“If the 94-year-old brick pile and pigeon-roost possessed some intrinsic architectural value, its preservation might be in order1.”
Woah. Unpopular opinion here: Though I celebrate every old courthouse that’s been saved and restored, I usually sympathize with counties that tore their old ones down. Here in Muncie, the courthouse was too far gone after decades of deferred maintenance and declining space. The same thing happened in Anderson, New Albany, Logansport, Jeffersonville, Indianapolis, and English. Monticello’s got wiped out by a tornado, so keeping an old courthouse there was kind of a non-starter.
I can also appreciate assessments that decry a building’s decrepit shape or outmoded utility. What I’ve never understood, though, is how vitriolic public opinion can be about the architecture of courthouses whose days are nearly done. For instance, the local newspaper had a whole lot to say about the 1878 Lake County Courthouse in downtown Crown Point, which I find unfounded but quoted up top anyway. Clearly, it was a building of some style.
Actually, re-read the sentiment I started this post with. Along with that, Lafayette’s Journal & Courier decided to contrast its town’s preservation of a historic courthouse with Lake County’s, decrying the paper for calling the old building in Crown Point a “monstrosity, an assault on the visual senses,” with “no county, state, or national historical significance2.” Forget for a moment that Rudolf Valentino was married there, along with Muhammed Ali and Ronald Reagan3. Disregard that Louis Chevrolet was presented a medal for victory at the forerunner of the Indianapolis 500 on its steps4, or that its eastern face provides a backdrop for a photo of John Dillinger before he broke out of the nearby Lake County jail with a wooden gun, per local legend5. Look at that courthouse pictured above: Does it hold architectural merit? I think it does too. But nevertheless, citizens of Lake County -whose power was consolidated in a huge swath of connected communities nearly twenty miles north of the county seat- felt otherwise, so this expansive black monolith is what they built.
Let’s roll back: Officials had long planned a new courthouse to replace the venerable “Grand Old Lady6” in Crown Point. Concerned residents disagreed, blocking the move to a new courthouse in a lawsuit filed in 1969. The situation was complicated: the site of the proposed replacement courthouse was outside of Crown Point’s boundaries. Though a previous ruling upheld a state law that gave Lake County the right to move its courthouse out of the county seat, property owners argued that Indiana couldn’t put legislation into place that gave a specific county special rights that others didn’t have. The first suit was filed in 1967. The second, delaying progress on the new building to the tune of $2 million, caused a problem7.
In 1971, officials settled on a simple solution to the headache of not being allowed to locate their new courthouse outside of Crown Point’s city limits where they wanted: they annexed 1,500 acres8! It was that easy. The following year, commissioners oversaw completion of a new superior courthouse in Hammond that replaced a 1903 structure that’d been subjected to much of the same negative hyperbole that its contemporary in Crown Point was going through. Happy with the outcome of that project, they retained the same architect to develop plans for a sprawling complex that would include space for the courts, county administration, and a jail.
Holy leaping sasquatches- Bernard and Associates weren’t screwing around with the new courthouse. If you’re normal, you’ll approach it from North Main Street, or IN-55, before turning into the campus on 93rd Street, across from an old tuberculosis sanitorium. Though the building -really three connected structures housing county administration, the courts, and the jail- is visible from 55, it sort of unfurls once you make the turn. There, it reveals itself in full.
In terms of bulk and height, the modern courthouses in Marion and St. Joseph counties are very impressive- like with a lot of skyscrapers, it feels like they’re about to tip and fall over on you!. The historic courthouse in Allen County is in a league of its own, with those in Evansville, Lafayette, Terre Haute, and LaPorte not far behind. But Crown Point’s Lake County Government Center, as the building’s officially called, might just take the cake. It is a huge, sprawling edifice on a gargantuan, extensive campus. It’s not tall, but it might be the most impressive courthouse in the state based on its scale and stark design. My mouth was legitimately agape when I first saw the place and it took fifteen minutes to gather my jaw from the parking lot -freshly paved- and another fifteen days to clear the asphalt taste with a lot of Crest and Listerene.
As I mentioned, the architects really designed three buildings, connected by a 20-foot wide ground level hallway. First up was the three-story administration building, which held county offices, a cafeteria, a data processing center, and storage space for voting machines. The middle segment, at two stories tall, was intended for the county courts. The west wing, which measures five stories in total, is the jail and sheriff’s offices. Only there is the building’s common heritage with the courthouse in Hammond apparent. Staircases separate the buildings from one another, while the exterior steel framing of the structure provides a no-nonsense impression for those there for jury duty, paying taxes, or just to take photos.
By early 1974, staff with the county data processing department moved into the new building9, while the majority of county officers and employees were expected to move into the building during the following spring. Work completed, Lake County finally had a new courthouse at its county seat, though superior courthouses in Gary, East Chicago, and Hammond still existed to help with some of the regional workload. In 1979, a new courthouse in East Chicago opened to replace rented quarters in an old union hall10, leading to the situation we see now. While most counties are content with a single courthouse, Lake County’s unique amount of separate communities and population density requires four, even despite the sprawling central courts building north of Crown Point.
Now, I didn’t originally go to any of Lake County’s modern courthouses during my photo trip. I went to Gary and downtown Crown Point, and that was it! I wasn’t interested in modern justice centers or government complexes that superseded old courthouses. Over time, my opinion changed a bit. These buildings from the 1970s are inching close to the 50-year mark, and that’s the age that the National Parks Service considers them eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. I had to go back and nab some more photos! Though I’d originally hoped for an easy, cut-and-dried approach to this project, it’s turned out to be anything but. I’m still hoping for this blog to be a great resource for those interested in going off the beaten path of our normal county courthouses. I’ve been happy to make exceptions and categorize all of them that could be considered “historic,” even if that distinction won’t come for another several years.
Lake County nearly ruined my plan, though. A 2017 study intimated that the county’s satellite courthouses should be eliminated11. Thankfully, commissioners -cavalierly avoiding recent studies as they did in 1979 during the construction of the courthouse in East Chicago- 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 building.” I strongly agree, even if the buildings he advocated for are modern and lack the monumental features historic buildings often carry.
All said, Lake County residents are left with the best of both worlds. People up in the population center can go to courthouses in Gary, Hammond, and East Chicago to do their business. Many can simply avoid the courthouse altogether and pay taxes online or at the grocery store! Gary’s courthouse hasn’t been demolished, which is great since nearly everything around it has. The courthouse in East Chicago stands in the middle of a revitalized downtown district. People who want to visit an old courthouse but forgo official business can still venture into downtown Crown Point. The 1878 courthouse was preserved and turned into a sort of mall.
Much like Evansville’s old courthouse, Crown Point’s old courthouse is a hub of boutique shops, restaurants, and businesses with some of its major spaces on upper floors taken by a variety of businesses. Other than some remaining county functions being housed there, I can’t think of any better way for an old courthouse to be memorialized.
At the same time, its successor, the Lake County Government Center, means business while still allowing Crown Point to preserve its charm and allowing the community to continue to conduct justice efficiently. You almost couldn’t ask for a better outcome- especially since I could wring another blog post out of it!
Lake County (pop.491,456, 2/92)
Crown Point (pop. 28,412)
Cost: $28 million ($136 million in 2016)
Architect: L Cosby Bernard & Associates
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Most county offices and courts
1 “Crown Point courthouse hardly worth preserving” The Times [Munster]. October 1, 1972. Page 14. Print.
2 “Courthouse Dilemma” The Journal and Courier [Lafayette]. October 19, 1972. Page 10. Print.
3 “Our History” Lake Court House Foundation, Inc. [Crown Point]. Web. Retrieved 5/23/20.
4 NRHP Crown point courthouse
5 “John Dillenger’s escape from a Crown Point jail cell made headlines 86 years ago this week” The Chicago Sun Times [Chicago]. March 4, 2020. Web. Retrieved 5/23/20.
6 “Historic Lake County Courthouse in Crown Point” Visit the South Shore Along Lake Michigan [Hammond]. Web. Retrieved 5/23/20.
7 “New Hearing Planned on Courthouse” The Times [Munster]. January. 8, 1969. Page 3. Print.
8 “Lake County To Get New Courthouse’ The Rushville Republican [Rushville]. July 8 1971. Page 8. Print.
9 “New Courthouse” The Times [Munster]. April 21 1974. Page 22. Print.
10 “E.C. Workers Move” The Times [Munster]. March 27, 1979. Page 3. Print.
11 “Satellite court study rejected” The Times [Munster]. April 20, 2017. Page A1. Print.