The Elkhart County, Indiana Courthouse in Elkhart (1971-)

A couple of years ago, I joined the Facebook group I Grew Up in Elkhart, IN because, well, I sort of did. My dad moved to the area in the late 1990s to take a marketing job with the musical instruments conglomerate Conn-Selmer, so I grew up there for two-day biweekly periods from the age of seven or so up through my sophomore year of high school when I lived with him. I’m probably the least qualified member of that group given that it took me two decades to learn that there’s a courthouse in downtown Elkhart, but I joined it nonetheless.

The 1971 Elkhart County-Courts building in Elkhart.

I came by ignorance honestly since, aside from going fishing at High Dive Park or hitting the Dairy Queen on 2nd Street, I never really spent time downtown since the restaurants and stores in Goshen -the county seat- were always closer. I haven’t had much reason to go to Elkhart County in the years since Dad died about a decade ago, but I returned to the area in 2018 to take photos of the courthouses there.

I was gobsmacked when I arrived: For all my life, US-33 turned left at Goshen High School to follow Madison Street past Penguin Point on its way towards the courthouse square. In 2018, I discovered that a brand new alignment of US-33 completely bypassed downtown by means of a huge bridge that towered over the surrounding homes. Rocketing past rooftops and chimneys held little nostalgia for me, but if that new highway bridge didn’t make me feel enough like a stranger in my own part-time hometown, the discovery that my favorite Mexican place -Paradise Restaurant- had been demolished in favor of an Advanced Auto Parts certainly did.

A portion of the building uses what was once the vocational annex of Elkhart High School.

My feelings probably mirrored those of some prodigal son returning to Elkhart in 1972 when the massive Elkhart High School was demolished. By that point, the courthouse in Goshen was a hundred years old and showing its age. To address its deficiencies, county officials issued a general obligation bond for nearly $4 million to spiff it up, build new jail, and build a superior courthouse on the site of the old Elkhart High School, which had been supplanted by two new buildings located elsewhere. Contracts were awarded by August of 19702, the courthouse was completed the following year, and most of the old school was demolished to make room for its parking lot. Although a 1928 vocational annex that once held music and shop classrooms was saved and incorporated into the new courthouse, the character of the block was forever changed. 

A historical marker commemorates the courthouse site as that of the former Elkhart High School.

A two-story building of poured concrete3, the courthouse was originally intended to hold six county offices: those of the County Commissioners, the clerk, the sheriff, the county planning commission, and two superior courts. Elkhart architects K/M Associates designed the building so that its west side would be totally secure, featuring a sheriff’s garage, an evidence storage area, a secure elevator, offices, and holding cells. The secure elevator was designed to go right up to the two courtrooms on the second floor, which also features jury and conference rooms, judges’ quarters, and a juvenile court. A basement that spanned half the building’s length was left unfinished in case more offices were needed in the future4

Enough said. Meme made by me, courtesy

Now, I’m pretty open about liking brutalist buildings, but this courthouse makes me contort my face and body like Chicken SpongeBob when I say it. Though they’re almost universally thought to be uninspired and ugly, I think the honesty of using unadorned, modular forms fits with a theme of judicial transparency. I think that enormous walls of raw materials is a fitting analog to the permanence of American ideals, and I like that the use of inexpensive concrete speaks to the fiscal conservative in me. I’m not sure I found any of that romanticism here, though. This courthouse is pretty ugly. 

Aside from part of the old school, my favorite feature of the courthouse is a weird, trapezoidal bed that resembles what you might find at a skate park. How was I not supposed to Tony Hawk off that planter after years of Playstation and Xbox encouraging me to do otherwise? By leaving my old deck and Razor scooter at home, that’s how.

Several abstract planters sit between the courthouse and the street.

As I consider the courthouse as a whole, though, I may have effed up by off-handedly dismissing it as a bad example of 1970s architecture since there’s an opposing argument to be made as well. K/M Associates were actually pioneers of what was called the “systems analysis” of design and construction, a school of thought that prioritized the use of modular, prefabricated subsystems to lower construction costs and lead time5. It was pretty groundbreaking, and the philosophy’s caught on in other areas too, like with modular furniture that can be configured in 400 different ways. Whether the aesthetics of the courthouse are appealing or not is a matter of taste, but the concept behind the courthouse is a good one. 

I believe that this bizarre aluminum structure, completed in 1994, is a mechanical room that connects the 1970s-era courthouse (left) to the old vocational annex (center/right).

To my understanding, the Elkhart County Superior Courthouse was K/M’s first foray into government buildings. Before this, they’d used the technique at Riverside Hall at IUSB, as well as that school’s science building. Even prior to that, they used their methods of modular prefabrication on Norwell High School in Ossian back in 1968, later applying systems analysis design to Adams Central, Mary Beck, Oakdale, Madison, and Columbia City high schools, along with several other buildings. 

Given the tornado’s well-earned reputation when it comes to a trailer park, I don’t think of prefabricated buildings as being the most well-built structures, and Elkhart sure has its share of tornado history! But K/M’s systems analysis methodology seems to hold up just fine over time: this year marks the courthouse’s fiftieth year in service. Unfortunately, its tenure will come to an end in 2024 as officials broke ground on the thirty-two-acre Elkhart County Consolidated Courts Campus on Goshen’s west side last year6.

The Elkhart County Superior Courthouse in Elkhart.

More changes are on the way. But at least I won’t be blindsided by them. On the off-chance that the county decides to spend money to commemorate the site of the old courthouse, I’d almost rather them put it at Advanced Auto Parts in Goshen. Nothing remains of Paradise Restaurant, but next time I’m in town I can always just turn left onto East Madison and make the trip through dcowntown the old-fashioned way. 

Elkhart County (pop. 197,559, 6/92)
Elkhart (pop. 52,558)
Built: 1971, remodeled 1994
Cost: $1.34 million ($8.3 million in 2018)
Architect: K/M Associates
Style: Brutalist
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: County offices and some courts
Photographed: 2/18/18

Sources Cited
1 Stinespring, J. “100 Years Elkhart High School 1872-1972”. 1972. Print.
2 “County-Courts Building Contract Awarded” The Elkhart Truth [Elkhart]. August 21, 1970. Print.|
3 Deacon, J. “Elkhart County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web.  Retrieved 12/17/18.
4 “Courts Building Opens Wednesday; County Officials Tour Facility” The Elkhart Truth[Elkhart]. November 2, 1971. Print.
5 Poice, J. “A Case Study In Systems Building”. Stanford University Planning Lab [California]. 1970. Print.
6 Groundbreaking for Elkhart County’s consolidated courts Tuesday (2021, November 16). Elkhart County, Indiana. Web. Retrieved September 10, 2022. 

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