I’ve noticed an alarming trend through my posts here: Nearly every time a county features both a modern and a historic courthouse, I’ve posted about the modern one first. I hate it, but I see no reason to change that now, so today we’ll talk about the 1969 Evansville Civic Center Complex, which replaced the city’s historic 1890 courthouse. Mercifully that building still stands, and even though we’re going to talk about it more later, here’s a photo of it to tide you over. It’s damn good.
Evansville is a big city. I know what you’re saying, and no, I’m not some hilljack yokel who’s never seen a skyscraper before (I saw the eighteen-story1 5th & Main building when I was in Evansville that day as a matter of fact). I know Evansville is a speck compared to New York or Chicago. Or Fort Wayne! But to put the city’s size in real perspective let’s repeat an exercise I did for South Bend last September: The United States Geological Survey recognizes 35,000 cities and towns, out of which 19,249 actually have municipal governments. If we arbitrarily remove those communities with fewer than 10,000 residents, we’re down to 4,000 “cities” as recognized by the USGS2. That’s a lot.
Now, Evansville is the third-largest city in Indiana, after Indianapolis and Fort Wayne- good for 241st in the country excluding metro areas. That puts the amount of people living in city limits right in the neighborhood of Lansing, Provo, and Clearwater. Based on that info, Evansville is larger than nearly 94% of the cities in the country. If we go ahead and add back every community that features a municipal government (all 19,249 of them), that percentile jumps to the 98th. It’s a big place. Furthermore, Evansville has fifteen buildings that top a hundred feet tall, making for a respectable skyline. To compare, South Bend has eight, Fort Wayne has 17, and Indianapolis frankly has more than I care to count. My hometown of Muncie, I think, has three.
The Civic Center is not a building that rises more than a hundred feet tall- it’s a mere three stories. But it is a large enough complex to serve the administrative and governmental needs of nearly 180,000 people in Vanderburgh County, so it sprawls across four entire city blocks. Comprised of six buildings if you include the Winfield Denton Federal Building and post office across the street, the campus-like Civic Center man spreads across forty acres and EIGHT city blocks. The largest structure is the limestone City-County Safety and Administrative Building, pictured here, which reminds me of Kettler and Neff halls at IPFW, where I spent my freshman year of college.
Though that period of my life often seems like it was sixty years ago, it was only ten. So let’s go back an actual sixty years: 1960, to be exact. Downtown Evansville was a rough place since several major factories had recently packed their bags and skipped town. Only two years prior, the city was rated low on a national list of recommended factory locations due to its downward trajectory. But rather than bicker about how to right the ship as people might today, officials joined together to form a corporation called Evansville’s Future, Inc., which dedicated itself to injecting a sense of progress back into the community. Many of the corporation’s activities were centered around removing blight from downtown.
In 1961, the city and county governments realized that they were running out of space at their current facilities and that they’d need a new governmental complex in the spirit of those consolidated offices in Marion and Floyd counties. Again, they formed a new corporation called Central Evansville Improvement Corp., which started to acquire land downtown. Notable parcels they bought were the former home of Cooks Brewery, along with the Assumption Catholic Church, which was acquired only after the Vatican approved the sale3.
Meanwhile, the city-county corporation was busy planning its new governmental campus and commissioned local architects Hironimus, Knapp, Given, and Associates to draw up a design. Jeez- if that doesn’t sound like an architecture group founded to paint apocalyptic early-Netherlandish hellscapes then I don’t know what does! But founded in 1958, the company was responsible for the Atlas Van Lines world headquarters, the original configuration of Washington Square Mall, and several other Evansville buildings rather than torturous sets of ears with a blade between them or gigantic, bird-headed monsters feasting on human corpses.
No, the architects came back with “Civic Circle,” a striking set of mid-century structures located in and around the curves of a huge roundabout4. See it here in the first column of the third row. Blueprints were finalized and funding was secured thanks to Indiana senators Vance Hartkey -a former Evansville mayor- and Birch Bayh. Fantus, the company that had rated Evansville as a poor location for prospective factories, returned to update its review to “superior5,” and everything looked to be going to plan as more and more features were added to the complex.
And that’s when reality caught up. In 1964, architects Holabird and Root from Chicago, designers of the Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago City Hall, the Palmer House Hilton, and other landmarks brought in a more modest design for the courthouse- one that satisfied the final project’s sensible funding requirements. Construction commenced, and Evansville’s new Civic Center Complex was completed in the form that we see today. As it looks now, the “Civic Center Complex” sits across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from a plaza separating the newish Ford Center arena and the historic Victory Theatre, both major performance venues for the tri-state area.
I didn’t originally intend to take photos of the Civic Center, and I didn’t learn until later that the building I pictured doesn’t even have any courtrooms- it’s basically the government administration center, while court is conducted in a separate building to the northeast. Oh, well! Google Evansville Civic Center Complex and this is what you’ll find. The courts building is about as nondescript as they come, in direct contrast to the 1890 courthouse that it replaced.
This one’s here, but that the old courthouse still stands and thrives as office space and special events venue6 is truly remarkable! As I said, we’ll talk about it soon. Unfortunately, Evansville’s 1887 Tuscan Revival City Hall did not survive the consolidation like its companion. Abandoned in 1969. the structure was torn down two years later to make way for a parking garage. Can’t win them all I guess, but between Evansville’s phenomenal 1890 courthouse and the intriguing, cantilevered entrance and fountain of the Civic Center that both trip my trigger, Vanderburgh County is certainly trying to.
Vanderburgh County (pop. 181,616, 8/92)
Evansville (pop. 118,930)
Cost: $25 million ($163 million in 2016)
Architect: Holabird and Root
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1“Evansville Buildings” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2000-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/11/20.
2 “How many cities or towns are there in the United States?” Colleen Wren. Quora. February 8, 2018. Web. Retrieved 1/11/20.
3 “Assumption Catholic Church” Historic Evansville. Web. Retrieved 1/11/20.
4 “Civic Circle” Sears Collection. Willard Library Historic Photo Collection. Willard Library. Web. Retrieved 1/11/20.
5 Coures, Kelley. “The Circle That Wasn’t” Evansville Living. Tucker Publishing Group [Evansville]. Web. Retrieved 1/11/20.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Vanderburgh County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/11/20.
7 “City Hall” Historic Evansville. Web. Retrieved 1/11/20.