People often ask me what draws me to county courthouses instead of some age-appropriate hobby like video games or riff-raff. First and foremost, it’s the architecture! I’m also smitten with these buildings because of the sense of identity they provide a community- I spent many hours in the backseat of a car being shuttled to relatives’ homes across Indiana and literally learned about my surroundings by examining their courthouses as we drove past. Finally, I value the sense of permanence our historic courthouses project; not only with regards to the buildings themselves, but in terms of the institutional ideals they reflect. Of course, some courthouses invoke a sense of durability more than others. Case in point- Greene County’s in Xenia, Illinois.
In thirty years, I’ve only participated in one tornado, which was on June 6, 2010. I was back from college for the summer, helping manage the Subway outpost in rural Yorktown, Indiana that I’d worked at throughout high school. It was a dead Sunday since the new median a recent highway project installed meant the church across the street couldn’t easily turn in after service for a footlong Italian BMT, so my colleague and I were spending a leisurely afternoon throwing sandwich knives at a target we’d drawn on a box full of the previous day’s bread. All of the sudden -as if Al Roker flicked a switch- the sky darkened, the wind began to howl, and the SRN-2001 in the field just behind us wound up and wailed to life. Crap- tornado!
Legends hold that my hometown of Muncie is impervious to twisters due to the way the river plods through the city- something about how the Indians who settled here viewed the circle as a spiritual form and that the curve of the river retains some of those mystical properties1. It’s all hokum -bullshit- as the EF-1 tornado that smacked into the historic Muncie Central Fieldhouse in 2017 would gladly attest if given the opportunity. Nevertheless, Muncie’s been very lucky over the years, even avoiding any damage that the 1974 super outbreak wreaked across the midwest. Other cities -and their courthouses- weren’t so fortunate.
What’s the super outbreak, you ask? It was the second-largest tornado epidemic ever recorded in a single 24-hour period. From April 3, 1974 through the 4th, 148 damn tornados sprung up in 13 midwestern states and Ontario, killing 319 people, injuring nearly 5,500 more, and causing $4.6 billion in damages in terms of today’s money2. I hate attempting to quantify a tragedy- it’s not my place to turn lives, livelihoods, and community stalwarts into numbers or cynical prose to being agog, and that’s to say nothing of placing any statistic on tenterhooks. But one of the storms -an F5- tore through Xenia and ruined the city. 1,400 buildings were destroyed, 1,300 people were injured, and thirty-three residents lost their lives3. Though it sustained damage to its roof, cornices, clock faces, and gargoyles, Samuel Hannaford’s seventy-five year old courthouse survived the storm. Remarkably, the 18×10 stained glass window next to the judge’s bench in the courtroom even managed to stay in one piece thanks to the protection of a simple storm window4.
Now, Richardson Romanesque courthouses make up a healthy portion of this blog’s content. That’s because there are an absolute crap-ton of them! Back in the 1890s, architects and county commissioners alike loved their sturdy appearance, garnered from the use of heavy stone blocks, recessed entrances, square clock towers, and fortresslike massing. If you’ve ever seen a courthouse that reminds you of a castle, you’ve seen a Richardson Romanesque model! That Xenia’s courthouse survived a tornado seems to justify some of the bombast often used to describe structures erected in this style, and I doubt that any of its predecessors would have been so lucky, especially since the first courthouse in Greene County were built of logs. And we all know that houses of sticks -just like houses of straw- are no match for any manner of huffing or puffing.
Actually, Greene County’s first courthouse was a tavern in Beaver Creek Township. There were no trials scheduled on its first day of business, but the proprietor seems to have had “an ample supply of ardent spirits of various degrees of intoxicating potency on hand,” and their consumption led to enough fights to fill the burgeoning court’s docket for the next several days5. Xenia received its first courthouse -a brick building measuring forty feet square and twenty-eight feet tall- sometime before 1809, and it was torn down in 1842 for the county’s third. In 1846, someone ventured to the site of the first courthouse, near where Germain Ford of Beaver Creek is today, to make a pen drawing of the building. Trudging through the brush, he was confronted by the new owner’s pet black bear tied to one corner of the building6!
The third Greene County Courthouse was Greek Revival, and it lasted for nearly sixty years before being replaced by the current one. Thankfully, its Ionic columns were moved to Woodland Cemetery after it was demolished, and they can be seen at its entrance off of Dayton Avenue. For the fourth, commissioners hired Samuel Hannaford. His building is what survived the tornado; the one we see today. It’s similar to his design for Cincinnati’s City Hall7, though he designed courthouses in Vigo County, Indiana and Washington and Monroe counties in Ohio that are wildly different. Nevertheless, Hannaford’s Greene County Courthouse is the only one to have survived a damn tornado. That makes it special!
And what about my own tornadic experience at Subway? Well, the power went out. What do we do? I remember reasoning that the store’s vault-like walk-in freezer would be the safest place to be during a twister, but my frontal cortex hadn’t fully developed and it was cold in there. The next-safest action would probably have been to kneel behind the deli counter, but that’d be uncomfortable for any more than a couple of minutes. In lieu of any other alternative, I decided that the best idea was to go out the back door and see what was going on. As I did I heard a sucking noise and saw a dark funnel cloud ascend into the sky. That’s it! Later I read in the paper that it’d been rated as an F0 tornado- pretty measly, though it did manage to touch down again about eleven miles south. In fact, my co-worker and I got more mileage from joking that our hyper-prepared general manager had hidden disaster gear underneath all the lettuce and roast beef than we did from saying we’d seen a tornado pass within spitting distance of our workplace.
It’s a fact of life in the midwest that twisters come and go. Some buildings crumple, while others manage to stand strong. My own tornado story is weak, but Xenia’s courthouse sure stood up to a big one in a manner of resilience uncommon to many modern buildings. We should celebrate its fortitude. I fell in love with courthouses partially due to their monumental permanence, and there’s not one better than Greene County’s to drive that importance home for me. What an exceptional building!
Greene County (pop. 117,671, 148/88)
Xenia (pop. 26,534).
Cost: $191,764.50 ($5.81 million today)
Architect: Samuel Hannaford
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 145 feet
Current use: Courts and some county offices
1 * Fittes, Emma Kate. “Did a legend save Muncie from tornadoes?” The Star Press [Muncie]. August 25, 2016. Web. Retrieved 2/18/21.
2 Fujita, T. Theodore; Abbey, Jr., Robert F. “The Thunderstorm in Human Affairs” University of Oklahoma Press [Norman]. 1983. Print.
3 Bruce, Jeff. “That Deadly Day” The Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. April 1, 2004. 1. Print.
4 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
5 “Ohio County Courthouses: Seats of Justice – Greene County” The Ohio Channel [Columbus]. December 29, 2014. Web. Retrieved 2/17/21.
6 Broadstone, Michael A. “History of Greene County, Ohio: Its People, Industries, and Institutions” B.F. Bowen & Company [Indianapolis]. 1918. Print.
7 “American Art Annual, Volume 9” MacMillan Company [New York]. 1911. Print.