Gibson County- Princeton (1884-)

Gibson 7
The 1884 Gibson County Courthouse in Princeton

Like any 90s kid, I know a thing or two about LEGOs. I still play with them today through official CAD software that lets me design things without losing pieces or later finding them wedged into the soft part of my foot. Last spring, a miniature Fort Wayne I created as an homage to the legit LEGO skyline sets was featured in an interview with the Fort Wayne Business Weekly magazine, a piece that hilariously described me as a Fort Wayne “homeowner” rather than “hometowner.” A few weeks later, I was profiled by Dirk Rowley of WANE-TV for a piece detailing the design process of a much larger version of the cityscape. Both interviews were a lot of fun. The local sanctioned LEGO club invited me to be a member. I went to sleep and woke up being in the top percent of LEGO builders nationwide! 

Final Skyline 2
The larger of my two LEGO Fort Waynes, the one that netted me the on-air interview.

I get that’s not a big accomplishment in a field dominated by children, and it’s not one I really advertise (aside from here!). But capturing realistic likenesses of buildings in miniature is a fun challenge that requires an endless amount of problem solving. That’s what makes it fun! But some buildings inherently don’t replicate well in LEGO- I’ve found that you have to choose something that fits the limitations of the media. When I decided to try my hand at another courthouse, I was sure I’d found a great subject in Gibson County’s in Princeton. Its alternating bands of red brick and limestone certainly lend themselves to flat LEGO plates. Don’t you think? I did too, until I started designing it. After eight hours of screwing with the thing, I’d given up! Hah! Chalk one up for hubris, I guess.

This tower gave me so much trouble while designing in LEGOs.

The attempt wasn’t a total failure, though. One thing I got right was that the building would look great in miniature. Folks over at Department 56 -the company that makes those ceramic Christmas village buildings your grandma sets up on white felt- loved the courthouse so much that they modeled their 1989 “Original Snow Village Courthouse” after it. For four years, the courthouse in Princeton reigned supreme on mantels and pie safes across middle America1. Though I don’t own one, I see them pop up from time to time on Ebay for anywhere from $40 to $75. That’s great nationwide publicity for a 136-year old building that administers justice to only 33,000 constituents2! 

I think if the McDonald Brothers were alive, they would approve of the building’s likeness being reused in miniature. Prolific architects, brothers Kenneth, Harry, and Donald hailed from Louisville and designed two courthouses in Indiana (Princeton’s, along with Salem’s in Washington County) as well as overseeing the 1890 remodel of the Decatur County Courthouse in Greensburg. Headed by Harry, the family was also responsible for tons of courthouses across the country, including six in Kentucky, one in Illinois, one in Tennessee, and one in Georgia along with the Kansas State Capitol3 before the firm folded in 1896. I haven’t seen any of their structures in person outside of the two in Indiana, but I did run a quick search- while many of the McDonalds’ courthouses features arches, none of them are golden as far as I can tell. What’s more is that none of them look like their courthouse in Princeton. Interestingly, one structure that is eerily close in design is George Bunting’s 1882 Johnson County Courthouse in Franklin. They resemble each other so closely that it makes me wonder if the McDonalds didn’t copy it.

Gibson 5
The courthouse, 100 feet tall, observes the rest of Princeton’s downtown from above with a single, cycloptic, eye.

I’ll give the McDonald Brothers a pass on the coincidence, particularly given the eclectic nature of their other designs. But brick courthouses were common across Gibson County’s lineage, so their building does fit in here. The county, formed in 1813, first exhibited a brick courthouse that measured 33×40 feet across two stories that was subcontracted by the county commissioners themselves4. After 28 years, a new larger brick building that probably approximated the design of the courthouse in Nashville, Indiana was designed by Edward Coleman. The contributions of those architects have been lost to time as have their courthouses. But they certainly served to provide a foundation for what we see today.

What we see today, by the way, is truly one of Indiana’s finest courthouses. Approaching Princeton from the north, the building becomes visible almost out of nowhere. Indeed, at the town’s northern limits, you’re sitting at about 568 feet above sea level. The courthouse square is at 496 feet5. That means that, unlike courthouses visible from miles and miles away, Gibson County’s doesn’t really unfurl itself until you’re closer to the center of town. It’s got 72 feet of height difference to make up! A fire insurance map from 1907 says the tower reaches a hundred feet tall6, about the height of a nine- or ten-story building. The elevation change into town represents 70% of that, but if you roll into town on IN-65 you can’t miss it when the trees disperse around Glendale Street. At Brumfield Avenue, the open belfry and clocktower really starts to fill up your windshield. It’s really cool!

What else makes this courthouse one of Indiana’s finest? Like nearly all of its peers, the building starts off as a big rectangle, albeit one with four square corner towers that frame four main entrance. At the bottom, it’s got a rusticated limestone base that accentuates monumental limestone staircases that flare out at the their bases. The building’s primary facade, facing east, is no longer in use because of how the courthouse has been reconfigured inside. Nevertheless, the former main entry is framed by granite columns with Corinthian capitols. They’re impressive in their own right, even aside from contributing to the greater detail of the entire building. 

Gibson 4
A group of mourners gathered around the courthouse on Veterans Day, 2017. I tried not to interfere.

A limestone cornice separates the building’s first story from its second, framed by brick piers with contrasting quoins- those alternating red and white layers I thought would work perfectly with virtual LEGO bricks. Describing windows has never been my strong suit, so I’ll ignore them for today aside from saying that those on the second floor are divided horizontally by a tablature into a rectangular bottom and arched top. Above the second floor is a heavy cornice that snakes across the top of the entire building underneath a limestone parapet. The east side of the building features a prominent limestone tablet that says “1884,” guarded by lions’ heads. In similar form, I’ll get a tattoo of my own year, 1990, one day guarded by the heads of Yoshi and Dook LaRue from the Rock-afire Explosion one day.

My favorite part of each courthouse is the clock tower. This one repeats the red/white motif at its corners, while Romanesque arches sit between them. The building doesn’t feature a dome; it’s got a pyramidal roof, which is a feature that caused me a lot of grief with my LEGO model since LEGO roof pieces are only available in certain angles and even-numbered dimensions. The actual pyramidal roof has four clocks mounted to it and ends with a squared-off portion with an iron balustrade.

I mentioned that the interior of the building has seen its layout altered. Apparently, original elements have only been covered up7, and should a restoration ever occur would be viable components of a revitalized courthouse. 

The Gibson County Courthouse in Princeton serves many roles, as do all of our historic courthouses. This one made its solemn use very obvious.

I approach each of these buildings as a tourist, and Gibson County’s was no different. As much as courthouses should stand as a place of county pride, they’re also a place to do often unpleasant business and some of those unpleasantries are held outside their walls. It was an overcast forty degrees the day I went to Princeton- November 11, 2017, Veterans Day. A huge congregation of people stood outside the gazebo on the building’s northwest lawn in solemn celebration. I tried not to bother them as I took my photos., and eventually the crowd dispersed and I left town. Without question, a courthouse is a monument to recreate in ceramics or in LEGO. It’s also an icon that a community can take pride in. But courthouses are also places of business, where hopes are made and dreams can be lost. They’re also places where memories are honored. After the service I witnessed, I left Princeton with a greater depth of understanding of the utility of the buildings I was documenting.

Gibson County (pop. 45,844, 48/92)
Princeton (pop. 13,380)
87/92 photographed
Built: 1884
Cost: $118,661 ($2.9million in 2016)
Architect: McDonald Brothers
Style: Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville
Height: 100 feet
Current Use: County courts and o

1 “Courthouse, Original Snow Village” (2020) Department 56 Retirements. Department 56. Web. Retrieved 6/2/20.
2 Gibson County QuickFacts” (2011). United States Census Bureau [Washington, DC]. Web. Retrieved 6/2/20.
3 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Gibson County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 6/2/20.
4 Enyart, David. “Gibson County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 6/2/20.
5 “Gibson County” Beacon Local government GIS. Schneider Corporation [Indianapolis]. Web. Retrieved 6/2/20.
6 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map- Princeton, Indiana. 1907. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 6/2/20.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Gibson County Courthouse, Princeton, Gibson County, Indiana, National Register # 84001038.

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