My favorite courthouses I saw as a kid were Allen County’s in Fort Wayne, the Hamilton County Courthouse in Noblesville, Goshen’s Elkhart County Courthouse, and Hartford City’s in Blackford County. A lot of them were ones I saw on biweekly trips to visit my dad. One thing that they all had in common was a landmark clock tower- they were quite different from the blasé, concrete box that’d been plopped into downtown Muncie! I guess that’s why I like towers and so much. I spent hours drawing them all from memory.
A quick glance reveals that around two-thirds of Indiana counties have at least one historic courthouse with a clock tower1. But the first to really upend the tea table for young me was DeKalb County’s in Auburn, which doesn’t feature one. I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to discuss this building and I could have sworn we already had, but oh well; it’s fitting that one of my earliest favorites, despite its lack of dome or tower, closes out the Indiana portion of this Courthousery project.
My Dad and my Grandpa Hayes were both “car guys”, so when the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Festival came to DeKalb County each year, we went. The festival celebrates old autos built by those area marquees. Aside from the Cord 812s and Duesenberg Model Js, I mostly remember the festival for being the time my dad tricked me into eating a beef hot dog. At five I was firm in my belief that any type of sausage had to be pork. I also remember those days because of the presence of that fantastic courthouse that loomed over all the hoopla.
The building is one of the finest in the state, but Auburn wasn’t always home to such opulence. The county’s first official courthouse, a two-story, wood frame structure measuring 30 x 40 feet, was built in 1844 for a paltry $800. It lasted for twenty years before it was outgrown. While destructive infernos aren’t all that uncommon across the history of Indiana’s government buildings (there have been forty-two documented fires that led to a loss of county records2), what is uncommon is that Auburn’s first courthouse was intentionally set ablaze a year after it’d been abandoned in order to celebrate the end of the Civil War3. Its replacement, built by a fellow named Alpheous Wheelock, was completed in 1864 at the cost of $23,372.
I don’t yet have a postcard of that structure, but imagine the old Huntington County Courthouse -built five years prior4– and add an octagonal dome to its crenellated tower along with a balcony under its louvers. The result is a spitting image, though the Steuben County Courthouse in Angola is fairly close too. I’ll be sure to keep up my postcard search.
Indiana’s earliest settlements generally sprung up around big rivers or along well-traveled wildlife paths and traces. Eventually, primitive highways like the Michigan and National roads were cut through swamps and forest and later the railroad came, which put an end to many of the river towns. The history of Auburn’s growth is tied to transportation in a major way as well, but largely in parallel to the rest of the state’s. Though it too was founded on a waterway (Cedar Creek in this case), as well as at the intersection of two early roads (Goshen-Defiance and Coldwater5), Auburn industries were involved in the manufacturing of transportation, mostly buggies, as early as the 1870s6. That industry is where the town made its name.
The Auburn Automobile Company, née the Eckhart Carriage Company, was incorporated in 1900 -the same year that the town was incorporated as a city- and produced its first car three years later. The Double Fabric Tire Co., later Auburn Rubber Company, wasn’t too far behind, forming in 1913 to manufacture -who’d’a thunk it- tires. All of this made Auburn a busy place as it grew to six times its size from when the new courthouse was built. As we’ve seen time and time again, the new city’s growth necessitated a new courthouse, and DeKalb County Commissioners spared no expense to construct it given the area’s promise.
Officials selected Fort Wayne architects Mahurin and Mahurin to design the new structure, fresh off the completion of their Monroe County Courthouse in 1908 and the Lake County Superior Courthouse in Michigan City the next year. As far as an architectural tree, Mahurin and Mahurin are part of Indiana’s most storied and convoluted ones. Bear with me for a second, because this gets a little hairy:
Originally serving as architect T.J. Tolan’s chief draftsman, George Wing helped design the LaGrange County Courthouse here, along with those in Van Wert County and Clark County, Ohio; and Davis County, Iowa. In 1881, Tolan’s son Brentwood replaced Wing as chief draftsman for the firm, so Wing formed his own enterprise with Marshall Mahurin. Together, the two drew plans for the Hancock County Courthouse in Greenfield, the Starke County Courthouse in Knox, and Starke’s close cousin in Ottawa County, Ohio7. Wing retired in 1907, so Mahurin formed a partnership with his nephew Guy8. It’s a confusing lineage responsible for eighteen midwestern courthouses, but this final group, Mahurin & Mahurin, designed Auburn’s courthouse.
The building is a Neoclassical gem, and it was constructed during a period of time spanning twenty-five years or so when that style was truly in vogue. The courthouse, built in 1914, cost each resident $321, even though similarly-styled courthouses in Clay and Carroll counties only cost $184 and $297 that same year and in 1917. Though it won’t be visible while inadvertently munching on an all-beef frank or checking out the grill of a Auburn 851 Speedster on the streets of Auburn, the courthouse really shines on the inside, which is where much of the money went.
The interior features grained steel doors, trim, counters, shelves, and furniture that resembles oak along with faux marble -scagliola- in most public spaces. An absolutely enormous stained-glass dome, hidden by the structure’s parapet, covers the courthouse’s rotunda like a gilded umbrella9. It’s impossible to miss the twin murals “The Spirit of Industry” and “The Spirit of Progress”, each eighteen feet across and twelve feet high10. A nod to Auburn’s burgeoning manufacturing businesses, “Industry” features an allegorical female adjacent to factories and mechanics, a juxtaposition that a fan of Art Deco would appreciate.
Back outside on festival day, look at the building on its east or west faces, then travel to north or south- closest to whichever stand is selling a Lemon Shakeup or some Spiral Spuds. You’ll notice that each alternate side presents a different impression. From the north and south it appears like a massive caricature of a courthouse designed by Elmer Dunlap or John Bayard. From the east or west you’ll recognize it as more closely resembling Clarence Martindale’s Hendricks County Courthouse or maybe even Sutton & Routt’s building in Washington. Hey- whatever works! Ever heard the story of the blind men and the elephant? I’d say that ultimately it most closely resembles the current Miami County Courthouse in Peru aside from that building’s enormous circus-canopy dome.
Maybe that differing view is what I love about this courthouse, or maybe it’s the pedigree involved in its creation. Maybe I love that upstart Auburn -population 13,484 in 2019- has never in its history experienced a ten-year population decline since the car business closed down more than eighty years ago. Maybe I just miss my dad taking me to festivals. Who knows! What I do know, though, is that this courthouse has served DeKalb County for more than a hundred years, and it’s served this project well to be a natural ending to my Indiana journey of driving, taking photos, and writing. It’s been a lot of fun!
We’ll soon be back to start with some Ohio courthouses next. See you then.
DeKalb County (pop.42,307)
Auburn (pop. 12,788).
Cost: $317,000 ($7.57 million in 2016)
Architect: Mahurin & Mahurin
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 68 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 3/16/16- 61/92
1 Flook, Chris. “Which of Indiana’s 92 County Courthouses is Your Favorite?” Visit Indiana. Indiana Office of Tourism Development [Indianapolis]. Web. Retrieved 8/8/20.
2 Enyart, David. “Fires” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 8/8/20.
3 Enyart, David. “DeKalb County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 8/8/20.
4 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 8/8/20.
5 “History of DeKalb County Indiana” B.F. Bowen and Company [Indianapolis]. 1914. Print.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). DeKalb County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 8/8/20.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Ottawa County Courthouse, Port Clinton, Ottawa County, Ohio, National Register # 74001588.
8 “Wing & Mahurin, architects, Fort Wayne, Ind” (1896). Wing and Mahurin. Fort Wayne. Allen County Public Library. Print.
9 “Slideshow – Courthouse Pictures” DeKalb County, Indiana. eGov Strategies LLC. Web. Retrieved 8/8/20.
10 “DeKalb County Courthouse” Visit DeKalb County. DeKalb County Visitors Bureau. 2020. Web. Retrieved 8/8/20.