The Marion County, Indiana Courthouse (1962-2022)

I have a hard time believing that the Indianapolis City-County Building is sixty years old this year. Maybe that’s because my frame of reference towards what’s old or not is still based on it being the year 2000 or so. I was ten, and back then a sampling of sixty-year-old buildings would dig up a handful of Art Deco, Prairie Style, and Neo-Gothic structures. In other words, buildings that actually looked old and, in lots of ways, resembled the City-County Building’s predecessor, the 1876 Marion County Courthouse. 

The Indianapolis/Marion County City-County Building, built in 1962.

The old courthouse was once a sight to behold: An Indianapolis Daily Sentinel editorial written the year it opened went so far as to describe the structure as “one of the finest, handsomest and solidest piles in the West,” and “an enduring monument to the skill, integrity, and honesty of Isaac M. Hodson, the architect1.”

The main entrance of the old courthouse faced Washington Street from underneath a 280-foot clock tower and was framed by Marion County’s coat of arms- a shelf supported by Ceres and Vulcan (representing the area’s agricultural and manufacturing prowess) with the motto “Spectemur Agenda” carved in the middle. “Let us be judged by our actions,” it said.

The late 1950s saw the passage of a statewide resolution in Indiana that allowed cities and counties to form joint building commissions. This made the construction of consolidated government centers easier than it ever had been, and though the 1960s were pre-Unigov years, you almost have to assume that the writing was already on the wall for Indianapolis, particularly after New Albany and Floyd County’s efforts to build anew served as a beta test.

Granite and Indiana limestone in the building’s wings reflect the styles of more historic courthouses.

Eighty years of heavy use takes a toll on a courthouse, and it just so happened that Marion County’s had become run-down and grimy by the time that new decree was passed. The motto above the old courthouse door, “Let us be judged by our own actions,” would eventually prove ironic, since officials acted by demolishing the courthouse and fans of architecture have judged them and the building that replaced it ever since.

I can’t say I blame Marion County’s brass. It’s important to understand that, in 1962, the construction of the Indianapolis City-County Building meant progress! That year, Indianapolis was one of twelve cities across the country to set new records in building height over the previous seven years, and the new courthouse was the first building in town to rise above the venerable Indiana State Soldiers and Sailors Monument2. Indianapolis, the crossroads of America by car and train now had a stake in the jet age: the 373-foot tall skyscraper solidified us Hoosiers with a position of prominence.

The City-County Building features freestanding steel columns at its Washington Street entrance. The plaza was extensively rehabilitated and dedicated several years ago.

As bromidic the City-County Building may seem today, it was a statement when it was built and I actually think it’s still handsome. The International style -which rejects ornamentation through its emphasis on volume and repetitive, modular forms- rapidly gained prominence in Europe through the 1920s and 30s, and it was rising in popularity across the Midwest around sixty years ago as part of the new school of architecture. I’ll be the first to admit that the Thermopane insulated glass and vitrolux spandrels3 that make up the 28-story tower are maybe a bit less inspiring than other courthouses I’ve visited, but details like the Indiana limestone and granite of the building’s flanking wings, as well as the six freestanding pillars that frame the building’s main entrance, really do call back the basic, classically-inspired details found in Indiana’s more traditional courthouses. Details like that are timeless and will never go out of fashion.

The 1930 Lincoln Tower in Fort Wayne, Indiana’s tallest building until the City-County Building in Indianapolis came along.

Until the City-County Building was completed, the tallest building in all of Indiana was the Lincoln Bank Tower in Fort Wayne, a 22-story Art Deco skyscraper completed in 1930. That’s an old building, and aside from their soaring heights, the two skyscrapers couldn’t be any more different. That’s what progress looked like. 

But progress in 1875 and 1962 looked a lot like it does in 2022: Sixty years ago, the City-County Building cost $32 million to construct. Fifty-seven years earlier, the Marion County Courthouse cost between $33 and $41 million in today’s money. This past May, the courts moved out of the City-County Building and into a new, $566 million Indianapolis-Marion County Community Justice Campus in the Twin Aire neighborhood of Indianapolis. I’ve heard of several plans to reuse the sixty-year-old skyscraper, but they all cause my mind to wander back to its demolished precursor which, of course, was not the recipient of any adaptive reuse.

The old three-story courthouse was flush with robust details that centered around a huge tower. Two others capped the building’s east and west fronts, along with eight enormous statues that represented commerce, law, justice, agriculture, and the four cardinal directions4. Although I missed its demolition by nearly sixty years, I wondered if anything had been saved from the old courthouse as I thought about what might be retained from the newer building now that its fate is unknown.

This is one of two statues from the 1876 courthouse that stand at Holliday Park.

As it turns out, things had been saved. People were passionate about retaining the courthouse’s old clockworks5. Those endeavors wound up proving fruitless (or timeless?), so attention quickly turned towards rescuing the building’s eight statues. A group was hastily formed on the eve of the final courthouse property auction, and supporters tried their hardest to ensure that the figures didn’t fall into private hands. Nevertheless, rumors persisted that a New York supermarket owner wanted the statues for for himself6

Despite strong headwinds, the preservation group was confident that an unnamed benefactor would buy the statues and relocate them at Indianapolis’s Holliday Park. Unfortunately, the philanthropist died unexpectedly and the auction proceeded7, although the committee wound up acquiring seven of the eight statues nonetheless! Four were installed at Holliday Park, but two have been put into storage in recent years because of their age and concerns about vandalism8.

The second of the Holliday Park courthouse statues.

A fifth statue was acquired by a private collector in California, but the preservation group won out on the rest and installed the remaining three at Crown Hill Cemetery. 

The first of the three statues at Crown Hill is perched on the berm just south of the 38th Street underpass. Like its counterparts, the statue measures ten-and-a-half feet tall. Apparently, this first one depicts either Persephone (daughter of Zeus and Demeter), or Hebe, the cupbearer to the gods and herself the goddess of youth9. This depiction holds a vessel in her hand, but I’m going to roll with her identity as Persephone after some consultations. She was the goddess of agriculture, fitting both descriptions.

A statue from the old courthouse of either Persephone or Hebe, at Crown Hill Cemetery.

The next statue is near port James Whitcomb Riley’s grave on the Crown, which is the highest point in Indianapolis. It’s said that this figure represents Themis, the daughter of Uranus and Gaia in Greek mythology and the goddess of law and order.

This statue from the old courthouse is said to depict Themis.

The third statue at Crown Hill is Demeter. She stands in section 46-B in a nondescript area that features some benches. She clearly carries a chaff of wheat, which makes me wonder if the statue at the overpass really is Persephone. Hopefully, someone will find out for me. Ideally, that person’s connected with the parks department: I would love to see the two they dismantled from Holliday Park.

The third courthouse statue at Crown Hill is said to be Demeter.

Just as the old statues adorned a monumental old courthouse that represented all that was new in 1876, the City-County Building represented the apex in architectural stylings, as well as of municipal government, when it was completed sixty years ago. In fact, the structure’s novel designation as the “City-County Building” necessitated a last-minute emergency session of local officials and their legal counsel, who realized that state laws required counties to conduct business in a building legally known as a “county courthouse10.” The skyscraper was hastily renamed for official purposes, but that’s how new the concept of this building was- no one even knew what to call it.

The south face and primary entrance of the 1962 Indianapolis/Marion County City-County Building.

No one really knew what to make of it either: the City-County Building in Indianapolis was initially appointed luxuriously enough that Hamilton County officials who toured the “glass monster” stuck their noses up at the plushness of Police Chief Robert Reilly’s suite, saying that “more time was spent in Reilly’s quarters because what felt like at least two feet of carpet made snoozing easier than anywhere else in the building11.”

We all know how restrained and tasteful those guys in Hamilton County are, so it must have been bad! Of course, Hamilton County in 1962 was much different than it is now, and officials there were right to be jealous, seeing as they had to deal with a decrepit courthouse of their own at the time.

I sort of wonder if the City-County Building will eventually gain as much appreciation as the old Marion County Courthouse retains amongst fans of old architecture. I doubt it, although in the here and now, maybe we can appreciate that it represents what it looked like to make an architectural statement as the crossroads of America was ushered into an exciting era. Thankfully, we still have some statues left over to remind us of what progress looked like in 1876 as well.

I’d be happy to help save these columns.

If the City-County Building winds up meeting the wrecking ball, I’d be happy to head a fundraising committee to scatter its massive steel columns around town in the same spirit of the statues from the old courthouse. Holliday Park and Crown Hill should probably get one apiece, as should the Children’s Museum, Idle Park at the south split, and Ralph’s Muffler on 16th Street. I’m happy to be overridden here, but the sixth should go to the Tavern At The Point to give Ann something to dance with.

Marion County (pop. 928,281)
Indianapolis ( pop. 852,866)
Built: 1962
Cost: $25.5 million ($201.9 million in 2016)
Architect: Allied Architects & Engineers
Style: International
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 372 feet
Current Use: City/county offices
Photographed: 4/2/2016- 73/92

Sources Cited
1 “Old Courthouse was Praised By Press” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. June 26, 1964. 9. Print.
2 “Structure Sets New City High” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. July 27, 1961. Page 42. Print.
3 “Tallest and largest office in Indiana” The Republic {Columbus, IN} June 7, 1961. 11. Print.
4 “Group Seeks To Save Courthouse Statues” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. May 11, 1962. 16. Print
5 “Courthouse Demolition to Begin May 21” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. May 7, 1962: 21. Print
6 “History of the Ruins” Friends of Holliday Park. Web. Retrieved 6/22/18.
7 “Group Seeks To Save Courthouse Statues” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. May 11, 1962. 16. Print
8 “Salvaged Goddesses” Gravely Speaking. April 19, 2017. Web. Retrieved from
9 “City-County Building is Courthouse” The Indianapolis News [Indianapolis]. February 27, 1962. 19. Print.
10 “H-Caps Take 3 Hour Hike in Glass Monster” The Noblesville Ledger [Noblesville]. February 5, 1963. 1. Print.
11 Pinsker, A. “Move of inmates to new Marion County jail is underway” WISH-TV 8 [Indianapolis]. January 15, 2022. Web. Retrieved October 1, 2022.

4 thoughts on “The Marion County, Indiana Courthouse (1962-2022)

  1. I have been told that the building is grossly underused now that the courts and police/jail functions have decamped. I recall the PR that other city and county offices renting space elsewhere could backfill the space, but this now appears to be either untrue or maybe just impractical.

    I have also been told that the new complex was designed for the criminal justice system and that judges in the civil courts are unhappy with the new space.

    I think the City-County building’s fate is very much in question. If you have been putting off a trip to the observation deck at the top, you had probably best start making plans to get there soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’ll be good to visit- the thought never occurred to me. I see now that’s it’s closed due to Covid protocol. Hopefully I’ll get a chance!

      Liked by 1 person

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