Vincennes is old- it’s 1732-French-fur-traders old1! Only four years later, its founder, Francoius Marie Bissot, Sier de Vincennes, was captured during in the French war against the Chickasaw nation and burned at the stake near Fulton, Mississippi. His trading post on the Wabash was renamed to honor him2. In 1763, Vincennes -as part of New France- was given to the British Empire at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. The remote battlement there was renamed Fort Sackville, and everything was good. That is, until residents heard about a French alliance with the burgeoning American Second Continental Congress in 1778 and rallied to support the Americans.
You may have heard of George Rogers Clark, a lieutenant colonel in the American Revolutionary War who created a plan to capture French fortresses. Or maybe you haven’t! Anyway, Italian trader Francis Vigo, after whom Vigo County was later named, found him assisted in planning a shocking, surprise attack on Fort Vincennes during the winter of 1779. The town and fort were taken without any loss of life, but as time marched on, some political instability inevitably occurred. Despite the odds, by the 1790s Vincennes was a safe, even thriving, community3. In 1805 it was made capital of the Indiana Territory, probably due in large part to the influence of governor and future president William
Woody Henry Harrelson Harrison, who lived there.
Today you can actually go to Vincennes and see one of the first territorial capitol buildings. It was never owned by Indiana, interestingly, but actually started its life as a rented saloon. The two-story structure features lumber siding from a tulip tree, and -aside from a large beam installed in the first-floor ceiling in 1933 to hold up the second story- remains pretty close to how it originally appeared during the early days of the Indiana Territory. It’s been moved several times, though, and painted. Originally, the 1805 building sat at what’s now 217 Main Street. It was moved to 911 N. 3rd Street at some point, then moved to Harrison Park in 1919. Finally, the building reached its present home in 1949. Along with having its exterior stair reconstructed, it was painted red over its original white with green shutters4. Today the building is known as the Red House. It is extremely red. Really. It’s compellingly, disconcertingly, red.
Indiana became a state in 1816, and the government, hoping to rid itself of William Henry Harrison and find a more centralized location, moved to Corydon about a hundred and twenty miles southeast. Though it lost its status as capital, there were still locals to be governed! Knox County’s first courthouse, probably built sometime in the 1790s, was at the north corner of Second and Broadway streets and was later used as a hospital for soldiers5.
That building was torn down in 1863 after it’d been replaced by a new courthouse at the west corner of Fourth and Buntin, designed by John Moore and measuring 45×65 feet6. That one’s no longer there either- the American Legion now owns a house on that site that was erected around 1850. Information about the earliest courthouses in Knox County is a bit hazy, but eventually, the public began clamoring for a new one. It was built in 1876 and that’s what we see today at the western corner of 8th Street and Broadway.
Architecturally, the building is unique- it tends to be described as “Norman” in style7, due to the fact that three of its towers that are said to resemble those at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C. I’m not sure if we’ve encountered Norman architecture here before, but it’s a subset of the Romanesque mode commonly found in English buildings. Hallmarks of the style include rounded arches like those found within the courthouse’s towers and central bays, along with massive proportions found within most of our state’s old courthouses. When I think of Norman, I think of early English castles. You should too.
The concave, turreted mansard-style roofs of the courthouse are clearly reminiscent of some of those found at the gothic Smithsonian Castle, but I’m not sure much else is, even though the building was originally intended to be brick until commissioners changed their minds. I’ll compromise, though, and admit that the courthouse’s Norman arches and the mansard roof of its 147-foot tall clock tower lend it a distinctly European air.
If Indiana courthouse architecture is a Thanksgiving meal, Edwin May, the building’s architect, brought a cornucopia of styles to the table matching the big one at the Fort Wayne Eavey’s, and none of his others (only Noblesville and Greensburg remain most unchanged from his designs today) come close to the style of Vincennes’. Some wonder if his assistant -the Vienna-trained architect Adolph Scherrer- had more to do with the design of this building than was originally thought8, and I wonder myself. For his part, Scherrer later finished May’s design for the Indiana State Captiol in 1888, and went on to draw up plans for Tipton County’s 206-foot courthouse completed in 1894. Landmarks in their own right, neither structure carries the cross-continental flair of the Knox County Courthouse.
Built of Indiana limestone and iron to ensure its fireproof nature, the building features several notable inserts. The first is a 21-foot tall marble tablet within the clock tower, capped with a monogram of the United States and supporting a niche featuring a nine-foot tall statue of an American soldier standing at parade rest. Across the massive entrance stands another tablet depicting a buffalo fleeing the sound of a settler’s axe, above which is a four-ton statue of George Rogers Clark sculpted by Andrew Barrot of Corrana, Italy. The southwest elevation of the courthouse features a similar statue of “Justice”, said to be modeled after Donati de Bardi’s famous sculpture at the Vatican9. On a more practical note, the courthouse, which measures 78 x 120 feet long, offered much more office space than its predecessor, and was the first in the state to offer a women’s restroom indoors. Hey- if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
In 2011, the courthouse received a makeover that replaced its tired old ceiling tiles with new ones that aped old, pressed tin panels, and it also received welcoming new, period-correct light fixtures10. Although those changes are invisible to the passerby or tourist, they ensure that the old building remains in beguiling use for generations to come, at least as inviting as a place to do government business can be. And aside for some poorly-placed power lines, the courthouse remains a phenomenal site to see while driving past it. It’s a shame that it’s sort of off the beaten path through town, as it stands two blocks west of Main Street.
Nevertheless, I remember it from my youth. A couple of months ago I wrote about a day trip to Evansville where I dropped my Fisher Price camera into the lake and my brother got licked by a giraffe before we went and toured the old Vanderburgh County Courthouse there. On the way home, we stopped at a Wendy’s in Vincennes, where I had a great view of the courthouse. What always dominated my mind, though, was the regal George Rogers Clark Memorial right on the river. I had no idea that the courthouse was the actual courthouse- it looked more like a cathedral to me. And even that’s a confusing memory since there actually exists an old cathedral in Vincennes -St. Francis Xavier- built in 1826. Who knows what I remember- I was six! The giraffe may have been a rhinoceros for all I know.
But I’ve been to the Knox County Courthouse in Vincennes recently enough to remember it very specifically, down to the sweltering heat that rendered my 2008 Dodge Avenger hotter inside than it was out in the open due to its broken air conditioner and a passenger window that refused to roll down.
My trip to Vincennes -along with all the counties it took to get there and back- is one that I’d prefer to never repeat, but my foibles were certainly nothing compared to those members of the infantry, artillery, and calvary, along with sailors and officers, remembered by the 1914 Knox County Soldiers and Sailors Monument on the courthouse lawn. The memorial is one of Indiana’s finest, as is the courthouse whose grounds it sits on.
Knox County (pop. 37,954, 42/92)
Vincennes (pop. 18,069)
Cost: $362,000 ($7.23 million in 2016) 1
Architect: Edwin May & Adolph Scherrer
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 147 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Derleth, A. Vincennes: Portal to the West. 1968. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc. Print.
2 Roy, P. “Sieur de Vincennes Identified”. 1923. Indiana Historical Society Publications. VII. Indianapolis: C. E. Pauley and Company. Print.
3 Allison, Harold. “The Tragic Saga of the Indiana Indians”. 1986. Turner Publishing Company [Paducah]. Print.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Territorial Capitol of Former Indiana Territory, Vincennes, Knox County, Indiana, National Register # 73000021.
5 Hodge, J. “Vincennes in Picture and Story.” 209. Applewood Books [Carlisle]. Print.
6 Enyart, David. “Knox County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 5/5/20.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Vincennes Historic District, Vincennes, Knox County, Indiana, National Register # 74000022.
8 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Knox County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 5/5/20.
9 Greene, G.A. “History of Old Vincennes and Knox County, Indiana, Volume 1” S.Jh. Clarke Publishiing Company [Chciago]. 1911. Print.
10 “Indiana courthouse gets makeover, historical touches” WTHR. February 9, 2011. National Broadcasting Corporation [Indianapolis]. Web. Retrieved 5/5/20.