As far as courthouses go, the 1970s represented a decade of debauchery for officials in Lake County: They were just plain nutty about them! First came a new superior courthouse for Hammond in 1972 that replaced an elderly 1903 structure. 1974 saw the venerable courthouse in Crown Point overtaken by a sprawling administrative complex northwest of town, and 1979 brought a new superior courthouse for East Chicago. Combined with the 1929 superior court building in Gary, that makes four! Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a judicial clerk discovered a partially-formed, embryonic fifth courthouse with a single, misshapen law book growing within the basement of one or two of them.
Most counties are happy with a single courthouse, but Lake County’s unique: Outside of Indianapolis/Marion County, it’s Indiana’s largest and most densely populated. What’s more is that seven distinct cities call the place home, as do twelve incorporated towns and three Census-designated-places. Combined, those communities represent eighty-six percent of Lake County’s inhabitants. It’s hard to find a rural stretch of land there, much less a stalk of corn! All those people in distinct municipalities means that justice can probably be best served from a variety of locations centered around where they live, which tends to be the northern part of the county. That’s why multiple courthouses make sense.
It wasn’t always like that, though. A 1977 study by consultants from Chicago’s Public Administration Service determined that, though one had been planned, a new courthouse in East Chicago wasn’t necessary, and neither were the ones that had already been built in Hammond or Gary. The load of civil cases had declined by 17% for Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago, while it’d seen a 42% increase for the lone civil courtroom at Crown Point, the county seat eighteen miles to the south. Rather than waste money on an unnecessary new courthouse, the consultants recommended that the project be scrapped, the new courthouse in Hammond closed, and the building in Gary be repurposed to hold juvenile courts1 only.
Perhaps they were too busy basking in the glory of their other, expensive new courthouses by swimming in uncut Peruvian street spice and partying like savages2 to read the report, but the Lake County Commissioners disagreed with its conclusions. That November, they opened up bids3 for the new building anyway. Oh well. What’s that quote about consultants? Someone who takes the watch from your wrist and then tells you the time? Harumph!
Despite its undertaking, the project to build a new courthouse in East Chicago proved controversial, just as the process of building its contemporary in Hammond had4. Articles in the local news cited the sparse facilities of the projected structure -a single courtroom and jury room, a law library, probation office, and sheriff’s office, as being too little of an improvement for its price, even despite the new courthouse’s star billing as an anchor for a facelift of East Chicago’s Indiana Harbor district that would hopefully include stores, legal offices, and a theater5. It didn’t help that the mayor of East Chicago -a huge advocate of the project- was also the chairman of the county’s Democratic party, and that County Commissioner Spann -from East Chicag,- had purportedly been elected as the Democratic mayor’s “man” on the council6.
Nevertheless, Lake County shoved the project through and county employees moved into the building on March 26, 1979 even though its concrete sidewalks had yet to be poured. For employees and those tasked with doing business there, the new courthouse represented a huge, functional upgrade over its predecessor- rented quarters within a 1941 union hall that’s since been demolished. Similarly to the initial plan, the new courthouse consisted of two floors, a partial basement, and a mechanical penthouse. The first floor featured offices for the county clerk, sheriff, commissioner, and building manager, along with a lounge area that provided a view of a courtyard. The building’s second story consisted of a lone courtroom, law library, conference room, jury room, reporter’s room, probate room, and judge’s chambers. That’s a lot to cram into 16,000 feet of space! Though mostly constructed of steel, glass, aluminum, and iron spot brick, the courthouse featured canary yellow accents on its rails and stairs, leading its main architect to describe it as “kind of atypical for an institutional building in this area7.” I would have to agree.
In 2010, the courthouse was officially renamed the Judge Lorenzo Arredondo Justice Center after the longest-serving elected Latino state trial court judge in the United States. Arredondo presided over the Lake County Court from 1977 to 1980, before transitioning to the county’s superior court, judge of which he served as from 1981 to 2011. Now retired from judicial duty, he currently serves as the Lake County Clerk.
That Arredondo continued to serve his county after more than forty years of service parallels the building that was named after him, and Lake County’s ‘modern’ superior courthouses are coming up on even their fifty-year anniversaries. Though I first ignored them during my initial trip to Lake County, my arbitrary guidelines have changed to include the buildings as part of this project, along with some other contemporaries. Fifty years is old for a working building- old enough to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in fact.
Never having been there but aware of the general sentiment towards Lake County, I was surprised to see East Chicago’s North Harbor downtown district totally packed with people even despite a state-mandated quarantine they day I went there. Wide sidewalks, new pavement, decorative lampposts, and fresh construction indicated a reborn, populated downtown- in stark contrast to much of the rest of northern Lake County. Even a derelict building next to the courthouse that still shows up on Google Maps was recently razed! I don’t know if the courthouse deserves the thanks for kicking off the revitalization of downtown East Chicago, but the presence of a courthouse there sure doesn’t hurt, at least not on the first day of early voting.
Actually, it goes beyond sure not hurting. It’s indisputable that a courthouse, no matter the size or age, brings people downtown. So good on Lake County for sticking with it, even after another study in 2017 suggested that the county’s satellite courthouses be eliminated. Thankfully, officials again disagreed with a study, with Commissioner Mike Repay from Hammond even saying the extra courthouses “hold value far and above the specific function of whatever goes on in the building8.”I’d have to agree.
Redundant superior courthouses might not often get their day in the sun, but it’s about time we celebrate them, particularly since ones that look like East Chicago’s are no longer being constructed. Despite new urbanist trends, I think it’s important to acknowledge this modern spate of structures for what it is- certainly not the pinnacle of architectural exuberance, but representative of functional buildings that we can be sure will last over decades of use- and contribute to vibrant city centers. Cocaine-fueled rocket ride of hubristic courthouse expansion from the 70’s or not, Lake County seems to need these extra facilities in order to conduct business. Residents of the community here are better off for it.
Lake County (pop.491,456, 2/92)
East Chicago (pop. 27,930)
Cost: $1,070,000 ($3.5 million in 2016)
Architect: Wendell Campbell Associates, Inc.
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Some government offices and courts
1 “Consultants Against New E.C. Courthouse’ The Times [Munster]. Nov 29 1977. Page 15. Print.
2 “We’re Going To Enjoy This Cocaine-Fueled Mason Jar Rocket Ride For As Long As It Lasts” The Onion [Chicago]. 8/26/14. Web. Retrieved 5/21/20.
3 “Bids opened” The Times [Munster]. Nov 1, 1977. Page 15. Print.
4 “County Ponders ‘Mystery’ Ruling” The Times [Munster]. June 25, 1968. Page 1. Print.
5 “Courthouse Bids Due” The Times. September 28, 1977.
6 “No way to economize” The Times [Munster]. October 24, 1977. Page 10. Print.
7 “E.C. Workers Move” The Times [Munster]. March 27, 1979. Page 3.Print.
8 “Satellite court study rejected” The Times [Munster]. April 20, 2017. Page A1. Print.