Elkhart County- Elkhart (1915-1971)


I hate to yammer on about myself, but yesterday was Father’s Day, the ninth I’ve spent without my dad. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but this one has hit me really hard. Here’s a quick cartoon I slapped together in Illustrator of him to commemorate the occasion. His pink sport coat, yellow shirt, and bizarre rainbow diamond tie notoriously appeared in several high school graduation photos of me and my brother.

My parents divorced when I was three. Dad eventually moved to Elkhart for a job with Conn-Selmer, a manufacturer of brass instruments that he played over the years in many bands. As a kid my siblings and I spent every other weekend up at his house. When I was fourteen, after he became achieved a lifelong dream by becoming editor of the Standard Catalog of Firearms and Gun Digest, I lived with him up in Iola, Wisconsin as he edited books from a rented trailer while maintaining a home in Elkhart. 

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Here’s my dad with some friends at 28, a year younger than I am now.

Our relationship was fraught as I graduated and became an adult, but I’ll never forget trips to the family property to hunt for mushrooms, trips around northern Indiana hunting for Mexican restaurants with good tamales, getting cursed in German when he’d outbid a Mennonite on an antique bear trap at a swap meet, and everything else. Dad introduced me to Monty Python, Mad Magazine, and Ting soda. He taught me how to fire a cannon, smoke a pipe, shoot a Tommy gun, and build a giant catapult. What’s more is that he actively cultivated my interest in architecture.

When I was eleven he gave me some graph paper and told me to design a garage addition to his house. He gave my rendering -all measured out- to the contractor who based the final plans off of it. When I moved in with him to start my sophomore year of high school, we went to the lumberyard to buy a an exact amount of wood he’d calculated. The next day he came home with an Bondi Blue Easter egg iMac with an Airport card installed. He told me to use it to learn how to use what we bought to reframe and drywall the interior of a large shed he used for storing duck decoys and his collection of vintage Schwinn bicycles. He was busy editing, he said, but he’d come down and help with the big stuff. He didn’t come down to help the time I drove his lawn tractor through the wall!

My Dad gave me my sense of wanderlust and my tendency to shunpike. On our way to his house, we’d pass courthouses in Auburn, LaGrange, Albion, Columbia City, and Warsaw. Turning the corner into downtown Goshen and seeing the courthouse clock tower lit up at night meant we were close to home. Sometimes dad would volunteer to take us the whole way back to Muncie. We’d pass courthouses in Huntington, Hartford City, Decatur, Bluffton, and Marion- all on routes I wasn’t aware of until I started driving them for this project. In many ways I have him to thank for this blog. 

Dad, whatever you’ve left me is now being applied to this blog. I think you’d approve and I wish you were here to have gone on some of these trips with me. Today’s courthouse is one down the road from where we used to fish at High Dive Park in Elkhart.

The 1915 Elkhart County Superior Courthouse and Municipal Building.

Back to our scheduled programming: A lot of Hoosier cities are home to prominent intersections. Perhaps the most famous is 96th Street and Hague Road just east of I-69, as Indianapolis residents can attest! 

82nd and Bash is another. But history buff that he was, my dad found endless amusement in the intersection of Lincoln and Hitler streets in tiny Kimmel on US-33 between my grandparents’ house in Fort Wayne and his home in Elkhart. But Elkhart -which flourished for much of the 20th century thanks to the musical instrument and RV industries- had its own landmark junction downtown. For about 45 years, the corner of 2nd and High signified the city’s prosperity, along with its promise. 

“The Corner of Education, Justice, and Religion” first took root in 1907, when Andrew Carnegie funded an impressive, neoclassical library at the site’s northwest side1. First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, an ornate structure with a stained glass rotunda that wouldn’t be out of place in one of our state’s finer courthouses, joined the library immediately to the south in 1909. Elkhart High School was added to an existing structure at southwest corner in 1911, and Elkhart’s municipal building, consisting of city offices and the county’s superior court, was built in 1915 to round out the picture. E. Hill Turnock, a local architect originally born in Great Britain, was responsible for designing every building on the corner aside from the library2. 

Elkhart postcard
An old postcard of mine showing the buildings of the intersection- albeit not in the right layout.

Only the addition of an apple pie bakery and a baseball diamond could have made the intersection more quintessentially American. In fact, the only town I know that rivals Elkhart of the early twentieth century is the fictional one depicted on a pink afghan my mom bought more than thirty years ago. But despite the gravitas and symbolism that this part of downtown Elkhart held, it didn’t last: the Presbyterians moved to a modern building on East Beardsley in 1960 and the old church was destroyed. Next up was the library, which moved across the street to the former church site in 19633, the old library demolished after putting in some time as an annex for the high school. That venerable school, having swollen to take up the entire block with various expansions and additions, was finally torn down in 1972 upon the completion of Elkhart Memorial High School northwest of town4. Only the municipal building was left standing. It still does!

As I mentioned, the municipal building held Elkhart County’s superior court from its construction in 1915 until 1971. Before that, superior court was held in a special, fifth-floor chamber in an office building elsewhere downtown5. But what, exactly, is a superior court? Longtime readers know that it must differ from the supreme court, which has tomatoes and sour cream. 

A lawyer friend explained it to me once like this, I think: The superior court once was “superior” to lower circuit courts with limited jurisdiction, but the differentiation has become muddled during the modern era. Today both circuit and superior courts enjoy general jurisdiction across all civil and criminal cases. For most of its life, the Elkhart Municipal Building likely handled local cases that the regular county courthouse in Goshen couldn’t accommodate.

A stone carving of an Elk projects from the building’s entrance arch.

So what about the superior courthouse building itself? Well, like many of Turnock’s designs, the three-story, seven-bay wide structure was constructed from dark brick and features Bedford limestone accents such as its water table, lintels, and parapet. Access is gained from the east side through recessed doors under a limestone entrance arch that projects slightly from the rest of the building. A stone carving of an Elk’s head (not its heart?) juts out from above the arch’s keystone. Head aside, Elkhart is the city with a heart, don’t you know, named after an Elk’s heart- said to be roughly the shape of an island in the river there. I’ve examined the island on Google Maps before, but never flagged it as resembling any sort of  heart. Those mail-order dissection kits my dad played around with as a kid must not be available anymore.

Note the building’s large medallions and massive cornice.

The primary face of the building is separated into three segments, consisting of a triple-bay facades that flank the building’s central portion. The first two floors of each side bay feature rectangular, one-over-one windows, while the windows of the third story feature shallow arches and are connected via a limestone belt course with centered stone medallions. Another belt course spans the width of the building near its peak, and a large, projecting cornice with heavy medallions caps the building below its narrow parapet. Of every courthouse I’ve been to, this one has the greatest flagpole-to-building height ratio. It’s huge, and flags were at half-staff that day to honor the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. 

The facade of part of the old Elkhart High School vocational annex was preserved and incorporated into a later superior courthouse.

The courtroom takes up most of the building’s third floor, and it features a stained glass skylight6. But it hasn’t served the county since 1971, when a brutalist replacement was built on the site of the old high school. The less said about that building the better, but a 1994 addition made it look more palatable from some angles, and even incorporated a portion of the facade of the old school as part of an annex. Another treat for the historically-minded -as well as a reminder of what this corner once meant to Elkhart- is the small monument to the old Elkhart High School located right at the corner. Other historical markers and interpretive signs stand at various points around the intersection. For a city that demolished three-quarters of its most notable intersection, Elkhart sure does value its history! 

This memorial marks part of the site of the former Elkhart High School. The 1971 courthouse is behind it.

I can’t say that I blame local officials for doing it. Like many industrial communities across the state, Elkhart’s economy ramped back up to pre-war levels by the 1950s and 60s. What we now think of as old buildings hadn’t yet gained the patina that history later provided- they were just elderly crap! And if you don’t believe me, look at what replaced them in Elkhart, or Anderson, or Muncie, Marion, New Albany, Kokomo, or any number of communities looking for a way to grab onto part of the jet age with a modernistic downtown. Even the ugly-ass 1971 Superior Courthouse was at the forefront of construction at one point, representative of the “systems analysis” mode of design and consisting of modular, prefabricated subsystems as found in several Indiana high schools7. Its sometimes easy to forget the context of a building or an intersection, even if that context is subsequent to generational change. 

Elkhart Elkhart 4
Theankfully, the courthouse is still in use as the Elkhart City Hall today.

Even though it no longer functions as a courthouse, the continued use of the Elkhart Municipal Building for city offices represents not only the context of when it was finished in 1915, but also the conditions of a community that values historic preservation today. Though it now gazes across 2nd Street at an empty parking lot instead of an sumptuous Carnegie library, its gaze is indifferent- it’s only a building, after all. Thankfully, residents weren’t indifferent in keeping it standing while its surroundings gradually left the scene.

Today, the intersection retains its title as “The Corner of Education and Justice,” if not religion; based on the city hall, the newer superior courthouse, and the library. But two out of three ain’t bad, and there are other great old churches to be found in the area. In its Municipal Building, Elkhart has a structure that deserves continued pride, particularly when compared to its successor. Thankfully, it seems like the city agrees! 

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I think my dad would agree too. Happy Father’s Day!

Elkhart County (pop. 197,559, 6/92)
Elkhart (pop. 52,558)
Built: 1915
Cost: ?
Architect: E. Hill Tornock.
Style: Georgian Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: City offices
Photographed: 2/18/18

1 Indiana Carnegie Libraries. Hoosier Indiana. Web. Retrieved 5/4/2020.
2 “One architect, three cities: How one man built Elkhart County” January 25, 2017. WSBT22. Sinclair Broadcast Group [South Bend]. Web. Retrieved 5/4/2020.
3 “The home for information: A History of 115 years and counting” Elkhart Public Library. 2020. Web.Retrieved 5/5/20.
4 Konrath, R. (2013, June 13). Re: The Old SCHOOL. [Facebook comment]. Web. Retrieved May 5, 2020.
5 Enyart, David. “Elkhart County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 5/5/20.
6 The Municipal Building”. KIL Architecture Planning. South Bend. Web. Retrieved 5/5/20.
7 Poice, J. “A Case Study In Systems Building”. Stanford University Planning Lab [California]. 1970. Print.

One thought on “Elkhart County- Elkhart (1915-1971)

  1. I would suspect that with all of the industry in Elkhart, a second location for courts and some other government office would have been a no-brainer. I would suspect that Elkhart had a larger population for much of that era, so certainly the political muscle too. BTW, in addition to the industries you cite, Elkhart was an auto manufacturing city (with the appropriately named Elcar) until the Depression spelled the end of the company.

    Thanks for rekindling some good memories of your father.


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