The Madison County, Indiana Courthouse (1972-)

“Bullies don’t like to fight, son. They like to win.” 

The poet Kwame Alexander wrote those words in his graphic novel Booked, a story about a twelve-year-old soccer player named Nick who struggles to navigate life after his parents’ divorce. Who among us was twelve and wasn’t bullied for one stupid reason or another?

The imbalances of social power that lead to coercive and abusive behavior don’t magically stop in middle school, of course. I have no doubt that we’ve all been members of that club to different degrees at different ages, but I think it’s time to pool our funds and buy a courthouse-sized jacket to send to Madison County. We may have to bring the tent and awning company in on this one.

The 1972 Madison County Courthouse in Anderson, Indiana.

Only eight of Indiana’s ninety-two counties no longer have a historic courthouse. This state has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to old seats of government! Yet we know that it’s always the outliers that get picked on, made fun of, and chastised. In that vein, the Madison County Courthouse in Anderson has continually gotten the short end of the stick from architecture buffs ever since it was completed in 1972.

It’s not like all of Indiana’s historic courthouses are unique. As a matter of fact many are actually far from it, as a few days driving to John Gaddis’ designs in Greencastle, Huntington, and Brazil; or to Elmer Dunlap’s courthouses in Delphi, Rockport, and Petersburg; or to the courthouses that E.O. Fallis designed demonstrate. George Bunting drew up a lot of similar ones too, including the 1882 Madison County Courthouse that was demolished in the early 1970s to make way for the county’s modern government center. Despite its absence, you can still appreciate the spirit of the lost building by driving an hour northwest to Frankfort to see the Clinton County Courthouse. It’s a mirror image of Anderson’s. Trade the limestone for red brick and it’s just about identical.

The 1882 Madison County Courthouse, as seen in Frankfort, Indiana as the 1882 Clinton County Courthouse there.

As in Clinton County, the previous Madison County Courthouse was a great example of the Second Empire style translated through a homespun, Hoosier lens. Unfortunately, by the 1970s, the building in Anderson had to come down.

The reason for its demise was purely practical: Between 1880 and 1960, Clinton County’s population grew by 7,293 people -good for a 28.9% per the U.S. Census. Madison County’s swelled by a monstrous 98,292 people over the same timeframe, good for an increase of nearly 190% thanks to the expansion of two large General Motors divisions in the city. Correspondingly, county commissioners realized that they needed more room to conduct official business as early as 1955, when they authorized a study to explore several different possibilities1 of increasing the space that the courthouse offered. Two years later, a $1.5 million bond was floated to construct an addition, an annex, or an entire new courthouse2. The need was there, but residents didn’t quite see it yet.

The courthouse was designed to alleviate overcrowding and provide ample room for the growing county.

They should have, though, since the situation was bad. Have you ever played Sardines? It’s a version of Hide-and-Seek. Once the seekers locate the hider, they join the conspiracy by stuffing themselves into the same hiding spot like the eponymous fish. The hideaway gets more and more cramped and giggly as the loser eventually finds everyone crammed into a coat closet or sub-basement.

Winning the game of sardines is often more difficult than this.

Imagine playing that game with a hundred exasperated bureaucrats in a cramped, rotting building and you’ll have an idea of what the old courthouse was like- except the loser was Madison County as a whole: A variety of county offices were scattered around town in rented quarters, but officials who had to work at the courthouse itself were in a bad way: employees of the township assessor’s office were forced to work in the third floor stairwell, and others were relegated to hallways or overcrowded alcoves while records and documents were stacked wherever there was room. Vital documents often overflowed into the building’s halls3.

The courthouse wasn’t just too small, though- it was dangerous. The staircase that housed the assessor’s office was the only means of escape for people on all three floors of the building if a fire started. Exposed wiring, switchboxes, electrical conduit,  and pipes overtook the structure’s historic décor and decorated its ceilings. Outside, the foundation was breaking away from the rest of the courthouse and plants brazenly grew in the cracks. Two sets of monumental stairways were closed after people tripped and lawsuits were filed. The attic was full of dead birds, feathers, and tons and tons of guano from holes in the roof4.

Light brown bricks feature prominently within the composition of the building and its landscape.

With tied hands, officials jealously watched as several counties around the state built new courthouses. In 1962, they traveled to Floyd County to tour its new City-County Building and returned impressed5. Seven years later, commissioners attended the 1969 open house for Delaware County’s new courthouse6 in Muncie.  Although the clock tower had long since ceased to show the same time on all four clock faces7, officials eventually realized that it was time to act: By June of 1972, the decrepit courthouse was no more, replaced by a gaping hole in the city square that soon became home to a modern government center that Madison County could be proud of.

$4 million (about $24 million today) bought Madison County a lot of courthouse. The new structure -four stories tall and measuring 65,000 square feet- finally provided enough room for all the ersatz county offices sprinkled around the city to be contained under one roof8. Although a few vocal residents spoke up in protest that the courthouse didn’t match the concrete veneer of the recently-completed Anderson City Hall, the courthouse wound up featuring light brown bricks and bronzed windows modeled after, oddly enough, the Standard Oil Company Research Center complex in Naperville, Illinois9. Officials were finally satisfied with their new workplace, but there was trouble brewing from deep within the building’s walls.

In 1983, tall glass panels replaced faulty brickwork that caused structural damage to the courthouse.

In 1982, people began to notice something falling from the sky downtown. It wasn’t bird poop left over from the old courthouse’s attic; it was worse: bricks were shearing off of the new courthouse. A study determined that a faulty mortar additive used to connect the bricks to the structural members of the building was to blame, so officials scrambled to fix the problem by covering the damaged walls with glass paneling, giving the courthouse its present-day appearance and firmly-modern style.

Hindsight is 20-20, and the loss of so much brick led the building to be structurally questionable and perhaps as dangerous as its predecessor, forcing officials to add additional fortifications to prevent the building from toppling in the wind10. Thankfully, other than requiring asbestos remediation that displaced officials throughout 2018, the Madison County Government Center still stands tall without a stylistic peer in the state’s courthouse portfolio.

The Madison County Government Center is a thoroughly-modern building, as much as that an be said for one that was built in 1972. But here’s where I start to have a problem with the gatekeepers: Although it isn’t a hundred years old, the building does echo traditional design in places. For example, three brick spikes punctuate the building’s roofline and feature clock faces. One has a bell, and those spikes echo the clock towers that featured so prominently in old courthouse blueprints. 

A landscaped common area sits under the courthouse’s cantilevered mass, which echoes the days of a public square. Moreover, the landscaping of the building itself prominently displays the cornerstone of its 1885 courthouse on its northwest side. For one of only eight modern courthouses in Indiana, I think Madison County’s does more than enough to pay tribute to its predecessor while also fitting in with the promise that the 1970s and 1980s brought the community. Of course, the promise of 2022 is a lot different from the boom that Anderson was experiencing during the years after this courthouse was built.

The cornerstone of the previous courthouse was incorporated into the building’s structure.

One thing I’ve always loved about Indiana’s historic courthouses is the sense of permanence they imply through their scale and design. Regardless of its age, Madison County’s does too, albeit in a different way: While other courthouses across the state may be more majestic, I can’t think of any that reflect their enduring presence in a more dynamic or literal way than this one. The courthouse’s mirror-like walls frame its changing environs -from an incoming storm to an outgoing sunset- in a way that can’t be matched by the brick or stone walls of a historic structure.

The building’s glass wall panels reflect the 10-story First Merchants Building from across the street.

That’s not to mention the people going by, since, to stand before the Madison County Courthouse is to watch an eternal parade of citizens. The courthouse itself almost becomes an active participant in the community rather than a passive onlooker, and it assures us that no matter how much times may change, we can rely on an ideal of our government to strive to uphold the most honorable ideals. At least ideally.

I’ll never fault an architecture fan for appreciating older buildings since I certainly fall under that category. But the outright dismissal of Indiana’s modern courthouses seems indicative of someone who’s either not really that passionate about architecture in general, is lazy about exploring their passions, or, as Kwame Alexander put it, simply wants to win an argument. Honestly, most people I’ve come across who diss this structure are a combination of all three. I’ve been there too, and I’ve felt that way pretty far into this project. I still do, a little, and I don’t profess to have all the answers.

I also can’t really fault someone who prefers historic buildings over newer ones! Nevertheless, I believe that Indiana’s entire portfolio of courthouses is valuable. Whether they were built in the 1850s, 1870s, 1890s, 1910s, or later, most of this state’s historic courthouses were constructed during an economic boom that enabled public buildings to be built to specifications that we’ll likely not see again. Nearly all of Indiana’s historic courthouses serve as a tangible snapshot of an important period of time when rich counties could build the civic structures they wanted. Many of those periods happened a long time ago, but Anderson’s courthouse follows the same plot, just fifty years behind our favorites.

Changing seasons and tastes shouldn’t invalidate this structure. To me, they don’t. Madison County’s courthouse in downtown Anderson represents a time and a place that, now, is as foreign as the time that its predecessor was built. It’s an important part of Indiana’s courthouse history.

Madison County (pop. 130,482, 13/92)
Anderson (pop. 55,670).
25/92 photographed
Built: 1972, remodeled in 1983.
Cost: $4 million ($24 million today)
Architect: Johnson, Ritchart & Assoc.
Style: Modern
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 4 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 8/19/15

Sources Cited
1 “Council Approves Funds; Courthouse Plan Studied” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. May 13, 1955: 1. Print.
2 “County Board Seeks $1,500,000 Bond Issue for New Courthouse” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. October 16, 1957: 1. Print.
3 “Isn’t it time you did something about your Madison County Courthouse?” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. February 24, 1966: 10. Print
4 “County Attorney Answers Questions On Dilemma At The Courthouse” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. June 3, 1969: 1. Print.
5 “City-County Building” The Anderson Daily Bulletin [Anderson]. July 21, 1962: 4. Print.
6 “Delaware County Celebrates, Madison County Waits” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. September 7, 1969: 1. Print
7 “Old Courthouse- Before the New Wore Off” The Anderson Daily Bulletin [Anderson]. September 21, 1973: 45. Print.
8 “New Government Center” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. March 28, 1972: 4. Print.
9 “Courthouse Plans Are Unchanged” The Anderson Herald [Anderson]. May 13, 1972: 1. Print.
10 “Update on county litigation” The Call-Leader [Elwood]. December 29, 1984: 1. Print.

4 thoughts on “The Madison County, Indiana Courthouse (1972-)

    1. That’s the thread I picked up on a while back and haven’t really put into writing since I began discussing these new courthouses. Every county would if they’d had the money to.

      Liked by 1 person

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