Washington County- Salem (1888)

The 1888 Washington County Courthouse in Salem.

You may not be fully aware, but the 21st century is an exciting time for Indiana’s historic courthouses. More and more county seats across the state are rediscovering the value in restoring their landmark governmental buildings, and doing so in an architecturally-sympathetic manner is a growing trend across the country. However, for two years it looked like one notable entry in the our portfolio of historic courthouses might not get that chance.

Although at least six historic courthouses across Indiana lost their clock towers in the 20th century, contemporary efforts have reintroduced three. Jefferson County’s returned after a 2009 fire gutted the building1, and Randolph County’s was restored in 2011 as part of a massive renovation project. In Crawfordsville, the Montgomery County Courthouse received a replacement clock tower during May, 2018. In contrast, the Washington County Courthouse in Salem already lost its clock tower once, but it almost lost it again.

Recessed porches are often found in Richardson Romanesque buildings.

Originally built in 1888, the structure is truly unique among its peers in Indiana. As far as design goes, Romanesque Revival buildings are fairly common across the state. 14 out of 92 courthouses, or fifteen percent, were built in the monumental style that used medieval themes to imply a sense of permanence and weight through heavy masonry, polygonal towers, and rounded arches. Naturally, many of the courthouses in this architectural mode look similar to one another, but Salem’s really stands out. As Indiana’s first Romanesque Revival courthouse, Washington County’s was a local effort, built from limestone quarried a mile out of town2. It stands two stories above a raised basement and features windows that bring light to the attic level underneath a hipped roof with a deck. One distinctive feature is the main entrance, which is accessed through a projecting, columned porch.

The unique clock tower starts as a square, turns into an octagon, morphs into a cylinder, and ends as a cone.

That’s all good, but the crowning feature of the courthouse, its clock tower, rises a dramatic five stories from the southwest corner of the building in a succession of shapes almost like a limestone wedding cake. The tower’s square third story is topped by an octagonal fourth story that features four six-foot-wide clock faces. The fifth story is a cylinder, which itself is capped by a conical roof. This distinctive arrangement epitomizes how exceptional this one is, and it represents a radical departure from the prolific McDonald Brothers’ other courthouses, such as their Gibson County Courthouse in Princeton, or the Decatur County Courthouse in Greensburg that they extensively remodeled.

Unfortunately, it’s precisely that unique clock tower that was causing all of the building’s problems. More accurately, shoddy repairs from a lightning strike that set the clock tower on fire are the real issue: a severe electrical storm on the night of July 12, 1934 caused a blaze that burnt the tower down to its internal brick, causing $5,000 ($94,000 today) in damages, twice what the courthouse was insured for. It took firefighters three hours to subdue the flames, and although it destroyed their bell, the clocks themselves continued to function as normal throughout the ordeal!3

At bottom left you can see some of the fencing erected to keep the public away from possible injury via a brick to the head.

Yes, the clock legitimately took a licking but kept on ticking. The surrounding tower was fixed, but water trapped in the stone during that process led to its eventual deterioration. Although efforts to repair the structure began as early as 19964, nothing was actually done and, for years, it was extremely unstable and susceptible to as little as a strong gust of wind which could have sent it flying into downtown Salem. Indeed, the portion of the square around and underneath the tower was fenced off when I was there four years ago although county business seemed to be carrying on as usual. In general, courthousery has proven to be a pretty safe hobby, but maybe Washington County was an exception. Unfortunately, this blog doesn’t provide me with insurance for accidental death and dismemberment. But I soldier on. For you!

There was little debate regarding whether the building, described by Washington County historian Jeremy Elliott as “the cherished centerpiece of the county,” and “our beautiful limestone castle5” should be kept whole or not. Unfortunately, it sucks living in the agrarian rust belt, where resources are few and far between and the struggle for funding is real. Washington County is rural, with no major highways and a population of only 27,670. Statistically, the county’s per capita and household incomes are about 29% lower than the United States average, and family income lags about 24% behind as well6. It’s not a shocker to hear, then, that the county’s unemployment rate is much higher than the state’s average, as is the amount of residents living below the poverty line. What’s this mean for the courthouse? Well, when the fifth-largest employer in the county is a single Wal-Mart store7, money’s a little harder to come by for seemingly less urgent projects. In 1888, all it took was a little bit of civic pride for Washington County to secure the funds to construct a brand new monument to the community. Unfortunately, it takes a lot more to do a lot less more than a hundred and thirty years later.

Though the sign says keep right, Salem County officials “did right” by securing funding to save the courthouse’s clock tower. Now its walls stay tight!

In an effort to spur public sentiment, Indiana Landmarks added the courthouse to its annual 10 Most Endangered list in 2016, where it sat for two years. On March 5, 2018, commissioners finally took bids to stabilize the tower and repair the roof and masonry8. Thankfully, a contract was secured that April, when officials designated Arsee Engineers of Fishers, along with RATIO architects from Indianapolis, to develop a list of repairs concentrating around the courthouse’s roof and tower.  The assessment completed, commissioners chose General Restoration Corporation, of Columbus, Ohio, to stabilize the clock tower, repair the roof, and and clean up some remaining masonry issues as part of a $1 million project9. GRC is an expert in the field of exterior restoration and preservation of historic structures, having worked on Indiana’s Allen, Elkhart, Gibson, and Wells county courthouses, along with twenty others around the midwest. The Washington County Courthouse was in good hands. 

Since the floodgates opened up and funding was secured, officials have started to look into what else can be done to preserve the 132-year-old building- it appears as though the million dollars worth of exterior repairs was only the start. RATIO has since completed a study to recommend methods of improving efficient use of the building’s interior space as well10.

My dumb self originally thought that the veteran’s memorial in front of the courthouse was one of those oversized chess boards usually found on a cruise ship or at an amusement park. Oops! At least I didn’t try to move one.

Stories like this, along with recent restorations of structures in Winchester and Winamac show why Indiana hasn’t demolished a historic courthouse in more than forty years. While the continued use of old buildings can be full of challenges, Hoosiers have a great track record of rising up to meet and defeat them. Hopefully this behavior continues well through this century, along with the next. I’ve seen some pretty terrible decapitated courthouses in my studies and travels! I’m glad Washington County’s has remained whole.

Washington County (pop. 28,289, 57/92)
Salem ( pop. 6,238)
79/92 photographed
Built: 1888, clocktower rebuilt in 1934 after fire.
Cost: $74,037 ($1.97 million in 2016)
Architect: H, K, &R McDonald
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Lancaster Square
Height: 100 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 4/3/2016- 79/92

1. “Courthouse sustains heavy fire damage” The Madison Courier [Madison] May 21, 2009. Retrieved from https://madisoncourier.com.
2. National Register of Historic Places, Washington County Courthouse, Salem, Washington County, Indiana, National Register # 80000047.
3 “Bolt Hits Tower of Courthouse” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis] July 12, 1934: 15. Print.
4 “Money, not time, holds man from tower of dreams” The Courier-Journal [Louisville] March 10, 1996: 1B. Print.
5 “ Group tolls bell for ailing courthouse in Salem” The Courier-Journal [Louisville] April 28, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.courierjournal.com.
6 “Washington County, Indiana” American Fact Finder. United States Census Bureau. 2018. Retrieved from https://factfinder.census.gov.
7 “Major Employers for Washington County” Hoosiers By The Numbers. Indiana Department of Workforce Development. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.hoosierdata.in.gov.
8 “Washington County Courthouse Clock Tower – Stabilization, Masonry & Roof Repairs” Indiana Bid Network. North American Procurement Council. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.indianabids.com.
9 “Repairs Scheduled for Washington County Courthouse” Indiana Landmarks [Indianapolis]. April 16, 2018. Web. Retrieved 4/15/19.
10 “Washington County Courthouse” Endangered No More: The places we’ve saved. Indiana Landmarks [Indianapolis]. Web. Retrieved 1/11/20. 

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