The Marshall County, Indiana Courthouse (1872-)

Studies show that the presence of a historic courthouse on an old-fashioned square acts as an anchor that draws people towards downtown1. County seats in Indiana feature three kinds: the Shelbyville Square, which takes the form of a regular city block; the Lancaster Square, which resembles an enlarged traffic circle; and the Harrisonburg Square, which combines the other two types2. The historic Marshall County Courthouse in Plymouth doesn’t sit on a square. It doesn’t even sit downtown! Nevertheless, the building has thrived outside its natural ecosystem for a hundred and fifty years.

The 1872 Marshall County Courthouse in Plymouth

Today, Plymouth sits near the confluence of US-31 and US-30, but neither highway existed in 1834 when the town was platted along the banks of the Yellow River. Plymouth wilderness when it became the seat of Marshall County in 1836! The only clearings in the area were where the future paths of the Laporte Road and the Michigan Road had been blazed, and the forest was so dense that early residents couldn’t even find where the courthouse square was supposed to be without calling in a surveyor for help3.

As Plymouth’s settlers stumbled around looking for the future courthouse site, businesses began to spring up elsewhere. The first enterprise was a saloon. Soon, other shacks that housed typical pioneer businesses were erected, as was a ramshackle, 20 x 30 foot courthouse that city officials built in order to ensure that Plymouth’s status as county seat wouldn’t be usurped by some other enterprising community. The temporary courthouse became obsolete in 1840, and it was sold off to become a cabinet shop. Since Plymouth’s development along the river didn’t leave room for a proper courthouse, the second was built at the original square three blocks northwest of the city center.

Aside from a modern addition to the north of the courthouse that matches a modern annex across the street to the east, the Marshall County Courthouse is largely surrounded by houses.

Although many counties were building brick courthouses by the 1840s, Marshall County’s second was another frame building measuring 50 x 80 feet. The structure, which featured a cupola and spiral staircase, was a major improvement over its rickety predecessor, but it was still built from wood and had a limited lifespan. A12123234fter thirty-one years of use, it wore it wore out its welcome and was moved to be repurposed into a stave factory4, Unfortunately, it burned down three years later.

Randall’s design, possibly, is most evident in the original primary entrances of the courthouse.

After the second courthouse was moved, Marshall County officials selected architect Gordon Randall -a Chicagoan who later designed courthouses in Fowler and Williamsport- to develop the plans for Plymouth’s first brick courthouse. It was completed in 1872 and features what I like to call an “American exuberant” mix of the Italianate and Renaissance Revival styles. The courthouse’s arched windows, limestone quoins, and heavy cornice are elements pulled straight from the Italianate mode, but its prominent porticos and columns, along with its modillions, are quite clearly Renaissance Revival. Randall himself described the mishmash as “an emulation of works by James Gibbs and Robert Adams, two of the most distinguished architects of the 18th century5.” 

Gordon Randall liked his clock towers, and the tower of the Marshall County Courthouse is the building’s most prominent element. It rises from a pedestal and features a central portico on each side that frames three arched, louvered openings to the belfry. The dome is really more of a concave mansard roof topped with a steeple6, and it rises an impressive 100 feet above the houses that surround it. 

The tower is topped with an intricate spire.

From most angles, the exterior of the courthouse remains true to Randall’s design aside from twelve missing chimneys that were removed in 1949. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the building’s interior: in 1913, county officials decided to modernize the building’s interior by covering the main staircase, trim, and wainscoting with white marble, along with bricking in parts of the courtroom’s tall windows and adding stained glass to several others. The biggest project, by far, ended in 1990 when a prominent, two-story annex measuring 62 by 92 feet was added to the structure’s north side at a cost of $4 million7

Though it’s essentially a large box, architects Mathews-Purucker-Anella, Incorporated8 designed the annex -officially, the Marshall County Courts Building- with some understated cues taken from the 1872 courthouse. At its corners, the Courts Building features brick quoins while its narrow, double windows are topped with arched moldings. A two-story, glass atrium connects the two structures at the ground first floor. All told, the Courts Building is a functional, attractive addition with some aesthetic nods to Randall’s 150-year-old design.

Here’s the 1988 addition from the north. Only the ground floor connects to the original building.

That was not always my assessment! I had little enthusiasm for modern annexes when I first started going to historic courthouses. Gradually, my opinion changed: in every case, additions like the Marshall County Courts Building keep our old courthouses viable. Seeing how structures from widely different timeframes interface and harmonize (or not) has become one of my favorite parts of documenting these places.

At any rate, all the additions and subtractions that the Marshall County Courthouse has undergone are just part of the cost of doing business in an old building. Ultimately, I’m a fan of preservation, and I’m sympathetic to the predicament of modern architects who have enough trouble designing a cost-effective, visually appealing annex for a symmetrical old building centered on a cohesive square.

The glass atrium between the 1872 and 1988 structures bridges more than a century of Marshall County’s governmental needs.

A building’s got to be functional in order for it to last a long time, just as a county seat has to be accessible to its constituents. Usually, that happens when the courthouse sits smack-dab in the middle of the business district, but the Marshall County Courthouse stands counter to that logic. Although downtown Plymouth grew up without it, the courthouse’s new addition ensures that the grand, old building will tower above the city from an unusual distance for many years to come.

Marshall County (pop. 146,498, 30/92)
Plymouth (pop. 9,960)
62/92 photographed
Built: 1872, expanded 1988
Cost: $109,294 ($2.15 million in 2018)
Architect: Gordon Randall
Style: Renaissance Revival/Italianate
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 100 feet
Current Use: County offices and some courts
Photographed: 3/19/16

Sources Cited
Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
2 Price, Edward T. “The Central Courthouse Square in the American County Seat” Geographical Review. American Geographical Society. Vol. 58, No. 1. 1968. Print.
3 McDonald, Daniel. “A Twentieth Century History of Marshall County, Indiana, Volume 1.”  The Lewis Publishing Company [Chicago]. 1908. Print.
4 Enyart, David. “Marshall County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 10/9/19.
5 “Order in the Courthouse” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. April 22, 1990. 31. Print.
6 National Register of Historic Places, Marshall County Courthouse. Plymouth, Marshall County, Indiana, National Register # 83000139.
7 “Marshall County courthouse bond issue on the way.” The South Bend Tribune [South Bend]. May 20, 1986. 10. Print.
8 Deacon, J. “Elkhart County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web.  Retrieved 10/9/19.

3 thoughts on “The Marshall County, Indiana Courthouse (1872-)

  1. A friend forwarded this story, thank you for posting. We just went through a substantial restoration on our courthouse with special attention on the tower which added back in Randall’s original design with windows.


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