I've always bemoaned the fact that my own county (Oakland in Michigan) has a 1960s-era courthouse, with multiple additions making for a sprawling complex far from its former downtown Pontiac home.
We make it a point to stop by vintage courthouses as we travel. I've always appreciated the sense of a county's history expressed by these buildings. There always seems to be an interesting story behind the building or the land and other architectural features immediate surrounding them.
I love the Indiana Courthouse Squares site that showcases the state's iconic courthouses and lets visitors learn a little more about the courthouses and their surrounding squares.
This site, created by several departments at Ball State University and in conjunction with plans to celebrate the state's bicentennial in 2016, explains the importance of the county courthouse in Indiana history and the potential of such structures as a focal point for urban rejuvenation.
The courthouse as a central feature in a public square has a long history in states like Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas, according to the Web site. They served as a center for political, economic and social life in a place, building a real sense of community.
Eighty-three of the courthouses in Indiana's 92 counties qualify as historic structures, dating from the mid-to-late 1800s through the earliest decades of the twentieth century.
Some of the older courthouses disappeared due to natural disaster or the need to modernize and expand the older buildings.
The trouble with losing a courthouse serving as community center and replacing it with a sleekly modern building or, worse yet, moving the whole thing to an outlaying area of the county (as we did in Oakland), often led to the slow death of the city's urban core and vitality.
A more recent view sees restoration and preservation of the old courthouse squares as a tool to rejuvenate some urban centers by drawing new commercial activity and visitors to downtowns.
Several counties in Indiana (like Putnam, Hamilton, Randolph and Tippecanoe) revitalized their courthouses in recent years, seeing an accompanying rejuvenation and increase in commercial and economic activity in the surrounding urban spaces.
Indiana state lawmakers, seeing the value in the vintage courthouses as a stimulus for economic growth and rebirth of many urban spaces, passed a law creating the Courthouse Preservation Commission in 2008 to gather information, make recommendations and support the continued preservation and restoration of historic courthouses across the state.
The Indiana Courthouse Squares site has pages for the courthouses in all 92 Indiana counties. It's a nice way to quickly view the courthouses in each county and learn a little bit about the buildings.
The site gives a bit of information about the development of courthouse squares, explaining that researches feel there is a link between the development of courthouse squares in Indiana and immigration patterns over time. Plans featuring open squares in the middle of town trace their origins to medieval Germany and Poland, and Indiana's large German immigrant population may explain the fact that many historic courthouses and squares in the state follow a similar plan.
The Shelbyville plan, named for a town in Tennessee where the courthouse square plan in the early 1800s placed the courthouse in the center of a full city block surrounded by four streets that intersected at each corner. This plan prevails in 79 of Indiana's 92 counties.
The Lancaster plan originated in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania in 1739. This plan featured a courthouse in the center of the town's green and surrounded by four streets, and with streets approaching the square at the center of each side. This plan offers some nice views of the courthouse if you directly approach the front of the building by car.
The Harrisonburg Square plan combines features of the Shelbyville and Lancaster plans, featuring the four surrounding streets with just two approaches at the center of the east and west sides of the square.
Clicking on a particular county on the site's map page takes visitors to a page with a photo of that particular courthouse with the name of the architect and date built.
Clicking on Squares at the bottom of the main page takes you to a page where you can mouse over the name of a county or county seat to discover the type of square surrounding the courthouse and a quick map with the names of the streets immediately surrounding the square.
Each individual page for a particular courthouse or square usually includes a few links to photos of the courthouse and the surrounding area.
The site also has a mobile version, which looks useful for quickly looking up a courthouse during a road trip. I like the full version of the site as it includes access to the more photos of each location.
Want to learn more? Check out The Magnificent 92 Indiana Courthouses by Jon Dilts and Wil Counts.
© Dominique King 2014 All rights reserved