Residents of Spencer County and its diminutive county seat were so proud of their 1921 courthouse that the Rockport Journal announced that it would “be a thing of beauty and a joy, if not forever, at least for a hundred years1.” While forty-two courthouses across the state have come and gone since then, the paper’s prediction was prescient: next year, the Spencer County Courthouse will celebrate its centennial.
In this day and age, it’s difficult to contemplate wringing a hundred years out of a newly-built building. Here in Muncie, I doubt that Delaware County will get that kind of mileage out of the middle school officials are converting to a new jail and justice center2. But commissioners in Spencer County went whole hog on theirs and meant it to last, touting the courthouse as “the finest courthouse in southern Indiana,” and as “a monument to the intelligence and patriotism of the people of this county3.” The day the cornerstone was laid featured five hours of parades, performances, and speeches. And the celebrations even continued once the building was completed a year behind schedule: a second event lauding its dedication lasted all day! Interestingly, not a single lawyer in town charged for legal advice during the building’s construction, all temporarily setting aside their livelihoods in order to eliminate any appearance of political graft4.
Did Spencer County succeed in its goal of creating the finest courthouse in all of southern Indiana? Well, it was certainly more luxurious than the buildings it replaced. The county, established in 1818, first used a log courthouse for four years, followed by a brick courthouse for eleven, and then a 40×40 foot coffee mill design built by Daniel Brown and Thomas P. Britton that was used from 1838 to 18655. Thomas DeBruler was responsible for the courthouse that immediately preceded the current one, a two-story Civil War-era building with Greek Revival and Italianate elements that strongly resembled the old courthouse in Shoals, minus its belfry6. Unfortunately, I haven’t happened across an old postcard of the building, but 1915 it was clear that there wasn’t enough room to securely store county records or expand the office capacity. Elmer Dunlap was hired to develop plans for a replacement, but work only commenced in 1919 after wartime restrictions on construction were repealed7.
There’s no question that the new courthouse was a huge step up from its predecessor. It cost about $4 million in today’s money compared to a lowly $500,000. Commissioners and stakeholders had every right to be excited for the upgrade! Neoclassical in design, the building is basically a three-story rectangle with projecting central entrance bays. A parapet with a clock on each side conceals a glass skylight that covers an enormous stained glass dome at the building’s central rotunda. The primary face of the building, its north side, is divided into three segments though it’s dominated by the five-bay projecting entryway featuring enormous doric columns. The south entrance takes the same shape, as do the building’s east and west fronts, though they’re narrower. Inside, the courthouse is laid out around its stained glass rotunda, which gazes down on a sixteen-point terrazzo star in the floor. Marble wainscoting and pilasters surround the rotunda, giving the space a monumental appearance that’s seemingly out of line with its low-key exterior.
As I’ve mentioned before, that type of straightforward ornamentation is common in neoclassical designs, which tended to reinforce timeless dignity and monumental size over architectural exuberance and needless decoration. What’s more is that this style of courthouse is extremely common in Indiana: depending on where you draw the line, there are about fifteen of them throughout the state. For some reason, I started referring to them as jewel boxes! Though Elmer Dunlap was prolific in creating similar structures, it’s clear that Spencer County wound up with a fine courthouse. But I haven’t yet answered my own question: Was the new building really southern Indiana’s “finest”, as trumpeted by the paper? Let’s find out.
We’ll confine our assessment to those other counties that border the Ohio River; there are twelve. Four predated the end of the Civil War, and four more dated at least to the 1870s. During the onset of the roaring twenties, most of them were probably considered to be geriatric relics- even dumb old me could probably make a couple of baskets against against a 70-year-old Michael Jordan! Of those counties remaining, Crawford’s courthouse was already a ramshackle firetrap without indoor plumbing, Perry’s was quickly built under duress before the county seat could be wrested away to another city, and Warrick’s was limited by the scope of their teensy budget. Spencer County’s courthouse comes out favorably in a head-to-head matchup with any of them, especially when viewed through the period’s lens. Unfortunately, the 1891 Beaux Arts Vanderburgh County Courthouse of Evansville seems to crush its grandiosity in nearly every way. At 216 feet tall it’s about four times the height of Rockport’s, and it cost about four times as much to boot, despite being thirty years older.
From a glance, there’s simply no contest between the two. But I like to root for the underdog, and by doing so I found a comparison that Spencer County Courthouse wins: how the cost of building each courthouse was spread out across their constituents. It’s not a perfect formula by any stretch and I’ve used it before, but maybe it can help us make some sense out of the two buildings. We’ve gone over this several times before and you probably know the drill!
SPOILER ALERT: Skip over the next image. I’ll give you some space:
There was no census in 1891 or 1921, so we’ll use 1890 and 1920 for our data. In 1920, 92,293 people lived in Vanderburgh County. In 1891, the building cost $379,450 to construct, the equivalent of $752,385 in 1921 when the Spencer County Courthouse was built. That’d be $10.9 million today, which means that if the Vanderburgh County Courthouse was built the same year as Spencer County’s, it would have cost each resident about $118 in today’s money.
In 1920, Spencer County was home to only 18,400 per the census. Today, the courthouse would cost just over $4 million, the equivalent of $217 per 1920 resident. So while the courthouse in Evansville dominates it in nearly every single way, Rockport’s comes out on top under these criteria. It’s more impressive given the amount of people who lived there at the time, and how much they had to shell out.
Mathematical gymnastics that make no allowance for interest or the accuracy of inflation calculators8? Maybe, but the results are clear: Spread out over a large population, an expensive courthouse’s price becomes more palatable. Spread out over a smaller group, though, and the value of a lesser courthouse really shines through. So did Rockport’s make the grade as southern Indiana’s finest? Yes and no. So, maybe.
I guess all of that’s just a lengthy, drawn-out way of saying that we expect our biggest cities to have some of our greatest courthouses, but maybe not our smallest communities. Indeed Terre Haute, Fort Wayne, Bloomington, Lafayette, and South Bend each have great courthouses! For tiny Rockport -a county seat that’s never reached 3,000 people in size and probably never will, it’s a true boon to have a courthouse this expensive and, well, as impressive as it is. We only need to turn to towns of this size in Michigan to see the horrors of what could have been. But the level of civic pride the people of Spencer County invested in their courthouse isn’t an outlier in Indiana- it’s the norm. As a result, thankfully, we’ve got one of the country’s best portfolios of historic courthouses, regardless of their size.
The Spencer County Courthouse is not conspicuous when coming into town on IN-66. In fact, you’re likely to see the hilariously-named five-story “Rockport High Rise” apartment building long before you come to the courthouse square, a landscaped green absolutely stuffed with mature trees and shrubs. But if you find yourself in town, take a moment to walk the square and appreciate Spencer County’s building of beauty and joy as the paper put it ninety-nine years ago, a long-standing sign of one Indiana county’s pride in itself and promise for a future they could only dream of. It’s now our present! Hopefully, it will remain Spencer County’s future.
Spencer County (pop. 45,844, 71/92)
Rockport (pop. 2,153)
Cost: $275,692 ($4 million in 2016)
Architect: Elmer Dunlap
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County courts and offices
1“All in Readiness” The Rockport Journal [Rockport]. July 11, 1919. Print.
2 “Delaware County sheriff, commissioner reflect on jail move to middle school building” Ball State Daily News [Muncie]. January 16, 2020. Web. Retrieved 4/18/20.
3 “Great Event Coming” The Rockport Journal [Rockport]. May 9, 1919. Print.
4 “The Building Committee” The Rockport Journal [Rockport]. July 15, 1919. Print.
5 Enyart, David. “Spencer County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/18/20.
6 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 4/18/20.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Spencer County Courthouse, Rockport, Spencer County, Indiana, National Register #99000304.
8 The Inflation Calculator. Morgan Friedman. WestEgg. Web. Retrieved 4/18/20.