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The Journal Gazette

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette For more than 20 years, the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust has worked diligently to ensure the beauty of the 115-year-old courthouse has been restored and retained.

  • Elston

Thursday, December 07, 2017 1:00 am

County courthouse tours reveal overlooked beauty

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

It's obvious she loves the old building, the Allen County Courthouse.

Madelane Elston has been there from the beginning, when she and other activists began working in the 1990s to restore and protect the courthouse from decades of neglect and poor care. Elston is board president of the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust, and she's still singing the building's praises, more than 20 years later.

On Wednesday, she helped lead  media through the courthouse – into its stately courtrooms, through doors that are usually locked and up narrow staircases and into areas rarely seen by the public.

“I think it's really important for the community to understand, this is a world-class building,” she said. “I think it's important to remind them from time to time.”

Completed in 1902, the Beaux Arts-style building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2002, after eight years and nearly $9 million was spent restoring historic murals, artwork and other items.

Wednesday's tour featured trips to the Circuit Court courtroom and each of three Superior Court courtrooms on the third floor. The small group also traveled upstairs, more than 100 feet from the courthouse floor, to an area above the building's stained-glass dome.

The trust was formed in 1994, and its members worked to raise money for repairs including the painstaking restorations of murals inside the building's dome. A $300,000 gift to the trust in November from the Patricia Barrett estate will help ensure the organization continues to serve as steward of the building.

Robyn Zimmerman, executive director of the trust, said tours of the courthouse are given throughout the year. The trust runs a program on the courthouse for fourth-graders, and up to 4,000 of them traipse the courthouse halls in an average year, she said.

Tours for adults can be scheduled, Zimmerman said. The courthouse also hosts gatherings such as corporate dinners and wedding ceremonies, with rental fees going to the trust, she said.

The courthouse is a popular spot for visitors, said Kristen Guthrie, director of marketing for Visit Fort Wayne. She said the building is of particular interest during the city's annual Be a Tourist in Your Hometown event.

“Visitors do love to tour the courthouse and learn about the history and architecture,” Guthrie said in an email. “That combination is a special one, combined with the amazing tours provided by the Courthouse Trust. They really help visitor appreciate all of the reasons why the Courthouse is such a treasure.”

Among the reasons the building is a treasure, Zimmerman said, is that for many years even the people who worked in the building were unaware of the art around them. Murals were painted over. Heavy cloth covered walls. Other artwork was in disrepair.

“For decades, those attorneys and other employees who worked here didn't know what was here,” she said.

Elston added the public also was unaware because most people never had a reason to enter the building.

“When we came in here, nobody knew what it was,” she said. “We had this huge public image to build. The only people who came in here were people who had business in here, good or bad.”

Tours can be scheduled by calling 260-449-4246.