We’ve talked about Corydon recently in discussing the old state capitol and courthouse there, but it might be helpful to run over some of the town’s background again for the benefit of those who went to IHOP instead of class that day. Vincennes, a hundred-and-twenty miles northwest of Corydon, was the first territorial capital of Indiana. In fact, you can go there and see one of the three buildings that actually served as the capitol, now known as the “Red House1” (it was green when it was the capitol).
William Henry Harrison, territorial governor and future president, was a pervasive presence in Vincennes politics, and residents of the Indiana Territory wanted to get away from him. To that end, the capital was moved to Corydon, a prominent stop on the road to Vincennes1. It soon became clear that the log cabin they’d chosen to house territorial officials was too small, so the territory rented out space from Harrison County, which had been established back in 1790.
In 1816, Indiana achieved statehood, thanks to a convention held partially under a large elm tree in Corydon, later known commemoratively as the Constitution Elm3. Shortly after, the burgeoning state rented out Corydon’s new courthouse. They used it for nine years until counties further north sprung into existence. The new city of Indianapolis seemed best primed to cater to those settlements in the state’s upper regions, so the capital was moved there in 1825. The abandoned capitol building was, once again, pressed into service as the Harrison County Courthouse, a status it would retain for about a hundred years. Meanwhile, Corydon remained a prominent town amongst those located near the southern end of our state. To provide the government with more space to conduct business, a county office building was erected next to the courthouse in 18484. It lasted until 1882 when a larger version was completed.
Everything kept on keeping on, as they say, until representatives from Indianapolis returned in 1917. Nearly a century after Indiana’s government relocated from their first capitol to Indianapolis, officials decided that it was important to take back their old home, the old statehouse, and maintain it as a historical site. If Harrison County officials objected, it didn’t matter much since documents were drawn up and signed in 1917 that gave them four years to find or build a new home for the courts. In typical fashion, the process took more than a decade, and it’s not really clear where courts were held after 1921 until the new building was finished.
Perhaps courts were held at that Victorian-era office building. That was fine for a while, but the state wanted it gone- it was too close to the stoic old capitol, and too gaudy to boot5. Architects obliged, and the building was deleted. Accordingly, a predicament arose:
Imagine you’re an architect tasked with designing a courthouse. Until now, you’ve only designed a neighborhood theater, a small addition to a church, and a tire and rubber store. But you won the contract, and this could be your big break! There’s just one catch, though: you can’t design a big, ornate courthouse like you wanted to- that simply won’t do. No, you’ve got to preserve the majesty of the previous courthouse, which will be retained to sit in front of your creation as a historic site. Was it mentioned that it was built in 1816? Good. And you were aware that it’s only 40 feet square, right? Great! See you on Monday with the plans!
That’s the situation architects Frank Fowler and Gil Karges found themselves in regarding the design of the new courthouse6. It’s hard enough for modern designers to craft sympathetic additions onto our old courthouses in the modern era, let alone compete with a tiny old fusspot of a capitol! As I said, a quick Google search indicates that they’d only drawn up plans for Evansville’s Rosedale Theater, an addition to the Redeemer Lutheran School, and the city’s Firestone tire and rubber store, now part of the National Register of Historic Places7. Despite their lack of notoriety, though, the duo persisted, and the cornerstone for Harrison County’s new courthouse was laid on February 25, 19288. It compliments the old building nicely.
The building was formally dedicated on Saturday, May 4, 1929 with Posey County Circuit Judge Herdis Clements presiding. I wish we still had people named Herdis roaming our streets! The current courthouse is three stories tall and built mostly of yellow brick. It’s one of the simpler ones in our state in order to reflect the old state capitol, with a primary side that faces south towards its predecessor. Separated into three groups of three bays with two flanking a projecting entrance pavilion, access to the structure is gained through a pair of recessed metal doors that are framed by blank tablets in the stone water table that makes up the courthouse’s first floor.
Above the main entrance, four massive Roman Tuscan columns hold up a portico that supports a large entablature reading “HARRISON COUNTY COURT HOUSE.” It’s topped with a decorative stone cornice and brick parapet that features four pilasters that follow the path of the columns below. Two wings of similar design flank the three story entrance pavillion, though they lack the portico. Two sets of three rectangular windows on each wing are separated by pilasters with simple capitals. Like the central bay, each side is capped by a stone cornice and brick parapet. Overall if you subtracted the portico, the courthouse most reminds me of Elmer Dunlap’s Pike County Courthouse in Petersburg, which completed around the same time.
I’ll take it a step further, though. To me, the building’s brick bulk, contrasting stonework, and fortresslike massing reminds me of the 1976 brutalist White County Courthouse in Monticello if I squint hard enough. Whatever it resembles, and whatever temperature my forehead reads, Fowler and Karges did a remarkable job of creating a building with its own imposing identity that doesn’t manage to take away from the tiny statehouse it supplanted. That’s a remarkable accomplishment!
There’s a lot for a history lover to do and see in Corydon today even more than two hundred years after it was founded. For starters, you can tour the old state capitol once the pandemic ends! The preserved trunk of the Constitution Elm still stands in a temple-like enclosure a few blocks away, and I’m told that souvenir splinters can be purchased at a gift shop. A number of other historic buildings and places still stand, and if you get bored you can always go to Butt Drugs for an old-time Butt Shake9 or soda. There’s free parking in the rear.
Unfortunately, I didn’t go to any of those places, only stopping for what Burger King called an Extra Long Cheeseburger on my way out of town towards English and Paoli. In retrospect I wish I had, and I wish I’d stopped on a day that the old statehouse was open for tours. I’d love to get a closer glimpse of Indiana history as it applied to one of our oldest standing courthouses, and I’d love to spend more time around Harrison County’s 1929 replacement. It’s a unique entry in our state’s portfolio of historic courthouses to be sure.
Harrison County (pop. 39,163, 37/92)
Corydon ( pop. 3,119)
Cost: $250,000 ($3.5 million in 2016)
Architect: Fowler & Karges
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 National Register of Historic Places, Territorial Capitol of Former Indiana Territory, Vincennes, Knox County, Indiana, National Register # 73000021.
2 Barnhart, J.D., & Riker, D.L. eds. (1971). Indiana to 1816: The Colonial Period. The History of Indiana. Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana Historical Society [Indianapolis]. Print.
3 Frederick P. Griffin. The Story of Indiana’s Constitution Elm, Corydon, Indiana, June 1816. [Corydon]. 1974. Print.
4 Griffin, Frederick Porter (December 1972). “National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: Corydon Historic District” (PDF).
5 Karst, F. “Corydon: Indiana’s first capital preserves reminders of state’s origins” Travel. The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. Print. C8.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Harrison County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 5/6/20.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Firestone Tire and Rubber Store, Evansville, Vanderburgh County, Indiana, National Register # 84001702.
8 “Corydon Courthouse Corner Stone Laid” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. February 26, 1928. Print. 4.
9 “Our Story” Butt Drugs [Corydon]. 2020. Web. Retrieved 5/7/20.