The Clark County Courthouse in Indiana (1970-)

Indiana’s modern courthouses generally err towards conservatism, but the Clark County Courthouse in Jeffersonville bucks that trend. Take a look at it- have you seen anything like it before? If you’ve been to a mall over the past fifty years, you probably have: the Clark County Courthouse, along with many suburban department stores, was designed in the New Formalist mode.

The 1970 Clark County Courthouse in Jeffersonville, Indiana.

Fans of historic courthouses tend to lump modern ones into a single class, but I think that there are some subcategories worth knowing. In Indiana, courthouses in Muncie and Monticello are Brutalist, for example, and emphasize raw elements and textures. Those found in New Albany and Indianapolis are firmly Mid-Century Modern, with clean lines, lots of glass, and vertical lines. Others- well, they’re modern and functional, and there’s just no better way of putting it.

New Formalism emerged as architects rejected the rigid guidelines of grid-based Modernism. The style represents an attempt to combine classical building elements like columns, arches, and colonnades with new forms enabled by advances in technology1. Often, those combinations resulted in an emphasis on scale and proportion.

The former L.S. Ayres and Macy’s store at the Lafayette Square Mall in Indianapolis makes heavy use of New Formalism. Image courtesy Mike Kalasnik, under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

New Formalism rose to prominence in the 1950s2, but it took off in the late 1960s just as the workers completed the Clark County Courthouse and many suburban malls. New Formalist buildings exist all over our day-to-day routines, or at least they did. Take the old L.S. Ayres storefront at the Lafayette Square Mall in Indianapolis, for example. It was built in 1975, and a similar building was added to Indy’s Washington Square Mall the following year. Their entryways just scream New Formalism!

Clark County was established back when New Formalism was just formalism, predating Indiana’s founding by fourteen years. In 1802, the land surrounding the county’s first community, Clarksville, was given to the State of Virginia under an Indian treaty3. Virginia then awarded the land to the men who joined George Rogers Clark’s battalion during the Revolutionary War. Those men honored their leader by establishing a county and naming it after him. The first Clark County Courthouse was a frame building erected in Jeffersonville. It only served for ten years before it was replaced by a brick structure located slightly upriver in Charlestown.

An emphasis on verticality contributes to the scale of the courthouse, especially when viewed from close-range.

The county seat moved back to Jeffersonville sixty-five years later, and a new courthouse was built after officials collected $30,000 to do so. Located on the site of the present structure and occupied by October, 1878, the courthouse rose two stories above an exposed limestone foundation. Brick walls supplanted that first floor and rose past tall, rectangular windows to a heavy cornice and hipped roof. I have a couple of old postcards of the building somewhere, and I have no doubt that it would be among Indiana’s most underwhelming county courthouses if it still existed today.

A single-story lobby connects the courthouse to the county jail to the east. Parts of the complex are visible behind it.

Commissioners may have thought the same thing when they hired architects Wright, Porteous & Lowe to design a new building in the late 1960s. Per the Census, the county had grown 56% over the two decades that preceded the current building’s completion. As we’ve seen before, the venerable old courthouse was probably just too small to keep up with the times5. It’s hard for a historic courthouse to retain its usefulness for a century, especially in the face of population gains and changing demographics.

Here’s a close-up of the courthouse’s concrete colonnaded arches, a stylized interpretation of classical architectural styles.

Although most Indiana counties have kept their old buildings in commission, they didn’t sit right across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky, the country’s 31st largest city. In the years leading up to the demolition of Clark County’s aging courthouse, Louisville shriveled by nearly 30,000 people. I’d be willing to wager that most of them escaped to Clark County, and officials needed a way to accommodate them all.

This stark veterans memorial sits outside the building’s main entrance.

Sprawling across an entire city block, the 1970 courthouse that officials first designed to serve about 76,000 residents now brings justice to a population of more than 120,000. From the front, the main, colonnaded portionrises three floors to the southwest of the entire complex. A single-story lobby connects the courthouse to the Clark County Jail, which extends to the northwestern side of the block and attaches to more modern court and office facilities. The entire structure is large, intimidating, and for the most part, unadorned.

The New Formalist former Carson’s store at Mounds Mall in Anderson, as it appeared in January, 2023.

Much like the entrance to the old Carson’s department store at Anderson’s Mounds Mall, the original part of the Clark County Courthouse is easy to admire. Not only do those towering arches bring to mind the classic Greek or Roman architecture that they reference, but I’ll be dad-gummed if they don’t bring back memories of those old mall anchors where I spent what seemed like hours and hours waiting as a kid! The heavy massing, contrasting materials, and symmetry of the store’s arches are dead ringers for the most prominent section of the Clark County Courthouse.

Though decidedly untraditional, the Clark County Courthouse remains an imposing, modern, structure through its reinterpretation of classical modes of architecture.

To my eye, the very elements New Formalism brings to the storefront forefront are the features that many modern courthouses often lack. Though it’s easy to write the Clark County’s off, I’ve always been a contrarian. I love New Formalism unapologetically! Anything that updates classic tropes but still preserves a sense of majesty is fine in my book, and the Clark County Courthouse is a completely unique building among Indiana’s collection of courthouses.

Clark County (pop. 112,938, 16/92)
Jeffersonville ( pop. 45,929)
74/92 photographed
Built: 1970
Cost: $5.2 million ($32.07 million in 2016)
Architect: Wright, Porteous, & Lowe
Style: New Formalist
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: City/county offices and courts
Photographed: 4/3/2016

Sources Cited
1 “New Formalism” Architectural Style Guide. Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, 2018. Web. Retrieved 4/14/18.
2 “ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN OF THE MUSIC CENTER” About the Music Center. 50 The Music Center. 2014. Web. Retrieved 4/14/18.
3 “Clark County, Indiana Genealogical Records Information”. Archived from the original on 2008-01-21. Web. Retrieved 4/14/18.
4 “JEFFERSONVILLE – COUNTY SEAT OF CLARK COUNTY” Jeffersonville History. Clark County Government. Web. Retrieved 4/14/18.
5 “Clark County Government – History”. 2013-03-19. Archived from the original on March 19, 2013. Web. Retrieved 4/14/18.
6 “Louisville’s population ranks 31st in U.S.” Insurance. Louisville Business First. Web. Retrieved 4/14/18.

4 thoughts on “The Clark County Courthouse in Indiana (1970-)

  1. I was going to say that the courthouse looks like a bank branch. But then you showed the Lafayette Square LS Ayres and boom.

    I drive by that Ayres all the time on I-65. I have meant for years to go in there on a very gray day with a camera loaded with b/w film and make the most depressing shots I can manage of that building.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the “window to the world” thing they’re doing at Lafayette Square and if it impacts the exterior. If so, Washington square’s LS Ayres is functionally identical.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s