An architectural trend that’s become apparent to me over the last few years is something that I call “American Exuberance”. Our first courthouses were built with zero frills out of logs or milled wood as functional structures. Soon, settlers upgraded to simple, brick buildings, and by the 1840s, local governments got hold of enough money to embrace courthouses that weren’t simply born out of necessity or thrift. Greek Revival was a prominent early style.
By the post-war years of the late 1860s, all bets were off- influences came flooding in from all over during the great courthouse boom, and architects were happy to mash them all up into weird concoctions of their own preferences. Italianate quoins with a Second Empire mansard roof? You got it. How about Neoclassical columns with a Beaux Arts dome? Sure! What if we slapped a couple of Romanesque arches on top of a Classical Revival monumental stairway? The more the merrier- anything was possible in those halcyon days and, somehow, it worked! Sure, those Waffle House hash browns you ordered smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped, topped, and country-style with ketchup aren’t going to satisfy the demands of the food pyramid or your intestinal systems, but boy are they good. That’s American Exuberance!
Only around a fifth of Ohio’s county seats claim a Waffle House1. The closest outpost to today’s topic, the courthouse in Van Wert, is thirty miles away. But despite that I’ve never seen a courthouse just vomit all of its toppings towards the street in such a Waffle House-inspired way. I mean that in a good way! The Van Wert County Courthouse is absolutely soaked in American Exuberance- the architectural equivalent of onions, cheese, ham, tomatoes, jalapeños, mushrooms, chili, and gravy combined, and all on one building. Though the structure only serves justice to just under 11,000 people in town and fewer than 30,000 in the county, it simply revels in its excess. I love it!
T.J. Tolan, the architect of this courthouse along with at least five more around the midwest, was a marble cutter by trade before jumping headfirst into architecture at 44 years old when he moved from Delphos, Ohio to the metropolis of Fort Wayne. The courthouse in Van Wert was his first big project, so let’s dive right in to its appearance: Its brick construction, mansard roof, and square-based domes are all hallmarks of Second Empire architecture. The windows are narrow and the building’s main tower is framed by two smaller ones that alone wouldn’t be out of place on Old Main at a private university. A broken, arched pediment above the recessed front entrance is supported by two pairs of corinthian columns and holds an eight-foot tall statue of an allegorical figure of justice that won top prize in a Philadelphia sculpture contest2. The courthouse is colorful, with a dark gray foundation and roof, contrasting stonework, red brick, and gold accents.
As described, the elements aren’t all that crazy. I think what makes the courthouse look so unique is its outlandish sense of proportion both in relation to its own features and in comparison to its surroundings. For one, the building’s heavy massing gives it the impression of being both top- and front-heavy, like when you see a trailerless semi buzzing down the highway or if you imagined Stormy Daniels with a head the size of a beach ball. The effect is caused by several things: First, the building sits close to Main Street without a lawn to buffer it. Second, the main tower doesn’t have any setbacks- until you get to the colossal lantern at the top, it’s pretty much a straight shot up. Third, the smaller towers that frame it also add a substantial amount of heft to the front of the building which visually increases its mass. The courthouse isn’t a super-tall building to begin with, at least according to old Sanborn fire insurance maps that peg it at around 110 feet3, but it is huge and has always stood out to me since I first drove by it one late night when I was a college freshman in Fort Wayne.
“The present courthouse is a magnificent structure, which reflects great credit upon both the town and county. It is situated in a public part of town and is finished with great skill and taste both outside and within,” an R. Sutton opined in his contemporaneous history of Van Wert and Mercer counties4.
“The Van Wert Court House is as convenient as it is elegant, and an honor to the town and county. It is the finest structure in Northwestern Ohio,” wrote the editor of the Kenton Democrat, “and we cannot help being a little covetous in the premises5.”
I would not expect such glowing reviews of a plate of Waffle House hash browns, but there is one more similarity between the two items: the bang for the buck. It used to be that you could get a regular-sized order with every topping for four dollars, but you might end up spending up to $5.20 depending on the specific store. Regardless, you’re stuffed and out the door for cheap!
The courthouse in Van Wert was similarly thrifty, winding up at a mere $107,000- just two-thirds the cost of the Darke County Courthouse in Eaton and far less than Tolan’s later designs in Rockville and Warsaw, Indiana6. How’d he do it? Well, though it appears that one of the most prominent features of the courthouse is its contrasting stonework, the belt courses, quoins, window finishes, entrance, cornices, balustrades, mansard roof, and tower; everything -aside from the foundation, really- are actually made of crimped, cushion-patterned, iron. “The building is remarkable for the free use of sheet metal finish, both upon the exterior and interior, and the cost of fine effect thereby attained at a minimum of cost,” the technologist at New York City’s Industrial Monthly said at the time7. Incredible! As for Waffle House, the visible square of melted American under the “covered” option gives me enough insight as to what constitutes that restaurant’s savings.
Now, before we go any further, it would be almost sacrilegious to continue to ramble on about Waffle House without mentioning Balyeat’s Coffee Shop, a Van Wert staple next door to the courthouse and run by Dale Davies for seventy years before it closed in November, 2016. That was before I came to town, but JP Cavanaugh has a great writeup of the place here. I’ve heard the food was very good.
My dad liked to say that anything worth doing was worth doing to excess, and while Mr. Tolan and I agree, it’s also important to be able to moderate that extravagance. Tolan’s later courthouse designs reigned in his wildest impulses, and I’ve only gone so far as ordering my hash browns smothered and diced. It’s always a treat to go absolutely crazy every once in a while, though, and I’m glad that Tolan -and the citizens of Van Wert County- did exactly that 144 years ago.
Van Wert County (pop. 28,275, 75/88)
Van Wert (pop. 10,680).
Cost: $107,000 ($2.6 million today)
Architect: T.J. Tolan & Son
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 110 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “Find a Store” Waffle House. WH Capital, LLC. Web. Retrieved 11/21/20.
2 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
3 “Van Wert, Ohio” The Sanborn Map Company [Pelham]. November, 1907.
4 “History of Van Wert and Mercer Counties, Ohio: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers” R. Sutton & Co. [Wapakoneta]. 1882. Print.
5 Wood, Cindy. “County Courthouse: 135 years of history” The Van Wert Independent [Van Wert]. Web. Retrieved 11/17/20.
6 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 11/26/20.
7 “Paulding County Courthouse” The Supreme Court of Ohio & The Ohio Judicial System. The Supreme Court of Ohio [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 11/26/20.