Porter County- Portage (1980-)

Portage 5
The 1980 and 2020 North Porter County Government Center. The new part is teal.

I’ve been doing my courthousery project for a long time. So long, in fact, that -as my brother puts it- “They’re starting to build NEW courthouses!” Not quite, but…yeah. 

At first, I didn’t expect this project to include more than 92 photos at its end, one for every county seat. Though a 1:1 ratio exists around the middle part of the state where I’m from, I didn’t know that some counties still feature abandoned historic courthouses in addition to their current structures. Once I found out, I knew I’d need to take photos of them all to satisfy my curiosity. I also failed to realize that some counties- particularly those up north- feature more than one active courthouse, using superior courthouses in auxiliary centers of population to provide additional services to citizens without them having to go downtown to the county seat.

Though many of those buildings are modern and outside the scope of this project’s constraints due to my own preferences, those superior courthouses are still functional. After skipping them all, last spring I decided I needed to go back and take photos. Most are forty years or older, which puts them close to historical status in the eyes of the National Register of Historic Places, so that helped my decision along. Maybe by the time these places hit fifty we’ll be constructing new justice centers out of refried cardboard and algae and they’ll all be anachronistic locks for preservation! Thanks to my research, I’ll have the last laugh as historians strain to fill out their nominating forms and cite my work.

Portage 4
Apologies for the cars; it was a working day for government and construction teams alike. This view looks west. The segment pictured in the lead picture is to the middle-right.

Portage is the largest community in Porter County, with a population of around 37,000 people. Despite its size, though, the county seat is Valparaiso. That’s due to Portage only becoming an incorporated town in 1959 -long after Valpo- when three older communities (McCool, Crisman, And Garyton) were rolled into one. Portage’s boundaries would have included Ogden Dunes and South Haven as well, were it not for residents who elected to stay clear of the conglomerate. Nevertheless, people flocked over from Gary in adjacent Lake County during the midst of white flight to contribute to a massive population growth over the past six decades1. 

Per the 1950 census, 2,116 people lived in Portage. That number grew by 458% to 11,822 in 1960, and reached 19,127 by 19702. Meanwhile, Porter County’s total population in 1970 was 87,114, and Valpo’s was 20,020. Portage had 95% of the residents that Valpo did, as well as 22% of the county’s population. By 1980, it naturally made sense for a government annex to be constructed here. Remember that the Porter County Courthouse in Valpo was decapitated after a disastrous fire in 1934 that necessitated the removal of its third floor, mansard roof, and clock tower3. 

Portage 3
The left and right wings here depict the building’s curved “elbow,” while the central portion consists of its original lobby, now being clad in teal trim.

To that end, commissioners hired architect Robert Gerometta to design Portage’s new superior courthouse, a brick and concrete structure shaped like a normal person’s elbow albeit with a square, hipped-roof mass in its crux. More of a construction guy than architect, Gerometta was responsible, at various points, for overseeing projects including Willow Creek Middle School and Central Elementary in Portage, River Forest Jr./Sr. High School in Lake Station, and his most impressive work, the Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary4. His satellite courthouse in Portage was designed to hold court facilities and branches of the welfare department, along with offices for the prosecutor, probation, extension service, clerk, treasurer, assessor, and county health department. Overall, the building -one story with a copper roof- cost $1.5 million.

Officials and employees moved induring July, 1980. Three years later, a prisoner escaped from the building, running free through an unlocked door while a probation officer gathered a form from another room. County polices found his jail uniform on the north side of Airport Road after a break-in and theft of a “western-style shirt”, some cash, and a pair of pants at a local business7. I love how the paper bothered to describe the shirt as “western-style”. Heck, Portage is close to Chicago. Maybe he broke out to see the Good Ol’ Boys at Bob’s Country Bunker. 

Portage 1
In marked contrast to the 1980 building, here’s Porter County’s 1885 primary courthouse in downtown Valparaiso, decapitated and altered after a 1934 fire.

After he was apprehended, the next thirty years were relatively drama-free for the courthouse. That is, until county officials started thinking. In 2013 commissioners determined that they wanted to contribute to a new downtown Portage by moving the courthouse to a bigger building there, wherever “there” was. Remember- Portage didn’t really have a downtown since it was built up out of three distinct communities! But Google Centers the city over the intersection of Central Avenue and Willowcreek Road, where architect Gerometta’s Willow Creek Middle School sits near Village Carpet, Walgreens, Burger King, and Leslie’s Pool Supplies, along with the Meadows Shopping Center. That’s two miles north of the site of the courthouse, which sits southwest of US 6 and Willowcreek. That area- booming with a Meijer, Walmart, hospital, and Subaru dealer seems to be as good a site as any for a new downtown Portage if not for new urbanism, but I guess the courthouse had begun to fall apart as well.

“Buildings don’t stop deteriorating just because the county or city finances are strained,” said Portage Mayor James Snyder. It’s crazy how things built in 1980 go to pot while their century-old predecessors still manage to keep ticking! Nevertheless, officials were able to free up room in the courthouse when they agreed to move the county health department to a nearby annex on the campus of the Porter Regional Hospital next door8. 

Portage 2
The new North Porter County Government Center Annex on early voting day.

Officials ended up not doing that, though: they elected to expand the building and add a new 12,000-square foot complex to house the county’s health department. When I was there towards the end of May, early voters were congregated outside the new building. See? I’ve been doing this so long that new courthouses are being built! The existing building, once finished, will hold a secure parking lot for officials, a sally port for the transfer of criminals, and a new interior9. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be seen while I was there. It was Tuesday on voting day and the place was packed. It may be worth one more trip on a weekend to get better photos once construction is done but for now, these are indicative shots of the active construction status of courthousery across the state. 

Portage 6
The orange brick elements are original to the building. The teal additions are new.

1980 is the cut-off for me. Right now, the courthouses in East Chicago and Portage are 40 years old. Soon they’ll reach 50! As I’ve stated, that’s the age that they become qualified to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I don’t necessarily think that these structures will be first-ballot entries, but I’m not there to judge. My ever-changing arbitrary conclusions continue to adjust the focus of this project.

To be honest, we’ve got just one more historic courthouse to write up before I’m done with Indiana. Maybe my trip to the region was done to extend the Indiana portion of this. I hope so! I’ve loved traveling around the state, learning its roads and layout, and documenting each courthouse as best as I’m able to.

Porter County (168,041, 9/92)
Valparaiso (36,806)
Built: 1980, expanded 2020
Cost: $$1.5 million ($4.4 million in 2016)
Architect: Robert Gerometta
Style: Modern
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 1 story
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 5/28/20

1 Sawochka, Bruce. “Portage in Three Stages of its Growth.” Steel Shavings Volume 20. 1991. Web. Retrieved 5/29/20.
2 “U.S. Census.”United States Census Bureau. Web. Retrieved 5/29/20.
3 Enyart, David. “Porter County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 5/29/20.
4 “Robert Gerometta constructed many impressive landmarks” The Times. Feb 3 2006. Web. Retrieved 5/30/20.
5 “County construction sees beginning, end” Vidette-Messenger of Porter County [Valparaiso]. June 3, 1980. Page 2. Print.
6 “Government moves north” Vidette-Messenger of Porter County [Valparaiso]. July  19, 1980.
7 “Prisoner sought after escape from complex” Vedette-Messenger. Sept 9, 1983. Page 11. Print.
8 “County may sell Portage complex” The Times. June 7 201`3. Page A1. Print.
9 “North Porter County government building project begins” The Times. October 23, 2018. Web. Retrieved 5/30/20.

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