A version of this post originally appeared here on March 12, 2018.
Quick- jot this down! “It must be free from dampness, which would destroy the precious records of the county, on which so much of the ‘peace and quiet’ of our community depends. It must, of course, be fire proof and sufficiently commodious for all legitimate purposes not only now, but for many years to come; must be of durable materials, and last, it must be ‘good looking,’ a monument of the enterprise and taste of the people of one of the wealthy counties of the State1.”
That’s the edict Henry County officials threw down in 1864 before taking bids on a new courthouse to replace the previous one lost to fire. Let’s see. Free from dampness? Fireproof? Commodious? Heck, I could probably gather up a couple of buddies and a 30-rack of Busch Light and build something that checks those boxes in a weekend if we sacrificed the ‘good looking’ and ‘durable’ requirements. It took architect Isaac Hodgson a lot longer than that, of course, but the Henry County Courthouse in New Castle undoubtedly checked all the boxes and turned out a lot better for it. Officials certainly spent a lot more money than my buddies and I would have- $120,000, which is more than $2 million today. Some of that cost was due to the post-Civil War inflation that ran the country ragged but still- that works out to be a lot of bricks, wood, and beer.
Hodgson’s building, often considered the first Second Empire courthouse in the state, was “admirably planned, and in every essential feature all that a first-class public building should be2,’ according to local accounts. The first floor of the steam-heated courthouse held county offices, while a 3,250 square foot courtroom occupied more than half of the second floor3 and was more than twice the size of the entire old courthouse. A decorative staircase, made completely of metal to thwart the threat of fire allowed for transit between the two floors. “Great indeed will Henry County have become,” opined the Inter-State Publishing Company of Chicago in its history of Henry County, “when the present court-house proves too small for its needs.”
It truly is an imposing building. Today, the main feature of the building is its 115’ clock tower, and the primary feature of that clock tower is a series of arches that delineate its different levels, separated from each other by stone string courses. The lowest arch is nearly flush with the ground and provides entry to the courthouse. Above it rests a two-story arch that features an integrated statue of ‘Blind Justice’. Above that arch is, well, where things start to get a little tricky- tricky enough for me to get suspicious about its purported first-in-the-state Second Empire status. It’s not every day that this project deals with dramatic twists and turns. Humor me.
While researching the courthouse, I came across an old postcard that seems to show it sporting a very different clock tower than the one it has now; one that looks like, offhand, a miniature version of Muskingum County’s cupola in Zanesville, Ohio. I’ve never seen another copy of that postcard, and I haven’t found anything that mentions any different clock tower. Every other resource I’ve found implies that the current clock tower, which features a mansard roof, was original to the present building. If the building did start off without its most prominent Second Empire feature, I think its claim to the title is dubious, particularly since the old postcard seems to show a nearly flat hipped roof. A quick glance through my “records” (notes scrawled in red Sharpie) indicates that the 1872 Adams County’s building in Decatur would take the title of Indiana’s first Second Empire courthouse.
Closer inspection of other historic postcards as well as my own photos indicates a pretty obvious color change in the brick between the second tower arch and the third, which holds a tablet that memorializes the building’s construction. The discrepancy in the brick aligns with the roofline of the building, which is at about the point where the old clock tower would have risen from the front of the courthouse. Though I can’t find any corroboration aside from this one postcard, it’s obvious to me that the clock tower has not always appeared as it does today.
What I need to do is call the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, Chris Hansen- or anyone! At first I thought the courthouse tower had been altered in 1906 when a substantial addition was made to the rear of the building. However, the plot thickened- I dug deeper and found some photos of the building without the addition, but with the current clock tower configuration. Dang!
At any rate, what I do know for sure about the courthouse is that it arrived at its present-day appearance during that 1906 addition. Its expansion was masterfully constructed to extend it laterally while meshing perfectly with its existing design. It brought more space for offices, as well as modern amenities like bathrooms and hot-water radiators4. By allowing man to heed nature’s call in a heated space, Henry County had achieved greatness. At least according to the Inter-State Publishing Company we heard from earlier.
Yet by the end of the 20th century, the Inter-State Publishing Company was proved wrong again- the county had aged out of the old courthouse and had to renovate the historic Masonic Hall building to hold county offices5. But the county needed even more space due to the aging layout of both buildings, so plans were made to construct a new justice center adjacent to the Masonic Hall and across the street from the courthouse. The five-story Bradway Building -built in 1900 as New Castle’s tallest commercial structure6– took one for the team and met the wrecking ball to provide space for the new justice center. The Henry County Courts Building was finished in June of 2001.
That structure, just down the street from the old Masonic Hall, is an example of how best to blend the new with the old. Now, I usually don’t care about justice centers, county buildings, or courthouse annexes, but Henry County did theirs the right way. Not only does the brick match the shade used in the courthouse, but look at the quoins, soffits, and cornice lines around the roof of the new building- they nearly match as well! Sure, the building has modern details, but it was the thoughtful design that inspired me to take a picture of it even though I had a strict policy against doing so for non-historic justice buildings. Its architecture, sympathetic to its surroundings, vaults it far ahead of its contemporaries in Hancock, Warrick, and Kosciusko counties, among others.
Add all this to the old Masonic Hall that Henry County contributed and I’m a major fan of the architecture behind the county’s justice system. Although I still had some unanswered questions about when the clock tower was changed, they didn’t stop me from appreciating the 1869 Henry County County Courthouse– maybe the state’s first Second Empire courthouse. Despite how close I am to New Castle, I only make it down there for a hot dog and ice cream place called Weenee World. I just received notice that they’ve trimmed their menu to no longer include Jumbo Weenees and Fried Pickles. Who knows when I’ll make it back next, but when I do, I’ll take more photos. There’s a mystery afoot!
*Thank you, Phil Hartman.
Henry County (pop. 49,044, 29/92)
New Castle (pop. 17,694).
Cost: $120,000 ($2.16 million in 2016)
Architect: Isaac Hodgson
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 115 feet
Current Use: Some county offices
1 Hazzard’s History of Henry County Indiana, 1822-1906, Vol. II. New Castle. George Hazzard, 1906. Print.
2 History of Henry County, Indiana. Chicago. Inter-State Publishing Co., 1884. Print.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Henry County Courthouse, New Castle, Henry County, Indiana, National Register # 81000013.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Henry County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org
5 “Indiana’s Historic Courthouses”. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
6 “Bradway Building” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2018. Retrieved from http://www.emporis.com.