I already mentioned this, but we’re on our sixth courthouse in Delaware County, Indiana. We’ve run through three alone in the past thirty years! That’s incredible to me since it’s extremely rare for a county to change buildings that often. Okay, okay- I guess our oldest extant courthouse -constructed in 1969- is technically called the Delaware County Building. And its 1992 replacement is the (former) Delaware County Justice Center. The newest one, which opened for business yesterday, is actually known as the Delaware County Justice and Rehabilitation Center if the big signs at its entrances are to be believed. But dictionary.com defines a courthouse as “a building in which courts of law are held,” and they’ve all met that criteria, even if they lack the gravitas of a historic example like those we normally talk about here.
The way I see it, there are two ways to approach a discussion of the new courthouse. The first is to run through all of our previous ones: The first Delaware County Courthouse was built in the spring of 1829. The two-story frame building measured 20 by 40 feet and featured a gable facing the street1. The first floor held two courtrooms, while the second story was used for office space. The second one came in 1837 after Morgan John turned in designs for a brick courthouse, forty-five feet square and twenty-eight feet high with a hipped roof and cupola2. In 1848, a two-story, 46 by 263 brick county office building was built just north of the courthouse on the square in order to provide accommodations for the treasurer, recorder, clerk, and auditor.
In 1884, officials awarded Charles Pearce and Company the contract to build a new, stone courthouse for $195,000. Courts and county offices temporarily moved to Walling Hall, a burlesque venue built in 1862 on the site of the 1829 courthouse4 while Fort Wayne architect Brentwood Tolan designed the new courthouse, which was finished in 1887 and modeled heavily after his design for the 1884 Kosciusko County Courthouse in Warsaw. As majestic as both buildings were upon completion, the courthouse in Muncie was demolished in 1965 after years of abuse and deferred maintenance, and its replacement -a functional building with narrow windows and a cantilevered east wing- was completed four years later.
The fourth courthouse only served as courthouse for twenty-three years before it was replaced by Delaware County Justice Center, a building so disturbingly onerous that after two years of delays, $6 million in cost overruns, and 526 change orders, two judges hated it so much that they refused to set foot in it5. Built in response to a lawsuit that the previous jail was too small, it too was too tiny, and officials started getting sued again. After 25 years, commissioners shouted “take my money!” and threw down $3 million to purchase the current facility. $45 million and four years later, it’s a new jail- complete with a courthouse. That’s a lot of history to cram into three paragraphs. I’m exhausted!
The second way to approach the new courthouse is to take a look at Muncie’s school system. After a period of fantastic expansion, things fell back to earth in the 1970s and 80s as three middle and junior-high schools were closed and one was converted to an elementary. The shuffling of facilities meant that only two buildings -the 1970 Northside High School (demoted to middle school status) and the ancient Wilson Junior High- were left to serve students in grades seven and eight. Although the three-story, Classical Revival structure had been added to in 1927, 1954, and 1964, Wilson was really showing its age by the late eighties: a typical classroom was home to noisy radiators, bad climate control, inadequate lighting, and inefficient windows. Furthermore, the building lacked a swimming pool and auditorium, air conditioning, large classrooms, adequate parking, and quality athletic facilities7.
Like Muncie’s 1887 courthouse and as testament to its hardy construction, the historic building simply outlived its usefulness, so a new one was planned at the corner of 26th Street and Tillotson Avenue- a location criticized by many as being too far from the center of its district8. Nevertheless, ground was broken on January 7, 1993, and the building was completed in 1995 at a cost of $22 million.
In many ways the building was a step up from its predecessor, featuring terrazzo and vinyl floors along with dark blue carpet. A 630-seat auditorium comprised the school’s northeastern corner while a six-lane natatorium took up its southeastern side, accommodations that were unavailable at the building’s predecessor9. The building’s wings radiated outward in in the shape of an H from a core that featured two gymnasiums, a large media center, and a two-story entrance atrium. Primary access to the school was through an enclosed porch with five brick columns, set back between two-story classroom wings with paired gables. Shallow, pyramidal skylights capped the roofline about the school’s elbows, a feature I always enjoyed as my family drove past it in my youth. It’s an attractive structure, as far as middle schools go.
It’s crazy, but “New” Wilson Middle School served for only nineteen years, just a quarter of the time its predecessor did. The building closed in 2014, the same year that 1988 repeated itself and Southside High School devolved into a middle school. The following year, Wilson was sold to a local property management company, ASONS, for $2.3 million to serve as a new headquarters for expanded local operations that were projected to include 300 new jobs10. Unfortunately, the arrangement was a terrible one: thirteen months after their rose-tinted announcement, ASONS asked its 100 workers to take voluntary pay cuts of 15% or more because of what the company attributed to “mismanagement” and “overpriced employees11” before backtracking and laying the blame on a former executive who apparently falsified contracts for work that didn’t exist. Ope!
Now, I hate talking about current events- it doesn’t tend to happen here much when we mostly talk about buildings built more than a century ago! Nevertheless, I’ll recap the most recent ones to get to where we are today. It seems as though County Commissioners -two of whom were local police chiefs- lusted after “New” Wilson as the site for a new jail and, by extension, a new courthouse. Remember: the 1992 building was obsolete the day it opened, often housing twice its rated capacity of inmates. After ASONS was quietly purchased by Northsight Management of Scottsdale, Arizona in 2017, officials snapped their headquarters up and began renovating it to the tune of $45 million. Their decision was contentious- many decried the move of the courts from downtown and the possible economic impact its relocation would have on the Muncie’s city center. Some wanted the 1992 justice center expanded, while others wanted the jail relocated to an industrial shell building even further south of town. In the end, the commissioners’ wishes won out. That’s representative democracy for you! County officials getting what they want is not a new phenomenon in Indiana or anywhere else, and our history is full of similar occurrences. If you need any proof, read any number of the posts on this website!
It’s now February, 2021. Inmates started moving to the new Delaware County Justice and Rehabilitation Center on February 6th, and the county clerk’s office moved over the course of the following week. The building looks much the same as it did during its time as a middle school and corporate headquarters, aside from an enormous, metal wing that resembles Cowan High School’s auxiliary gymnasium and houses high-security prisoners. Curiously, the old school’s auditorium and natatorium have remained untouched for the time being. The new facilities are large enough this time around to have room to spare! Hopefully the county can recoup some of its costs by leasing out the extra space to adjacent communities.
It’s a common trope that a subset of students feel like going to school every day is like being sentenced to jail. I hate that it could actually become a reality in Delaware County for some who went to Wilson. But by repurposing the building, officials here have probably catapulted their justice center up near the top echelon of contemporary design within the space- I’m sure its entrance atrium and large amount of windows wouldn’t have been possible in a new build. As with the 1992 Justice Center, we’ll see what comes.
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 the former Wilson Middle School. 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.
1 Helm, Thomas B. “History of Delaware County, Indiana” Kingman Bros. [Chicago]. 1881. Print.
2 Kemper, General William Harrison. “A Twentieth Century History of Delaware County, Indiana, Volume 1” Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. 1908. Print.
3 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map- Muncie, Indiana. 1883. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Library of Congress. Web. Retrieved 2/14/21.
4 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map- Muncie, Indiana. 1887. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Library of Congress. Web. Retrieved 2/14/21.
5 “Justice” The Muncie Star [Muncie] April 19, 1992: 14. Print.
6 Roysdon, Keith. “Delaware County’s jail history a story of failure, millions spent” The Star Press [Muncie]. August 3, 2018. Retrieved 2/14/21.
7 Davies, Tom. “Wilson Middle School Fate Rests on Thrust of Program” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. August 4, 1991. 12. Print.
8 Davies, Tom. “Muncie Schools asks for jury to set value of site” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. July 31, 1992. Print.
9 Rendfeld, Kim Zollman. “Mid-year move?” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. February 8, 1995. 1. Print.
10 Shuey, Mickey. “ASONS adding 300 jobs, getting new Muncie headquarters” The Star Press [Muncie]. April 10, 2015. A1. Print.
11 Roysdon, Keith. “ASONS asked workers to name their pay cuts” The Star Press [Muncie]. May 12, 2016. A1. Print.
Delaware County (pop. 117,671, 14/92)
Muncie (pop. 70.085).
Built: 1995 and 2021
Cost: $45 million (estimated)
Architect: Fanning-Howey Associates (1995); RQAW (2015)
Courthouse Square: Campus
Height: 3 stories
Current use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 7/18/16 and 3/18/18