The old courthouse of 1842 could be put into the courtroom of the present imposing edifice, one of the finest in the state of Indiana.
So wrote the editors of the Raintree County Free Inquirer in their July 4 edition of 1892.
At least, that’s what Hoosier writer Ross Lockridge, Jr., imagined them writing. Never mind that he might have modeled his fictional Raintree on Henry County (which shares its geographic coordinates) or any one of 91 others across his home state. Lockridge knew that to open his epic novel of Indiana life, Raintree County, on a true note, he’d have to capture the spirit and pride of the Hoosier small town. And to capture the town, he’d have to start at the courthouse square.
Today, even as our small towns struggle and our suburbs sprawl, the Indiana county courthouse remains a persistent symbol of the self-governing pride that took root under the Constitution Elm at Corydon. The imposing courthouse – set apart in the heart of town, its pediment or dome visible above the cornices of surrounding business blocks – stands testament to a time when finely crafted details of brick, iron and stone seemed an appropriate offering to Hoosier civic spirit.
For many Indiana counties – consider Lockridge’s make-believe Raintree, or my own Monroe – the grand edifice that seems now like it must have arisen from Precambrian bedrock is itself a latecomer, the brash replacement for some earlier effort that did not clear the high bar of aesthetic ambition and civic hubris set by our Progressive Era forebears.
So it’s no surprise to see the same impulse at work in our own time – even if today’s rebuilding campaign is more often driven by a desire to add parking or improve ventilation than it is to elevate the dignity of the common citizen. If you think the survival of the old county courthouse is something to take for granted, I advise a day trip to Anderson or Muncie. And while I can’t say that some future generation of Madison or Delaware County citizens might not bless their ancestors for erecting today’s concrete-and-glass monoliths, the case for maintaining our surviving golden-age courthouses seems, from our perspective, almost too strong to bear arguing. Are these not symbols of the ambitions that earlier Hoosiers challenged us to realize? And are we not up for the challenge?
To be sure, the approach of Indiana’s bicentennial also occasions a remembrance of those times when we have had to say no to that question. But here, too, the courthouses are key to our fuller understanding of ourselves. Can we really afford to forget the crowd of Marion citizens who lynched two men outside the Grant County Courthouse on a summer night in 1930? The warm welcome given D.C. Stephenson by the Hamilton County sheriff as the Klan leader stood trial for murder at the adjacent county courthouse? The continued presence of these and other historic public buildings reminds us that real people hold the scales of justice and that the work of holding them accountable to our constitutional ideals will forever be, as Abraham Lincoln reminded us, unfinished.
I recently led a class of IU undergraduates around the grounds of Bloomington’s Monroe County Courthouse. They wandered among limestone monuments erected to warriors and peacemakers long gone.
They deciphered painted allegories of learning and culture. They stood in the cool marble foyer, as entitled as anyone else to call this dignified space their own. And they learned that, but for the hard work of a few local citizens 30 years earlier, the building would not stand today. It was too cramped, said the civic boosters in the 1970s. Inefficient. Costly to maintain.
The students shook their heads: What were those people thinking?
Our visit was academic, but the question is not. Today, we owe more than we can give to our watchful predecessors in Bloomington – or to contemporary groups like Fort Wayne’s Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust – for understanding that the cost of losing the past may be higher than the price of mortar and reinforcing rods. But for the folks in LaGrange, Nashville and dozens of other Indiana towns who must fight uphill battles with dollars-and-common-sense, we can hope that the words of retired Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard offer some inspiration.
These structures, wrote Shepard in his foreword to the Indiana Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission’s report to the General Assembly in 2011, reflect our better selves.
Could Ross Lockridge’s imaginary Hoosier editors have put it any better?