I’m getting bad at burying the lede here, so today we’ll talk about the Champaign County Courthouse in Urbana, Ohio.
There is tons of information about historic courthouses out there, but the treatment of the modern courthouses that dot these parts has long been a source of aggravation for me. There just isn’t that much stuff about some of the midwest’s newer county courthouses anywhere! I can understand a boring concrete justice center not getting its due in the web’s pantheon of majestic structures, but it’s a shame that even a sixty-six year-old county courthouse like Champaign County’s gets the short shrift online despite being old enough to retire and get social security if it were one of the county employees who work there. Today, we’ll try to change that.
Now, I don’t break news here; I just aggregate information. So we’ll start with some basic area history. Champaign County -named for a French word that means “open, level, country1”- was Ohio’s eighteenth, established in February, 1805 from land cut away from Greene and Franklin counties. The following October, Urbana was named county seat, a title the city’s retained ever since. It’s unclear where the name came from aside from the obvious connection to the Latin word “urbs,” which means “city2,” but that’s honestly pretty clear and I think it’s good enough. By 1833, Urbana had grown enough to feature a courthouse and jail, a printing office, a church, a market, nine stores, and more than a hundred houses3. Pretty highfalutin!
That’s all Wikipedia-grade research, though. Information about the first courthouse took some digging. Though commissioners’ early records are missing, the first courthouse in Urbana was built from logs away from the public square. During the War of 1812, the structure was used as an army hospital and got so full of injured troops that it became necessary to use the top floor of the county jail for courts. That building -the jail- was the de facto courthouse until 1817, when the county’s second -but the first to stand on the designated courthouse square- was erected4.
That second courthouse was a two-story brick structure. Since the county’s early documents were lost it’s hard to parrot a lot of its statistics but, according to local historian Evan Middleton, the building’s only entrance faced south and provided access to county offices on opposing sides of a cramped hallway that fed into a large courtroom that was also used also for church services, school, and other public gatherings. The building’s second story held the rest of the county’s offices, along with the local Masonic lodge. Apparently, a big, wooden club was kept in the courthouse belfry for use of all of Urbana’s purposes -openings of court, fire alarms, local deaths, and summoning people to church. Contemporary histories indicate that kids used to dare each other to climb up to the cupola and whack the bell, but unfortunately, it (the bell and the club, I suppose) was destroyed in 1840 when the courthouse was torn down.
Today we complain a lot about historic structures being ruined throughout constant changes, but it happened early on too. Champaign County’s third courthouse was first ideated in 1837 when commissioners decided that a structure with fireproof offices should be built. They were frugal: instead of appointing an architect to develop new plans for the building, they sent County Commissioner James Dallas to Hillsboro seventy miles south to obtain a copy the plans for their courthouse. Rather than pony up for a legitimate architect, they paid Dallas $8.00 for his trouble. That’s $217 today5, and I’d gladly take it for driving to a courthouse an hour away! After some change orders, the building was completed and occupied in 1840.
Over time, the structure aged. By 1879, commissioners finally appealed for assistance to replace the old structure, entering into an agreement with D.W. Gibbs to significantly repair and expand the old building. Remember him? He was responsible for several Ohio courthouses before becoming an early mayor of Oklahoma City. Though Gibbs’ clock tower echoed some of his larger works in Napoleon and Marysville, the building was still small. It was renovated in 1903.
In 1917, the courthouse got a sympathetic annex courtesy C.C. and E.A. Weber -architects from Cincinnati- to accommodate new offices for the county surveyor and a law library. In 1948, the whole thing burned down.
Remember how I said that townsfolk were frugal in Urbana? Well, they really were, and they didn’t want to pay for a replacement courthouse. After the fire, county courts wound up shacking up in a large home south of town at 1052 S. Main Street, now the home of Urbana Dental Smiles. In 1948, a $1.1 million bond to build a new courthouse was defeated by residents, as was a $875,000 bond the year after. At that point, proponents of a new county structure got serious, distributing fliers and raising awareness. Finally, a new courthouse was approved in 1952 for $650,000- 60% of the original ask. Shoot me now for using the word “ask” as a noun, but that’s what was approved, and it only included construction costs- the building’s equipment was paid for via the county’s general fund, something that hobbled the community for years6.
The current courthouse, designed by architect Philip T. Partridge, was finished in 1956. Here in Indiana, we don’t have any courthouses like it. We’ve got tons of post offices that resemble it, though! Sort of.
Three near my home bear more than a passing resemblance to the courthouse, and they’re found in Knightstown, Pendleton, and Gas City. I haven’t bothered to take photos of them, but they’re all PWA buildings constructed as part of the federal government’s response to the Great Depression. The post offices date from the mid-30s and were designed in the art deco style7 popular during those times. Knightstown’s, in particular, has been described as possessing a “stark combination of classical and modern design8,”
While I’d say that the Champaign County Courthouse also fits that criteria, I was a little surprised to read that Wikipedia called it a part of the “International” movement. Who knows who wrote that, but it doesn’t fit my definition of that style. But! As much of a fan I am of courthouses and architecture, I’m not a scholar. So I consulted with some historically-minded friends. One is a professor at Ball State who has done his own Indiana courthouse project. International style was his verdict, and I’ll take it. But what about those spandrel panels and the vertical orientation of the building’s pilasters that imply art deco? Well, apparently the “International” style emphasizes volume over mass, repetitive modular forms, rejection of ornament and color, and industrial-grade materials. I guess this courthouse fits the bill.
If you live in Muncie you’ll see a lot of commonality between the Champaign County Courthouse in Ohio and the Arts and Communication building at Ball State. It was completed in 1957- just a year after this courthouse was, but nearly twenty after its similar post offices were. I don’t know if the lengthy period it took Champaign County to build a new courthouse contributed to the architectural shakeup that the building professes or not, but regardless it represents a historically-modern entry into Ohio’s portfolio of courthouses.
I think that’s great, and, truth be told, I love these 1950s-era buildings! I especially love the typefaces, if you can call them that, used to adorn their fronts. Though both older and newer courthouses exist, it’s still important to highlight those caught in the middle. Information might be scarce, but it’s usually still possible to rustle something up about them. I’ll keep looking into our modern courthouses to create a better resource for those who come here with an eye towards better understanding it.
Champaign County (pop. 38,885, 64/88)
Urbana (pop. 11,496)
Cost: $650,000 ($6.18 million today)
Architect: Philip T. Partridge
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: Three stories}
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “Agriculture & Natural Resources in Champaign County” Ohio State University Extension [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 1/17/21.
2 “Urbana and Champaign county” Ohio Writers’ Program. Gaumer Publishing Company [Ohio]. 1942. Print.
3 Kilbourn, John. “The Ohio Gazetter, or, a Topographical Dictionary” Scott and Wright [Columbus]. 1833. Print.
4 Middleton, Evan. “History of Champaign County, Ohio .” B.F. Bowen & Company [Indianapolis]. 1917. Print.
5 “Value of $8 from 1837 to 2021” CPI Inflation Calculator. Official Inflation Data, Alioth Finance [Uttarakhand]. Web. Retrieved 1/17/21.
6 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
7 “Post Office- Gas City, IN” The Living New Deal. Department of Geography, University of California. Web. Retrieved December 20, 2020.}
8 National Register of Historic Places, Knightstown Historic District, Knightstown, Henry County, Indiana, National Register # 86001104.