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Step back in time with Monroe County’s courthouse

August 10, 2013

The current Monroe County Courthouse is only a little more than a century old, But there were several iterations of courthouses before the one we are familiar with, including the frontier version, which was a double log cabin with a dogtrot between the two rooms.

Here’s the current 1908 building under construction; click to enlarge the image. Note that the battered old brick fire station is still standing in the corner of the square, behind to the right, prior to its demolition. This was the last of several small outbuildings that were originally clustered inside the courthouse square. Many Bloomingtonians have no idea that there was ever more than a single structure at once occupying the square.

Taken around 1906, this image is courtesy www.preserveindiana.com

Taken around 1908, this image is courtesy http://www.preserveindiana.com

The core of the previous courthouse was a 1820s brick Federal style building. In the 1850s it received the addition of two flanking brick wings that thrust forward to enclose a portico of columns beneath a pediment. The steeple probably probably dates to the 1870s when Second Empire elements such as mansards became popular. This particular image was probably taken somewhere around 1900.

From the same vantage point as the previous photo. This structure has two floors, not three.

From the same vantage point as the previous photo. Note that there were no retaining walls or steps to divide the courthouse lawn from the street; the building sat lower on its site.

Here is another view of the building when it was younger and did not have so many trees to block the view. If you examine this third photo very carefully and look at the rooflines, you can make out the core structure, which would have been square, with a hipped roof and chimneys at the corners. When constructed in the 1820s this core would have had a cupola instead of a steeple, and arched windows to match the arch over the front door.

Note how the dapper white paint of this version had worn off by the time the previous photo was taken.

Note how the dapper white paint of this version had worn off by the time the previous photo was taken.

The only photo we have that gives an overall impression of the older part of the building is the following image, lifted from a photo in the valuable book, Bloomington and Indiana University, an Arcadia photo book assembled by Bloomington Restorations, Inc. The photo was taken from the east side of the square and faces the northeast corner of the building. The 1850s addition only affected the front corners of the building and left the back untouched. If you ignore the mansard tower, this corner therefore depicts the 1820s structure with its arched windows.

The courthouse is at left, with the old fire station at far right. The flanking addition built in the 1850s is invisible behind the tree to the left, for it did not extend all the way back due to the courthouse annex, the small brick building you see attached to the courthouse at center left.

The courthouse is at left, with the old fire station and public privy at far right. The flanking addition built in the 1850s is invisible behind the tree to the left, for it did not extend all the way back. Note the courthouse annex, the small brick building you see attached to the courthouse at center left.

We have no photos of the unenlarged 1820s courthouse, because Bloomington does not appear to have had a photographer until the 1860s, after the flanking wings had already been added. What we do have is an ambitious but inauthentic 20th-century sketch, commissioned by amateur historian Robert Leffler, that showed the 1820s building, which was roughly 40 x 45 feet, as a tall, narrow townhouse burdened with a massive cupola and square-topped windows.

leffler courthouse

This sketch is only accurate in showing the original log jail (to the left behind the courthouse) and the annex on the right. The main building is far too vertical and narrow, and the base of the cupola is much too substantial.

A more true approximation of the shape of the original building can be found in the1813 Old Statehouse at Corydon, which was the first capital of the new state of Indiana during a time when the center of the state was still inhabited by its namesake Indians. The Old Statehouse served as the meeting place of state legislators until Indianapolis was platted in 1825, at which point it dwindled to become simply the courthouse of Harrison County.

This image belongs to TripAdvisor. You clearly can see the cubelike central structure and its cupola, which used to be taller.

This image belongs to TripAdvisor. You clearly can see the cubelike central structure and its cupola, which used to be taller.

At least one other duplicate of the Old Statehouse was constructed, in Rome, Indiana, and served as the courthouse for Perry County.

Architectural researcher Bill Coulter recently drew my attention to the background of a painting from the 1840s made by Bloomington’s Theophilus Wylie that shows a stump speech, supposedly by Paris Dunning, who was briefly Governor of Indiana as well as a leading local attorney. The middle distance shows the red Courthouse with its white steeple. Other notable buildings of the time are featured as well. Click the image to enlarge.

This painting has been preserved at Indiana University as a valuable reminder of our frontier heritage.

This painting has been preserved at Indiana University as a valuable reminder of our frontier heritage. Click to enlarge the image and see the courthouse near the center.

The inside of the 1820s Monroe County Courthouse was divided between a public spectator seating area and a raised dais upon which the judge, lawyers and jury sat. Much of it was painted blue, which was considered a rich and elegant color (possibly due to the difficulty of mixing that particular color). Here is an image of the interior of the Corydon Old Statehouse showing the railing and the dais behind it.

Various historical documents are displayed to the public at the Old Statehouse.

Various historical documents are displayed to the public at the Old Statehouse.

Upstairs in the old Monroe County Courthouse there was a hallway with rooms opening up on both sides. There was a narrow stairway leading to the attic. At the Old Statehouse there is simply a scuttle-hole in the ceiling of the upper hall, as seen here.

The rooms seem simultaneously cramped and spacious at the same time, due to their dimensions and lofty ceilings.

The rooms seem simultaneously cramped and spacious at the same time, due to their dimensions and lofty ceilings.

I hope these images help 21st-century Bloomingtonians get a more accurate image of their original courthouse, which was built at great expense and labor in the 1820s.

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3 Comments
  1. Alexandra permalink

    Lovely. Thanks for this excellent piece zooming in and back in time.

  2. Chris Sturbaum permalink

    Nice work! The artist’s conception of the “upside down turnip” was not very close. I wonder if we could get a new artist’s rendering based on this work? A series of previous courthouse drawing’s would be a nice addition to our existing courthouse. Chris

  3. Bill Coulter permalink

    The ‘battered fire station’ on the northeast corner of the courthouse grounds was also Bloomington’s first City Hall. Offices were upstairs and the fire equipment was on the ground floor.

    Bill Coulter

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