The rate that many early Indiana counties blew through county seats and courthouses is astounding. Whether due to recurring illness, natural disasters, Machiavellian politics, or a combination of all of it, it’s not uncommon to find counties that built three or four different courthouses before a permanent county seat was established. On the other hand, it’s almost unheard of for a modern county seat to cycle through them so rapidly, but that’s the situation we find ourselves in here in Muncie. The 1992 Justice Center represents the county’s fifth courthouse.
I covered what’s now the old courthouse-the 1969 Delaware County Building- here and briefly mentioned the 1992 structure, which was originally intended to be a new county jail when ideated in response to a 1978 inmate lawsuit that described the then-current jail as filthy1 and decried its lack of an exercise room and orange juice for breakfast. The Justice Center -as a joint venture between the city of Muncie and Delaware County- was approved in 1981 and estimated to cost $6.5 million in 1982. By the following year, that figure had ballooned to a whopping $14 million2. In 1984, Muncie Mayor Jim Carey announced that the city would likely pull out of the project in order to acquire land elsewhere for a new city hall, and a revised estimate put the cost of building the new jail at $16 million.
Carey’s about-face led commissioners to move other county offices into the new building to fill up the space originally intended for city police. This included the court system, even though the county building was aging gracefully and had even been designed to expand if needed3. I guess it made sense at the time to put the courts where the jail was, so that’s what they did. It’s not a new phenomenon- historic courthouses in Vernon and Martinsville both had connected jails and even sheriff’s residences, while the Preble County, Ohio courthouse has a hidden jail within its fourth-story parapet.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for the Justice Center were held in 1988, and the building was projected to be completed during the summer of 1990. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy- this was Muncie, after all, a city notorious for boondoggles, corruption, and poor leadership. Construction presented numerous defects that necessitated literally 526 change orders to the original plans. Those modifications resulted in a two-year delay and a cost overrun of $6 million- half again what the building was projected to amount to. The situation was so bad that, by 1990, a federal judge appointed a Shelbyville lawyer as ‘Special Master of the Justice Center,’ giving him full control over the project. County commissioners even fired and sued the original architects and engineers, alleging breach of contract and negligence. Fed up citizens came up with a slew of pejorative nicknames for the courthouse, including the ‘Injustice Center’ (heh) and the ‘Just Off-Center’ (hah!). Showing the building’s sorry craftsmanship, an attorney was even able to unscrew a staircase bolt using only his hands.
Local architect J. Robert Taylor, the same guy that later designed the expanded Randolph County Courthouse, was brought in to do what he could to rescue the project. Poor Mr. Taylor- he did as well as anyone could hope to, but acknowledged the building’s derisive monikers by confirming that it was, in fact, “off-center in every way,” and that “there were a lot of dimensional problems4.” One such problem was with the building’s grand staircase, which was designed in an open manner that allowed people to walk behind and smack their heads on it. Taylor brought in some gigantic potted plants –palms that rose fourteen feet high- to surround the staircase and lessen the probability of an injury or a lawsuit.
The justice center finally opened in stages in 1992, but the problems were far from over. It was quickly discovered that the warranty for the building’s electrical equipment was set to expire before the justice center would even be fully occupied. Then, Judge Richard Dailey refused to move his court from the county building. Next, the building’s new computers didn’t work so commissioners sued the company that provided them. Soon after that, furniture that was supposed to be moved from the county building to the justice center wound up missing. Finally, a convicted drug-dealer escaped.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the contractor for the justice center’s detention equipment went out of business that June, and two months later officials learned that the shuttered company still had keys to all of the jail cells! Not long after, the justice center’s building manager quit after several days on the job and by October, fire code violations in the new building were made public for the second time in a year5. It was a total train wreck- a train wreck that the county would pay for over the course of another 22 years, at a final estimated cost of $63 million. Architecturally, I guess the building’s okay -three stories of brick, glass, and concrete with a landscaped front lawn featuring the bell of the 1838 and 1887 courthouses. That’s a nice historic touch.
Despite finally paying the building off in 2014, officials weren’t out of the woods yet. Originally designed to hold 120 inmates, the jail was routinely housing more than 300 people by 2017, and a state inspector told officials that the building was headed for a “critical” incident unless something changed6. You can imagine that all those inmates weren’t pleased with their cramped quarters, and they protested: the jail was located above the courts, and ill-tempered prisoners routinely displayed their aggression by stuffing their toilets with rags, flooding the courtrooms. County officials started to get real about relocating everything. Again.
They actually had a chance to solve the problem in 2015 after Muncie Community Schools downsized and closed Wilson Middle School. But rather than deed the building to the county, the city’s redevelopment commission brokered a deal to sell it to a local property management company, ASONS, which appeared to be on the verge of an enormous expansion. The projected growth didn’t happen, though, and ASONS put the property up for sale again7 after just two years of ownership. This time, Delaware County government jumped at the chance to buy the old school by plunking down nearly $3 million. Their intent was to spend up to $45 million to renovate it into a new, 500-bed jail8 by 2020.
Over the past several years, contractors have been hard at work converting Wilson into a new jail and, yes, a courthouse. On December 14, 2020, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended jury trials statewide due to the COVID-19 surge. That meant that the final trial held at the 1992 Justice Center concluded on October 29th9. On February 6, the 237 inmates housed at the old facility made the move to Wilson, now known as the Delaware County Justice and Rehabilitation Center, and the county clerk’s office moved during the following week. What happens to the old justice center -Muncie’s fifth courthouse- remains to be seen, though commissioners have hinted that several developers are interested in the property10. Regardless of its future, today marks the end of an era for the much-maligned facility. Thankfully, the Delaware County Historical Society owns the bell out front.
Though I don’t believe the terms “justice center” and “courthouse” are necessarily interchangeable and wouldn’t have been compelled to follow the building’s saga if Muncie had a historic courthouse, the 1992 Justice Center did, technically, house the courts- as will its successor. Frankly, I’m uninterested in uninspired justice centers and, naturally, a website about Indiana’s historic courthouses is never going to be geared towards current events. But covering the continuing saga of the Delaware County Justice Center was an easy decision: Not only does the situation involve the adaptive reuse of a former school (an interest of mine), but it provides an intriguing mirror of the circumstances many early counties found themselves in as they switched rapidly from courthouse to courthouse.
Delaware County (pop. 117,671, 14/92)
Muncie (pop. 70.085).
Cost: $63 million (estimated)
Architect: Graham, Love, and Graham; J. Robert Taylor
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current use: Abandoned
Photographed: 7/18/16 and 3/18/18
1 Roysdon, Keith. “Delaware County to buy former Wilson Middle School for new jail” The Star Press [Muncie]: February 27, 2018. Retrieved 3/18/18.
2 Roysdon, Keith. “Delaware County’s jail history a story of failure, millions spent” The Star Press [Muncie]. August 3, 2018. Retrieved 2/14/21.
3 “That New Cornerstone is a Milestone, Too” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] October 25, 1968: 5. Print.
4 “Justice” The Muncie Star [Muncie] April 19, 1992: 14. Print.
5 “It’s built, and it’s occupied, but the story isn’t over yet” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. December 27, 1992: 1 Print.
6 “New Delaware County jail: Up to $50 million, 500 beds” Indiana Economic Digest. January 2, 2018. Retrieved 3/18/18.
7 Roysdon, Keith “Former Wilson Middle School up for sale – again” The Star Press [Muncie]: July 12, 2017. Retrieved 3/18/18.
8 Delaware County Buys Old Wilson School For New Jail” February 28, 2018. WBAT. Retrieved 3/18/18.
9 Walker, Douglas. “Downtown Justice Center has likely seen its last trial” The Star Press [Muncie]: December 15, 2020. Retrieved 12/20/20.
10 Ohlenkamp, Corey “Delaware County Justice Center starts operations soon. Here’s when it will open” The Star Press [Muncie]. February 12, 2021. Retrieved 2/14/21.