The Allen County Courthouse in Fort Wayne is the most magnificent courthouse in all of Indiana. There aren’t even many state capitols that match its opulence- in fact the courthouse towers over thirty of them! Finished in 1902 for $817,000 (nearly $23.5 million today), the courthouse was designed to anticipate the needs of Allen County for at least a century as the crown jewel of Fort Wayne. Its completion was such an enormous event that no less than Teddy Roosevelt, the President of the United States, was scheduled to speak at its dedication1.
Although the president was forced to cancel due to illness, his absence did not portend bad news for the courthouse. In 2022, the building still stands as a proud example of the Beaux-Arts mode of architecture that rose to prominence after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There are other Beaux-Arts courthouses in Indiana, but none of them compare to Allen County’s. Bananas and humans share about 60% of their DNA, after all; it’s sort of like that2. I think.
I don’t really like bananas (they’re too stringy), but I do love county courthouses, and it only takes a quick glimpse to accurately assess the grandeur of Allen County’s. For starters, the building spans the width of an entire city block. Its clock tower -equivalent to the height of a 24-story building- is capped by a 13.5-foot-tall Lady Liberty statue. Those dimensions are almost unheard of across Indiana’s portfolio of historic courthouses! More granularly, the rectangular building sits on a concrete foundation topped by a granite sill that supports a steel structural system3. Its mass is covered by blue Bedford limestone, from its rusticated ground floor up to the drum of the copper dome. Architecturally, the Beaux Arts style was a sort of exuberant mish-mash of influences, and Greek, Roman, and Renaissance inspirations are apparent in the building’s ornamentation.
If all that wasn’t good enough, the building gets really interesting inside. After assisting his father with three courthouses across the state and designing another three of his own, architect Brentwood Tolan wanted the Allen County Courthouse to be his crowning achievement. He spared no expense in decorating its interior, enlisting three of the country’s most prominent muralists to embellish the building’s rotunda and courtrooms4. Charles Holloway was the most famous of the trio. He created enormous, canvas artworks -War, Joy & Peace, Despotism, and Law & Order- to frame the building’s art glass dome.
As if the murals and stained glass weren’t enough, the courthouse also features Italian Carerra marble5, along with one of the most extensive examples of scagliola imitation marble in the world. The building features twenty-four patterns and twenty-eight colors of the decorative compound, which was formulated from hard gypsum mixed with marble dust before being polished to a high gloss. The aesthetic effect of courthouse’s entire interior is completely overwhelming, like dropping into the room with the chocolate waterfall at Willy Wonka’s factory.
The state of the building’s interior is sort of a recent development. As recently as twenty-five years ago, it wasn’t in great shape! An interior restoration in the 1930s was counterproductive and significantly damaged the courthouse’s murals, decorative ceilings, and scagliola. Making matters worse, as large as it is, the building was just too small to keep up with the growing needs of the county by the late 1960s. A supplement, Fort Wayne’s 10-story City-County Building, was completed in 1971 and absorbed most of the old courthouse’s functions and offices.
As that was going on, Fort Wayne found itself in the midst of some significant changes: The successes of the post-World War II economic boom had given way to rapid deindustrialization in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The city’s biggest employer, International Harvester, packed up and moved to Springfield, Ohio, which resulted in the loss of as many as 10,000 jobs6. With nowhere to work, residents moved out to the suburbs7, leaving a blighted, crime-ridden, downtown core in their wake, along with the crumbling courthouse.
All of that occurred before I was born. Thankfully, strong city leadership figured out how to right the ship in the 1990s by emphasizing efforts to reduce crime and redevelop the downtown, along with working to broaden the scope of the city’s economy. I spent a lot of time in town as a kid, and this revitalized version of the city was the Fort Wayne of my youth. Under those auspices of renewal, a substantial, seriously-needed renovation of the courthouse began to develop.
In 1993, preservationists learned that water leaking through the inner glass dome was weakening the glue that held Holloway’s murals to the walls of the rotunda. The paintings were in significant danger of falling five stories to the floor! A team of local officials, lawyers, and architects sprang into action and created the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. The group secured funding to repair the damaged murals, but it soon became apparent that a total, head-to-toe restoration of the building was in order. To that end, work began in 1994.
Fixing up the courthouse was a colossal project: the murals alone cost $1.4 million to repair and took more than two years to finish since the artistic restoration had to be done at the snail’s pace of a single square inch at a time. Elsewhere across the building, stained glass was cleaned and the steel framing of the dome was repaired. The building’s four courtrooms were restored as well, along with their own art glass domes and light fixtures. Scagliola all over the courthouse was repaired by an artisan called in from England8, and its Italian marble was cleaned by means of a special process. To top it off, Lady Liberty was removed from the top of the courthouse dome, refurbished, and put back on her perch. All told, the project cost $8.6 million over eight years, and restored the building to its original beauty9.
I was twelve when I toured 1the building in the midst of the restoration process, and the chance to observe its fine details up close amazed me. Multi-story scaffolding filled the entire rotunda right up to the murals, and my family walked across the structure to see Holloway’s work from mere feet. A few years later, my Aunt Connie invited me to attend the ceremony rededicating the restored courthouse on September 23, 2002. Though Teddy Roosevelt was again unable to attend due to his death eighty-three years earlier, his great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt was on hand to deliver remarks a hundred years to the day after the building was originally consecrated. Both of those experiences made a tremendous impact on my burgeoning love of architecture.
Many people look at a courthouse as a place to transact business, get sued, get married, or get sentenced. I was lucky to bypass all that and have the best one in the state serve as the passive backdrop to many family memories over the years. I also got to see the courthouse up close in a way that not a lot of people have! That experience was simply unreal. Fort Wayne’s my hometown, and this courthouse is my courthouse. It just happens to be the most regal in the entire Midwest.
In 2018, Aunt Connie and I toured the building again “Be A Tourist In Your Own Hometown” event. After we were both detained by security for forgetting that we were carrying pocket knives, I found the building to be even more beautiful than I’d remembered it. I was too busy drinking in its opulence to make very many photos with my iPhone, but the few interior shots I’ve shared came from that day. It was a remarkable experience.
I’ve said before that when I was a kid, I believed the Hamilton County Courthouse in Noblesville was in its own category compared to every other courthouse in the state. But to young me, Indiana only had 91 county seats. Fort Wayne’s didn’t count- it didn’t even enter the equation because any comparison with another courthouse was unfair.
I’ll let you make your own judgment, but in researching this post, looking through my photos, and reliving the memories of exploring the old courthouse during and after its renovation, I think my childhood assessment still holds true. The Allen County Courthouse is unequivocally the greatest county courthouse in Indiana, and probably the midwest. Through the careful guidance of the building’s preservation trust, I’m sure that it will continue to remain without a peer for another hundred and sixteen years.
Allen County (pop.363,014, 3/92)
Fort Wayne (pop. 256,496).
Cost: $817,553.19 ($22.58 million in 2016)
Architect: Brentwood S. Tolan
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 239 feet
Current use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 3/16/16 & 3/26/16
1 Doxsee, Donald. “A JEWEL HIDDEN IN THE MIDWEST” Fort Wayne. Self-Published, 2014. Print.
2 “How Genetically Related Are We to Bananas?” Get Science. Pfizer, Inc. 2002-2017. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Allen County Courthouse, Fort Wayne, Allen County, Indiana, National Register # 76000031.
4 “Doing our part for generations to come” The Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
5 “A Walking Tour of the Allen County Courthouse” Fort Wayne. Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
6 “Throwback Thursday: July 15, 1983 – Last truck rolls off line at Harvester plant” The Journal Gazette [Fort Wayne]. June 29, 2017. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
7 Beatty, John D. History of Fort Wayne & Allen County. Evansville, Indiana: M.T. Publishing Company, Inc. 2006. Print.
8 “Courthouse preservation group awarded for restoration work” WANE [Fort Wayne]. September 13, 2015. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
9 Enyart, David. “Allen County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/22/18.
2 thoughts on “The Allen County, Indiana Courthouse (1902-)”
Ted, this is a very interesting post, well written, keep up the good work.
Do you intend to move all of your courthousery blog over here? It is a great resource for info as well as a great source of “rabbit holes” to descend into. 😀
Thank you so much! And yes, that’s the plan. I’m slowly reworking many of them, but they’ll all show up eventually. I’ve posted 26 so far, with probably another 126 to go.