The Starke County Courthouse in Indiana (1897-)

The Starke County Courthouse in rural Knox, Indiana has a tantalizing pedigree. Its architects, John F. Wing and Marshall Mahurin of Fort Wayne were responsible for many of Indiana’s landmarks, including courthouses in Greenfield and Bloomington and a replacement clock tower for the one in Decatur. They also drew up plans for city halls in Fort Wayne and Kokomo, the 214-foot tall St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, and the Riley School in Greenfield.

The 1897 Starke County Courthouse in Knox, Indiana.

It doesn’t seem possible, but George Caldwell and Lester Drake of Columbus -the contractors who actually built the courthouse-have an equally-storied portfolio to their names. In 1902, team completed the 200-foot-wide dome of the West Baden Springs Hotel, the country’s largest for fifty-three years. Two years later, the team finished up the truss work for the Palace of Agriculture at the St. Louis World’s Fair, a building that contained eighteen acres of space under its roof. Suffice it to say that Caldwell and Drake, along with Wing and Mahurin, were ahead of their time and responsible for some of our region’s biggest landmarks. The courthouse in Knox is the only example of their collaboration, but it’s worthy addition to both resumes.

The height of the 137-foot building is quite apparent when standing immediately beneath it.

The structure towers over the rest of Knox, where the next-tallest edifice appears to be a former opera house1, the 35-foot tall Reiss & Horner building2. But don’t let Knox’s diminutive size fool you- no less than Buster Baxter from PBS’ cartoon ‘Postcards from Buster’ “filmed” his first episode in town when he discovered what it was like to work on a farm3.

PBS jokes aside, Buster’s trip did little to help the community’s economy- Knox was reported as the poorest town in Indiana in 2015, with only 5.5% of residents having a bachelor’s degree compared to the state’s average of 23.2%. With a median income of $30,000, the 3,535 residents of the community make about $75,000 less than the median household income of Zionsville, our state’s most prosperous town4

Quite frankly, if Knox had been more prosperous, officials there may have elected to replace their old courthouse long ago. That’d have been a real shame, as residents in Muncie, Anderson, New Albany, Jeffersonville, Logansport, and elsewhere can attest. I’m glad they didn’t, because the Starke County Courthouse is one-of-a-kind in Indiana although Wing & Mahurin’s courthouse in Ottawa County, Ohio is nearly identical.

I wish fewer courthouse squares featured so many mature trees. They’re beautiful, but they can make taking pictures of the structure- or viewing it in general- difficult.

The main elevation of the courthouse is its southern face, which is three bays wide with a central pavilion that winds up as the wall dormer of a projecting entryway that measures a single story. Enormous cuts of rock-faced stone are used across the building’s street level. If you like gargoyles, the Starke County Courthouse has a few in the form of light fixtures at each corner of a balustraded balcony above the main entrance. Above them are a series of double-hung windows on the building’s second and third stories, followed by a series of square lights that fit within the round arch of the courthouse’s central pediment. Each of the single window bays that flank the monumental entry are composed of gothic-arched, double-hung windows.

The bottom half of the clock tower apes the building’s overall design. The top half -featuring the clock and belfry arches- goes its own way aside from the terra cotta roof.

A square clock tower that consists of two main tiers separated by a cornice and baluster rises from the center of the building. The first segment continues the building’s greater theme of rusticated stone and arches, while the second has a high, hipped roof that caps a series of four arches per face. The central two arches are recessed and support a clock face immediately below a steep gable that segments the building’s pyramidal cap5. The overall feeling is similar to that of what I’d imagine a fanciful French castle might look like. Just about all Richardson Romanesque courthouses resemble a castle in one way or another.

Starke County was late to the game in terms of organization, as it was founded 1835 and governed by Porter County to its north until 1850. The place was settled only after its expansive wetlands were drained, and the first courts were held in the home of the county’s treasurer, Jacob Tillman6. A log courthouse was built in 1851, which was followed by a wood-frame courthouse in the colonial style that cost $20,000 and was completed in 18637. The frame courthouse in Starke County stood for thirty-five years before Wing & Mahurin were called in to bring the area into the 20th century. 

Romanesque porches and low arches contrast with tall, gothic gables and stonework to create a unique courthouse design amongst Indiana’s portfolio.

As you can see, they definitely did, especially with Caldwell and Drake’s expert assistance. But that’s not to say the courthouse’s life has been all candy and nuts for Christmas since it was constructed. In 1984, a county annex to the north of the courthouse was built, a postmodern building set along an oblique line from southeast to northwest that houses most of the county’s offices8. The building blends into its surrounds naturally and doesn’t take away from the majesty of the actual courthouse. It’s actually pretty compelling on its own.

A couple of years ago, officials in neighboring Winamac planned to demolish their similar old courthouse, citing its age, layout, and lack of security features as county officials’ main motivation. All are reasonable concerns, but Starke County officials were ahead of the game and implemented a single point of entry for the courthouse back in 20199. Surely officials in Winamac could have locked a few doors!

After a protracted battle between preservationists and county commissioners, that’s indeed what they decided to do10. Who knew that Knox held a forward-looking streak? I certainly didn’t, since the place doesn’t exactly smack of progressivism. Case in point: according to a lawyer friend of mine, It wasn’t long ago that the Starke County Courthouse didn’t even have a security checkpoint. At all.

The Starke County Courthouse towers over its surrounding trees. For once, that’s not my car ruining the shot!

That being said, it’s worth remembering that progress -at least how we defined it from the 1950s to around the turn of the last century- is the enemy of historic courthouses. Yes, Knox is small, rural, and economically-disadvantaged, but those ingredients combined to give officials there no choice but to retain this old structure- they could never afford to replace it! While Knox might not have many of the amenities found in places like Muncie, Anderson, New Albany, or Jeffersonville, it’s got something all of those larger cities lack in the 137-foot-tall form of its landmark courthouse.

Starke County (pop. 23,363, 66/92)
Knox (pop. 3,704)
9/92 photographed
Built: 1897
Cost: $130,000 ($3.73 million today)
Architect: Wing & Mahurin
Style: Romanesque
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 137 feet
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 8/15/15- 9/92

Sources Cited
1 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. 1904. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 4/19/20.
2 Jonas, Alexander. “Knox Characters I have Known” Musical Stepping Stones. WKVI. 1970. Web. Retrieved 4/19/20.
3 “Meet Me at the Fair” Postcards from Buster. October 11, 2014. PBS. Web. Retrieved 4/19/20.
4 Briggs, James. “The Richest Town in Indiana” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis]. June 17, 2016. Web. Retrieved 4/19/20.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Starke County Courthouse, Knox, Starke County, Indiana, National Register # 86003170.
6 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Starke County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 4/20/20.
7 Enyart, David. “Starke County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/20/20.
8 “53 E Mound Street” Starke County Commissioners. ThinkGIS. 2020. Web. Retrieved 4/20/20.
9 “Security Updated at Starke Count Annex Building” [WKVI]. Web. Retrieved February 3, 2019
10 Historic Pulaski courthouse to be saved” The Pharos Tribune [Logansport]. Web. Retrieved 4/20/20.

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