backed up a few miles past it. Hearing about the event really put my project into perspective.
I rolled into Rensselaer tired after having been to eight courthouses that day. I was pooped, though grateful that I hadn’t been in a bus that had rolled over. The seat of Jasper County was my last stop before I headed home to Muncie, and thankfully, the courthouse there didn’t disappoint. The current building, constructed in 1898, is a great example of Richardson Romanesque architecture combined with some neoclassical elements. The Richardson Romanesque mode implies permanence through its heavy massing, and though I feel stupid saying it, that suggestion of durability was something I needed after the day’s events. It’s predecessors have some interesting histories as well.
I must admit that I don’t really care about the 1839 courthouse, or its frame successor that lasted from 1845 to 1856. That story of the 1856 courthouse, though- a brick building designed by Benjamin Hinkle for $10,000, is really compelling! Measuring 70 x 40 feet3, it suffered a major fire in 1865, Conflagrations were pretty common in our old courthouses, but this one was notable: A shady lawyer by the name of Cicero Atman stole from his business partner, General Robert Milroy4. What’s worse is that Atman plundered the funds while Milroy was out serving in the Civil War! Soon, the courthouse burned, and Milroy wrote in his diary, “I ordered him to turn over my papers, books, etc…He reluctantly and slowly did so but burned the courthouse and my papers to avoid detection of his villainy5.”
So the old place was torched, along with Milroy’s records, but it was rebuilt in 1865 by J.A. Silver. That structure lasted until the mid-1890s when the county outgrew it. Initially, Alfred Grindle, an English-born architect who later designed the Glossbrenner Mansion in Indianapolis, was brought on to chair the gig for $156,000, but he added Charles Weatherhogg- also born in England and part of Wing & Mahurin’s team of architects, to help him finish it up. Most of the courthouse was designed by Weatherhogg, who also was responsible for Fort Wayne’s North Side High School, the Journal-Gazette Building, Central High School, the original Byron Tuberculosis Sanitarium, and Fairfield Manor6, now apartments.
You simply must go to Fort Wayne, haha, not only to check out Weatherhogg’s portfolio of extant buildings but also to have three and a coke at Coney Island. But back in Rensselaer, the courthouse cornerstone was laid on November 12, 1896, and the team’s fireproof structure turned out to be a masterpiece. French-inspired, the courthouse is a combination of Chateau and Gothic influence, though it slots firmly into a Richardson Romanesque field like its contemporaries in Fulton, Rush, and Pulaski counties.
Standing on a solid rock foundation, the four-story building contains 348,000 square feet aside from the basement and clock tower7. Above that basement, the walls were constructed from rock-faced Bedford limestone and feature a combination of architectural elements that run the gamut of influences such as Tudor arches, a complicated hipped roof, and a gothic bell tower. The corners of the building are made up of narrow turrets without any windows, while secondary entrances on the building’s east and west sides are framed by smaller arches along with clustered columns. The clock tower itself, rising 120 feet above the ground, features three levels containing a spiral stair. The first has windows, the second floor contains the clock, and third level -the one with louvers- features the bell. The bell level features a steep, peaked roof, which is capped by a tall lightning rod. In 1996, painters restored the building’s original stencils, gulding, and color scheme. As part of the proceeds, Steve Diedam restored stencils that his grandpa Herman likely originally painted8.
The next-tallest building around Rensselaer’s courthouse square measures three stories, or about 42 feet tall. Nothing else in the area compares to the building’s height until you get south of town and drive past the chapel at the shuttered St. Joseph’s College campus. Nonetheless, the courthouse -truly a beacon for those who insist on taking IN-231 from Kentucky to St. John- is hard to miss as a representative example of a transitory period between the Richardson Romanesque mode and the more squared-off stylings of neoclassicism, which started to come in only a few years after its construction. Though my trip there involved some real problems and tragedies along I-65, I think yours will avoid any. I’m just thankful that those basketball players all managed to emerge safely from that overturned bus, and that the borrower on my phone managed to stay away from hitting a crazy person. At the end of the day, all I’m doing is taking photos of courthouses- no tournaments, scholarships, or livelihoods rely on this project. I’ve driven more than 8,200 miles doing so, all without an accident, and I’m very grateful for that. But I’m more grateful for Rensselaer’s courthouse, which has remained a permanent anchor for the community for more than a century. We can all do with reminders of things that have existed -and will- long before and after we’re on this planet.
Jasper County (pop. 33,389, 48/92)
Rensselaer (pop. 5,885)
Cost: $156,000 ($4.48 million in 2016)
Architect: Grindle & Weatherhogg
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 120 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
1 “DeMotte man crawling across I-65 dies after being hit by traffic” The Associated Press. Chicago Tribune [Chicago]. February 11, 2017. Web. Retrieved 1/6/19.
2 Osipoff, Michael. “Griffith High School bus overturns on I-65; passengers injured” The Chicago Tribune [Chicago]. March 19, 2016. Web. Retrieved 1/6/19.
3 Enyart, David. “Jasper County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/6/20.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Jasper County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/6/20.
5 Beulah M. Arnott, et al. The Jasper County Courthouse. (Crown Point, IN: L.E. Landy & Sons, 1996), p.
6 “C. R. WEATHERHOGG DIED SUDDENLY” (Obituary) The News-Journal, October 18, 1937 (North Manchester Historical Society). Print.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Jasper County Courthouse, Rensselaer, Jasper County, Indiana, National Register # 83000126.
8 Kevin Cullen. “Hidden Hues of History.” Lafayette Journal & Courier, 23 May 1996, Sec. A, p.1.