The Orange County Courthouse in Indiana (1850-)

You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d taken a wrong turn at French Lick and wound up in the antebellum south the first time you arrive in Paoli, Indiana. Just look at the courthouse there, standing proudly amidst an expansive green in the middle of the town’s Lancaster square, where cars go around the structure like it’s part of a big traffic circle: Though the overall design of the courthouse itself is thought to have been lifted from a pattern book1, the Greek Revival building does feature something that’s unique to other courthouses in Indiana: a set of petticoat stairs. 

The 1850 Orange County Courthouse in Paoli, Indiana.

Maybe the pattern book came from the low country; no one really knows for sure. But that part of the nation’s where these types of uncommon stairs got most of their use. Back in the 17- and 1800s, women often wore enormous skirts- so huge, in fact, that they were literally supported by hoops and had to be lifted in order to climb up steps! Social norms have changed in the intervening centuries, but it would have been impolite to eat it on the stairs by means of a faceplant.

There were other rules of pre-Civil War decorum that dictated polite behavior: One expectation of men was to not sneak a glance at a woman’s visible petticoat -an underskirt- as she clambered up the stairs. To prevent this unsavory behavior, staircases to public buildings were often built as two separate sets of steps perpendicular to the main entrance that joined in the middle on their way to the door. This arrangement, proponents were convinced, would prevent objectionable ganders since women would go up one side and men would go up the other. If the stairs weren’t successful, the code-word for a lady’s visible petticoat was for a man to say, “it’s snowing down south2!” It seems a bit blunt to me, but there’s a reason we don’t see these types of stairways much anymore. Or petticoat escalators, for that matter. 

Two instances of “petticoat stairs” adorn the front of the structure.

Ultimately, those iron steps converged into a single stairway that led to the courtroom. In the here and now, I feel like petticoat stairs were a pretty backwards solution to a larger problem. But petticoat stairs didn’t originate in Indiana, and even if they had, Indiana’s early days were pretty backwards themselves: Orange County is one of Indiana’s oldest, formed in 1816 when government administered from a short-lived, temporary log courthouse that measured 18×20 feet and cost $25 to build3. Inflation calculators going back that far are unreliable, but just for fun, that amount seems equal to about $454.59 today4. That’s three bucks shy of buying a 10×6 foot galvanized steel storage shed with a simulated wood grain finish from Lowe’s today. I’ll take the log courthouse, please!

The year 1818 brought the community a brick courthouse that provided about four times the space it’s old one did, costing $3950. That’d up our budget to about $80,000 in today’s money, which puts us in Zillow territory! 

Alas, there was no internet to buy a house -much less a courthouse- two centuries ago. There’s hardly a market today in Orange County since, admittedly, it’s pretty rural. But county officials were a seasoned and hardy bunch back in the 1880s, able to get 29 years out of their second courthouse, web access or not. After that, a new courthouse -the present one-  which measures 53×74 feet and cost $14,000 was built in 1850. That spend would $460,000 today, but unfortunately as of this writing there are no homes in Paoli or Orange County for sale that cost even half that much in today’s inflated environment. 

The courthouse features eight chimneys that rise above squared-off Greek Revival pilasters on its east and west sides. 

If you were dead set on spending that money on Orange County real estate, I’d recommend putting it towards the endangered Mineral Springs Hotel just opposite the courthouse. Built in 1895 and featuring an opera house, billiard hall, ballroom, bowling alley, and a bus stop, the four-story landmark closed in 1958. Though a variety of short-lived businesses occupied its first floor, the place is now vacant and deteriorating, even making Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list in 20205. It’s a shame, but hopefully some history fan with money and a viable plan steps up to help renovate and restore it for years of continued operation. Thankfully, of course, the courthouse requires no such assistance.

The cupola and weathervane were added six years after the building was finished, a gift from Paoli residents.

As I mentioned, the courthouse is of the Greek Revival mode. Five doric columns that face south make that obvious, as do five square pilasters that run across its east and west sides, along with four across the back. Though it was built in 1850, commissioners voted to fund the building three years earlier, hiring a local resident to make its bricks for $7.50 per thousand, and $10 per thousand for those to be used in its columns. Michael Ombaker and William Harman were also contracted individually to provide construction services on the building’s stone foundation and woodwork6. Those Greek columns wound up consisting of brick surrounded by concrete, which was capped by limestone capitals. That’s in stark contrast to the columns on the courthouse in Madison, which was finished just five years later and consisted of metal slathered in paint mixed with sand to provide the appearance and texture of stone. The columns of the Orange County Courthouse hold up a large, plain, pediment that supports a three-tiered cupola which features a clock and weathervane. That wasn’t added until later, when citizens of Paoli raised money to add it six years after the building was completed. 

A gray foundation is flush with the north side of the square, though it seems to rise a full story at the building’s main, southern, face.

I would say that the columns of the Orange County Courthouse are its most important feature, but that comes with a qualifier: They wouldn’t appear nearly as prominent without the slope of the courthouse square, which is probably the most essential piece of the pie here. If you approach the building from the rear, it only takes three short steps to enter its northern entrance6. From the front, though, the building’s first floor is accessed via those iron petticoat stairs, manufactured by Sward and Co., a Bloomington, Indiana iron works7. The stairs lead up to the building’s “ground level,” which features a simple layout of a ten-foot-wide hallway that bisects rows of county offices. To get to the building’s second story, another set of petticoat stairs is climbed from within the portico, providing access to the court room and its auxiliary spaces like the judge’s chambers and jury room. Unfortunately for purists, the 170-year-old building has gone through dramatic changes to ensure its usefulness into the future. Fortunately for us tourists, though, those changes have enabled the building to continue to serve a useful purpose 170 years after it was built.

Today, Orange County is known for a few big attractions. The first is Patoka Lake, Indiana’s second-largest reservoir, which was created back in 1972 as a means of flood control. Held back by a 145-foot earthen dam, the reservoir provides recreational opportunities for many who crowd its shores and ply its waves. In 2006, the lake saw nearly 650,000 visitors8– thirty-two times as many people as those who call Orange County home! Another Orange County attraction is Paoli Peaks, a popular alpine ski resort with a 300-foot drop just north of Hoosier National Forest. Finally -and most famously- Orange County is where the communities of French Lick and West Baden Springs are situated. Basketball fans know French as Larry Bird’s childhood home, but the French Lick Resort -and the 243-room West Baden Springs Hotel with its 200-foot free standing dome- are iconic structures across the nation. The hotel at West Baden Springs became a National Historic Landmark in 19879

Through a long approach to the building itself, the Orange County Courthouse -not one of Indiana’s largest- presents itself in a magnificent way.

As much fun as they may have, all those visitors and tourists who bypass this place miss a phenomenal square in Paoli, along with what may be the most picturesque courthouse Indiana has to offer. Beyond the Midwest Inn and the Ritz Motel, there’s not a lot to entice the motorist to lay his head down within the town’s limits, and I get that those places may not be Instagram-ready, but take a chance, I say! The Orange County Courthouse is really one-of-a-kind in Indiana, as is its square. It’s a must-see. Go there, and be transported. Just keep your eyes off of any petticoats you might encounter while scaling the stairs.

Orange County (pop. 19,489, 74/92)
Paoli ( pop. 3,628)
78/92 photographed
Built: 1850
Cost: $14,000 ($402,486 in 2016)
Architect: ?
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: Lancaster Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 4/3/2016

Sources Cited
1 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Orange County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 6/9/20.
2 “Petticoat Stairs – it’s a southern thing” Troi Kaz Coastal group [Pawleys Island]. Web. Retrieved 6/9/20.
3 Enyart, David. “Orange County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 6/9/20.
4 “CPI Inflation Calculator” Official Data Foundation [San Mateo]. Web. Retrieved 6/9/20.
5 “Mineral Springs Hotel” 10 Most Endangered. Indiana Landmarks [Indianapolis]. Web. Retrieved 6/9/20.
6 National Register of Historic Places, Orange County Courthouse. Paoli, Orange County, Indiana, National Register # 75000009.
7 History of Lawrence, Orange, and Washington Counties, Indiana, Goodspeed Bros, and Co. {Chicago] 1889. Print.
8 “Lake Level Report PATOKA LAKE” US Army Corps of Engineers [Louisville]. 2006. Web. Retrieved 6/6/20.
9 National Register of Historic Places, French Lick Springs Hotel. French Lick, Orange County, Indiana, National Register # 03000972.

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