Most counties in Indiana are quite content with one courthouse. Not Lake County! The county closest to Chicago -Indiana’s second largest by size and population density- has a whopping four. Most county courts and offices are held within a sprawling complex northeast of Crown Point that replaced that town’s historic 1878 courthouse, which we’ve talked about before. Beyond that, Gary is home to the historic Justice Robert D. Rucker Superior Courthouse, built in 1929 along with a matching city hall. East Chicago has a courthouse, the Judge Lorenzo Arredondo Justice Center, which replaced rented space in a union hall1.
The postcard above depicts The 1903 Lake County Superior Courthouse in Hammond, a Richardson Romanesque structure designed by Joseph T. Hutton and completed in 1903. Hutton, originally from Canada, was a noted architect in the Calumet area2, but he’s best known to us here as designing the Boone and Newton County courthouses in Lebanon and Kentland, along with Gary’s. To my eye, his courthouse in Hammond looks to be a fine building, on par with majestic courthouses of the same style in LaPorte and Greenfield. Unfortunately, as is often the case, there’s more than what meets the eye. As early as the 1950s, county officials began to look askance at it.
In 1968, John Kilarski -chair of the Lake County Tax Adjustment Board- called the building “a disgrace to the city of Hammond,” saying that remodeling the old building would be “as silly as remodeling a secondhand chicken coop3.” It seems that by the following year the condition of the building’s stairs and ceilings were its main problem, but county officials had their hands tied, thanks to a lengthy back-and-forth between city chambers of commerce that didn’t want equally-distributed funds to wind up in Hammond alone, the county council which refused to fund a replacement building4, and county commissioners who couldn’t replace or renovate the old courthouse without any money. “We’ve been criticized for not making extensive repairs to the building in the last two years,” said commissioner Stanley Olszewski, “but those criticisms are unfounded. Why would we waste thousands of dollars in repairs to a building that we thought would be torn down sometime this year5?”
“Conditions needing repaired are not the result of negligent maintenance,” the commissioner asserted. “They are the conditions of wearing out, necessitating complete replacement. The building has become inadequate. There’s just not enough space. Painting and patching up can be done without too much trouble but that won’t solve the basic problem.”
The newspaper was more blunt in its assessment of the 65-year-old structure, calling it “tired, stolid, [and] cave-like,” a “dirt-encrusted, tumbledown seat” of government featuring “decay as unstoppable as rust in modern cars.” The Times concluded that, from above, the courthouse resembled San Antonio’s Alamo, “a chunky fortification designed to repel foes. Its foes are indeed repelled and are launching an attack on it6.” Yikes!
Public sentiment had reached its peak and it was clear that something had to be done. After several attempts at locating and funding a proper site for a replacement building7, a design was submitted in September of 1970 by Jerry Moss of L. Cosby Bernard architects. Though a series of delays initially impeded the project, ground was broken on February 19, 1971. The new Lake County Superior Courthouse in Hammond was completed the following year at a cost of $1.08 million. Whereas “in the days before the move to the new Hammond Courthouse officials and employees lived in peril from falling plaster,” said The Times, “new offices are spacious and comfortable8.”
Must have been some comfortable offices indeed for officials to take pride in schlepping to a squat, two-story building with vertically-ridged walls of precast concrete every day! The building represents a dramatic architectural departure from its predecessor, though, if we’re talking fortress-like, it certainly takes the cake. Entrance is gained from the northwest corner via dual stairways or ramps into a glass-paneled atrium that leads to offices of the township assessor, county clerk, and county commissioner on the first floor. The building’s second story holds two courtrooms, a law library, judge’s offices, jury rooms, and offices for a court reporter and probate commissioner. Aside from its atrium, the only natural light permitted into the building is via six slit windows on the courthouse’s eastern side.
Positioned just outside the building’s main entrance, the previous courthouse bell serves as an interesting callback to and contrast from the current courthouse. Unfortunately, the old courthouse -an icon of Hammond for more than sixty years- was unceremoniously demolished in 1973 and is now the site of a parking lot. It’s an attractive spot as far as parking lots go, with trees, a decorative railing, and contrasting concrete, brick, and asphalt. Of course, I’d prefer to see a courthouse there, but I guess sometimes a building’s time has simply come. Here in Muncie, I’m more than familiar with the concept.
A 1977 study done by the Public Administration Service of Chicago determined that, rather than build a new superior courthouse in East Chicago, the county should retract its judicial presence by closing down the courthouse in Hammond, repurposing Gary’s into a juvenile court, and moving the rest of everything else to Crown Point9. It’s not just for the sake of Gary’s old courthouse that am I glad things didn’t happen that way. Although it’s hard to keep track of while you’re driving around, Lake County is home to seven incorporated cities, twelve official towns, and three Census-designated places, not to mention nineteen unincorporated communities. Nearly half a million people live there! As means of comparison, Delaware County -where I’m from- has one incorporated city, seven towns, and twenty-one unincorporated communities each with a population of less than 200 souls. We have one courthouse.
So, yes: Lake County almost downsized its courthouse count if the authors of a 2017 study suggesting that the county’s satellite courthouses should be eliminated were believed. Thankfully, officials – adept at cavalierly avoiding recent studies, which we’ll discuss again later- disagreed, with Commissioner Mike Repay from Hammond saying the extra courthouses “hold value far and above the specific function of whatever goes on in the building10.”
I like the way that guy thinks!
I know that every city and town can’t have its own courthouse, but I’m glad that the three extra in Lake County exist to serve their communities and carve out some independent identity from the sprawl, even if they’re modern in design. As for including them in this space, though? I hemmed and hawed for years, skipping them during my first pass into Lake County. But the three modern courthouses in Lake County are knocking on the door of the fifty year mark, the age that they can be considered for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. I doubt that anyone will bother for the time being, but if a building’s old enough for the National Park Service, it’s old enough for me. And, truthfully? Whether we’re talking about the 1903 courthouse or its 1972 replacement, one thing’s for sure: They sure don’t build them like this anymore.
Lake County (pop.491,456, 2/92)
Hammond (pop. 80,830)
Cost: $1,080,000 ($6.2 million in 2016)
Architect: J.T. Hutton
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Some government offices and courts
1 “E.C. Workers Move” The Times [Munster]. March 27, 1979. Page 3. Print.
2 Howat, Dr. W.F. “A Standard History of Lake County and the Calumet Region” Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. 1915. Print.
3 ”E.C., Gary Chambers Rap Courthouse Fund” The Times [Munster]. Sept 20, 1968. Page 17. Print.
4 “County Ponders ‘Mystery’ Ruling” The Times [Munster]. June 25, 1968. Page 1. Print.
5 “Hammond Courthouse ‘Critical’ Needs Asked” The Times [Munster]. April 22, 1969. Page 13. Print.
6 “A Sagging Courthouse Surveys its Destiny” The Times [Munster]. July 28, 1968. Page 23. Print.
7 “Hammond Court Design Weighted” The Times Munster]. September 8, 1970. Page 2. Print.
8 “Welcome Change” The Times [Hammond]. June 25, 1972. Page 21. Print.
9 “Consultants Against New E.C. Courthouse’ The Times [Munster]. Nov 29 1977. Page 15. Print.
10 “Satellite court study rejected” The Times [Munster]. April 20, 2017. Page A1. Print.