The Wells County, Indiana Courthouse (1891-)

Eight Indiana courthouses were torn down and replaced with modern structures from 1957 to 1979. That means that eighty-five counties here retain at least one historic courthouse1! The ability to reorganize an interior layout or building an annex has saved many of Indiana’s oldest2, but it’s rare that a historic courthouse was built too big to start with. That’s precisely what happened in Bluffton, though, when architect George Bunting designed an enormous structure to replace the county’s antiquated, 1845 Greek Revival courthouse that a judge had condemned as insufficient and unhygienic3

The 1891 Wells County Courthouse in Bluffton, Indiana.

George Bunting certainly had the experience to usher Wells County into a new era of government, as he’d designed seven courthouses across the state before he came to Bluffton. Though he made his name drawing up structures influenced by the Second Empire and Beaux Arts modes, Bunting’s 1891 Wells County Courthouse -along with its cousin in Union County- differ clearly from his established designs: they’re both Richardson Romanesque. Both buildings look like a castles with large, rusticated stone blocks, square clock towers, recessed entryways, round arches, and narrow windows. Stylistically, the Wells County Courthouse is probably most similar to Blackford County’s just to the south in Hartford City, particularly with regards to its use of yellow Michigan Stoney Point sandstone. 

The Wells County Courthouse was designed to be larger than the county’s needs in order to allow for its local government to grow into it.

I’ve approached the courthouse from every direction over the years, and it looms in front of you whichever way you come from- the courthouse is the tallest building in town by a long shot. You can’t name a town Bluffton if it doesn’t sit on a bluff, and the courthouse sits at the top of one that rises along the southern bank of the Wabash River. Its location only appears to add to its height, as does the fact that the courthouse sits on a quarter-block instead of its own square. It’s mostly flush with its two- and three-story neighbors; there’s no square to offset its mass.

The northern entrance features recessed doors indicative of the Richardson Romanesque style, along with intricate Corinthian columns and carvings.

The courthouse is huge. Bunting designed it that way! Originally, county offices only took up only slightly more floorspace than the courthouse’s main floor. In fact, it’s only been relatively recently that the courthouse used all of its room: the ground floor was initially rented out for commercial use and held a barber shop where the trustee’s office is now. A restaurant once operated in the space now occupied by the county extension agency, and even a small cigar factory took up what later became the county license branch. The Bluffton library utilized several corner rooms before moving to a Carnegie in 19054, while a barricade originally cordoned off uninhabited fourth story5.

Speaking of the four-story building, here’s its fifth story, the clock tower. Notice the carvings around the clock that give it a checkerboard appearance. Sorry for the power lines.

Today, the courthouse is at capacity. The government’s even expanded enough to take over that old Carnegie Library as an annex after the books moved out about thirty years ago. The courthouse’s National Register of Historic Places listing says that only fifteen out of its forty-nine rooms have been subdivided by modern partitions, and only four room ceilings have been lowered. At least as of its nomination in 1979, concessions for electricity, new furniture, and office equipment have, by and large, been the building’s only upgrades. That so much of the building still exists as Bunting originally designed is definitely a win for fans of architecture!

As always, I’m more concerned about the building’s exterior since I’m basically a tourist and the Wells County has some really unique peripheral features. The building’s north-facing gable still holds the courtroom, so most of the symbolic carvings are found there. They include an enormous pentagram (an early symbol of the Biblical King Solomon, a teacher of wisdom6), and a statue of a winged lion at the top of the clock tower, where it once supported a flagpole. For nearly forty years, a ceramic owl statue stood atop the building’s roof, though it was removed for fear of blowing over in the 1930s. A lion statue, holding a Wells County shield, actually did blow off its perch above the courtroom gable’s window in 1967. Despite those minor alterations, a bevy of carvings still exist, namely a serpent that wraps around the courtroom gable’s southern corner, and other snakes and scrollwork that surround the building’s recessed, eastern entryway. 

Here are more carvings around the building’s east entrance. They stand in marked contrast to the heavily-rusticated ashlar that surrounds them.

To me, the Wells County Courthouse evolves like a Monet painting: you get an overall impression of its scale and grandeur from far away, but only by venturing up close do you see the elements that, on scales both small and large, make it what it is. I doubt that the pioneers who settled in Bluffton in 1836 ever dreamed that their town would one day be home to such an impressive courthouse! A year after Bluffton was platted, Wells County was formed, named after Captain William Wells who was captured by Indians as a boy and adopted by the famous Miami chief Little Turtle7. He eventually became a scout for General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Wells died at Fort Dearborn during the early days of the War of 1812, though his name lives on around Bluffton.

The courthouse towers over its surroundings and is visible from long distances, despite a protracted s-curve on Highway 1 from the north.

The community first held courts at the house of settler R.C. Bennett on October 19, 18378, moving to a new, two-story, log structure three years later. In 1845, the condemned Greek Revival Courthouse, designed by George W. Webster, was built, and in 1891 the community got what we see today. Though it hasn’t been as wild a ride in comparison to some of Indiana’s more dramatic counties, what a ride it’s been in keeping the 1891 Wells County Courthouse so close to its original design and intent.  

Wells County (pop. 27,8140, 55/92)
Bluffton (pop. 9,948)
19/92 photographed
Built: 1891
Cost: $119,879 ($3.19 million in 2016)
Architect: George W.Bunting
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: No Square
Height: 100 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 8/16/15

Sources Cited
Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
2 “Grant County Courthouse Solution Eyed by Committee.” The Muncie Star [Muncie]. October 3, 1963: 25. Print.
3 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Wells County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved December 18, 2019.
4 Carnegie Libraries in Indiana. Hoosier Indiana. Web. Retrieved December 18, 2019.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Wells County Courthouse, Bluffton, Wells County, Indiana, National Register # 79000028.
Morgan, Gerald (1979). “The Significance of the Pentangle Symbolism in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight””. The Modern Language Review. 74 (4). Print.
7 Tyndall, John W. & Orlo, Ervin L. Standard History of Adams and Wells Counties, Indiana. Lewis Publshing Company. Chicago. 1918. Print.
8 Enyart, David. “Wells County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 12/18/19.

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