The Elkhart County, Indiana Courthouse (1871/1905-)

I think I’ve made it clear by now that Indiana has an embarrassment of impressive county courthouses, and most of the best have stood for more than a century. But there was one structure that so dominated its surrounding square that county officials decided to tone it down for the sake of the city’s skyline. Trust me- this was not a common frame of mind during Indiana’s courthouse building boom. Let’s travel up north to Goshen to take a closer look at the building that bucked the trend, as well as its unique surroundings.

The 1871 Elkhart County Courthouse in Goshen was heavily renovated in 1905.

But on the way there, let’s make a stop at my childhood, around 1996 or 1997. When I was a kid, Elkhart County’s courthouse in Goshen stood out as the backdrop to many memories at my dad’s house. He moved up to the area a few years after my parents got divorced, and I remember talking on the phone with him shortly after he got a job at the local musical instrument conglomerate Conn-Selmer. I was six years old, and I delighted in the humor of repeating the city’s name back to him as any number of rhyming non-sequiturs, i.e. potion, ocean, lotion.

The pinnacle of humor it was not, but I’d had my fun. Later on that phone call, I remember putting the landline receiver next to a piece of paper in an effort to show dad a drawing I’d done. I wasn’t smart- my sense of humor reflected that.

Idiocy aside, once I established that dad lived in Goshen and not an elixir, sea, or salve, we started visiting him every other weekend.  It was usually dark by the time we’d make it up to Elkhart County, and the lighted clock of the courthouse would greet his Escort wagon or Beetle like a benevolent cyclops beckoning to the safety of his houseBut despite all that, I never made it up to Goshen when I started my courthouse project in 2011. My dad’s death was still fresh in my mind since I started this project just four months after the fact. It felt like it was too soon to go back up there for fun knowing that any hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint I stopped at would be a stop alone.

North- and south-facing wings were added to the building in 1905.

I eventually got over it, and Elkhart County was my fifth stop when I rebooted the project in 2015. J.H. Barrows & George O. Garnsey designed the original building, and completed it in 18711. The courthouse originally measured 82 feet long by 72 feet wide and featured a gargantuan clock tower on its south side, giving it an asymmetrical layout that was partially balanced by a smaller cupola and flagpole positioned on the other side of the building’s roof. The main entrances to the courthouse (on its east and west fronts) featured monumental stairs that led to classical porticos consisting of 52-foott Corinthian columns. The brick building, Italianate in nature, featured stone quoins and rustication that culminated in a low-hipped roof hidden by a balustrade. As constructed, it was a landmark in Goshen for more than thirty years: local officials described the courthouse as “imposing in appearance, chaste in design, massive, and of great strength and delicacy of finish…with the clock tower adding greatly to the appearance2.”

But architectural preferences changed. By 1905, the courthouse was looking downright antiquated in comparison to newer, Georgian Revival structures with symmetrical designs popping up around the state3. The clock tower, once revered, was now considered “oppressively imposing4” and was removed as part of architects Patton & Miller’s expansion of the building that year. A more considerate tower featuring a clay dome was erected in its place at the center of the courthouse, while two new wings were constructed on the building’s north and south ends that each added 10,000 square feet of additional space.

The building’s clock tower was also added in 1905.

Although the building was shortened, it’s still imposing at an impressive 134-feet tall. And you wouldn’t know its convoluted architectural history by looking at it, unlike courthouses in Lawrence, Benton, or Porter counties that saw extensive renovations that left them just not seeming quite right. No, the Elkhart County Courthouse seems to have successfully made the transition between two disparate styles, but it’s possible that I’d have a more critical eye if I hadn’t grown up nearby and seen it so often. You be the judge! Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find a postcard of the old building, but here’s a photo.

What’s easier to judge is the modern Elkhart County Superior Courthouse in downtown Elkhart, which was built in 1971. The building sits on the former site of Elkhart High School and a 1993 expansion even incorporated part of its facade into the courthouse. Despite the historic elements retained from the school, the building is ugly. Hideous, even. Across the street is the classically-inspired Elkhart Municipal Building, which held the superior court until the modern courthouse’s construction.

If you’re a fan of architecture, it’s worth taking a trip to Goshen. Forget Elkhart! The historic courthouse is one of the state’s best and Goshen’s downtown is picturesque. Almost as interesting as the courthouse itself is the square it sits on, an enormous park filled with interesting memorabilia. I love the natural setting, but the foliage was imposing- it obscured the courthouse enough that I had to go back during the winter to get the photos I needed.

The park-like setting of the square makes photos difficult in the summer months.

When I was there both times, two things stuck out to me the most. The first is the grounds’ ornate Neptune fountain, a gift from a local Greek immigrant named James Polezoes who opened up a confectionary and soda fountain across the street during the early 1900s. Polezoes, who was twenty-five by the time he’d saved up $1,400 (about $36,000 today) to start a second business, decided to thank the city that had enabled his success instead, donating the fountain as a memorial to Goshen’s generosity as well as his heritage.

2,000 residents -nearly a quarter of the city’s population- showed up at the fountain’s dedication on August 20, 19125. It was a stock design, one of several similar statues created by different vendors, but the fountain’s a sight to behold when the water’s on. It springs from the nostrils of sea creatures at Neptune’s feet in order to create a majestic, if incongruous, memorial to Goshen’s welcoming arms.

When the water isn’t running, though, you’ve got to look elsewhere for interesting sights on the courthouse square. One is extremely easy to find- the famous Goshen police booth, which sits at the southeastern corner of the city square. I’ll talk about it in another post.

Goshens’ Neptune fountain, donated in 1912 by local businessman James Polezoes.

The Elkhart County Courthouse still towers over downtown Goshen as a silent sentinel to the city’s changing scene, as well as the traffic routed past it on US-33 or IN-15. Well, I guess the building’s not such a passive observer. The clock tower and bell mechanism, which is accurate within one minute per month, still peals to denote each passing hour. Caring for the clock is Blake Eckelbarger, the third-generation of Eckelbarger to maintain the apparatus after his great-grandfather and grandpa did for nearly seventy years7. He checks the timing of the clock with the GPS of his phone, a method that I’m pretty sure wasn’t used by his forebears.

A project began late last year will eventually remove the courts from the courthouse and consolidate them across a 32-acre campus about four miles northwest.

I often think about the important roles courthouses play in peoples’ lives as I write this blog. For many, courthouses are a utility- somewhere to pay your taxes or see your day in court. For some, courthouses provide the setting to good memories, and for many more, they’re the backdrop to bad ones. The architecture of or history behind the building isn’t relevant. But stories like those of James Polezoes, the police booth, and the Eckelbargers are the kind of human-interest anecdotes I can appreciate about our state’s courthouses. I’d imagine that none of them bear even a passing thought for most of the people who find themselves inside.

As far as my own life, I was taught how to drive and pump gas in front of the Elkhart County Courthouse. I found out how to have a snowball fight with my dad at a stopped train. I also learned how to try and process personal loss as we drove home after he died and I found myself there again for this project. These memories aren’t typical courthouse experiences, and I’ve been lucky to circumvent all of those so far. But they’re part of what drew me to document the buildings to begin with. I wish he’d been here to go to all of these with me.

Elkhart County (pop. 197,559, 6/92)
Goshen (pop. 31,719)
6/92 photographed
Built: 1870, remodeled 1905
Cost: $100,000 ($2.66 million in 2016)
Architect: Patton & Miller
Style: Neoclassical/Italian Renaissance
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 134 feet
Current Use: County offices and some courts
Photographed: 8/15/15 and 2/18/18

Sources Cited
1 Bartholomew, H.S.K. Pioneer History of Elkhart County, Indiana. Goshen. The Goshen Printing Company, 1930. Print.
2 Bartholomew, H.S.K. Sketches and Stories of Elkhart County, Indiana.  Nappanee. E. V. Publishing House, 1936. Print.
3 Whiffen, Marcus. American Architecture Since 1780: A Guide to the Styles. Cambridge. The MIT Press, 1969. Print.
4 National Register of Historic Places, Elkhart County Courthouse, Goshen, Elkhart County, Indiana, National Register # 80000034.
5 “The Neptune Fountain of Goshen, Indiana” The National Herald. The National Herald, Inc. April 11, 2017. Web. Retrieved 5/3/18.
6 “Goshen man third generation caring for courthouse clock” The Indiana Lawyer. Indiana Business Journal: December 27, 2017. Web. Retrieved 5/3/18.

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