So far in Indiana, we’ve lost 26 historic courthouses to fire1, seven to disrepair, and one to a tornado. Fortunately, the losses have died off in the last thirty years. Today, we’re left with all three of the state’s art deco courthouses. If Robert Gray had his way in 1987, though, we’d be down to two. Gray wasn’t a pyro, nor was he a county commissioner with shady ties to an excavation and demolition contractor or anything out of the ordinary. He was just a 42-year-old laborer at the local Chrysler plant in Kokomo. A blue-collar guy with charges pending- a blue-collar guy with a bomb in his briefcase.
Free on bond and accused of dealing drugs to an undercover officer, Gray detonated his briefcase bomb during a break in his trial that led him to Sheriff John Beatty’s office on the third floor of the Howard County Courthouse. The blast put fifteen people in the hospital, including the sheriff, who suffered burns across 25% of his body and injuries from embedded shrapnel2. The 1937 courthouse suffered too- the blast showered glass and debris across Sycamore Street3, obliterated several sections of its wall, and buckled the southwest portion of the roof4. Despite the scope of the wreckage, no one was killed. Well, no one except Gray himself, at least- he died at the scene.
The Chrysler plant Gray worked at was evacuated due to reports of an additional bomb threat. Later that evening, officers found live bombs in Gray’s trailer. Fearing the possibility of structural damage and the chance that Gray had planted additional explosives around the courthouse, officers sealed it off, preventing the coroner from getting in and confirming that Gray had indeed perished. Although repairing the damage took more than a year and cost more than a million dollars5 ($2.2 million today), most officials felt safe enough to return to the courthouse for work the next day. That’s a testament to the building’s hardy, limestone construction! In my observation, buildings constructed with funds from the Works Progress Administration tend to be some of the toughest.
A hardy building was what county officials needed in 1936: Howard County’s previous courthouse –a circa-1870, Second Empire structure with a 126-foot-tall clock tower- had been torn down in 1927 after it began to deteriorate6 and county officials had been working out of storefronts around town ever since. They let it go on for nine years until the WPA (a massive New Deal agency that employed millions of people and financed construction projects throughout the country during the Great Depression) enabled the creation of a new courthouse.
Indiana courthouse design had come a long way since the days of the mansard roof. Architectural preferences had cycled through the Richardson Romanesque and Neoclassical styles to arrive at a new juncture by the mid-30s. The state’s most recent courthouse, built in Daviess County in 1929, was already looking outmoded as a new wave of architectural stylings began to crest stateside from France. Architect Oscar Cook took this inspiration and ran with it, giving us the Art Deco Howard County Courthouse we see today.
Wikipedia says Art Deco represented “luxury, glamour, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress.” That fit Kokomo. The old courthouse predated the 1880s gas boom when businesses flocked to Kokomo. The influx of industry led to the community naming itself ‘The City of Firsts’, and not without good reason. Pneumatic rubber tires, stainless steel, howitzer shells, canned tomato juice, push-button car radios, and the Ponderosa Steakhouse all got their start in the city, not to mention a little thing called THE CAR: Elwood Haynes test-drove his first horseless carriage down Pumpkinvine Pike in 1894 (a real road, but you’ll sound like an idiot if you ask someone in town where it is- it’s called Goyer Road today).
More than fifty years before Robert Gray’s act of vengeance, Kokomo was booming in another way and needed a courthouse that matched its image. Well, they got it. The building’s east and west sides consist of eleven recessed bays separated by rectangular pilasters that, from close up, emphasize the courthouse’s height. Wide projections frame the mass of the building on each corner and extend nearly to the building’s flat roof.
The devil’s in the details, though, and this courthouse has details aplenty. For starters, check out the carved band of interwoven scallops and bead and reel molding that spans the top of the building. Or look at the engraved spandrel paneling that separates the windows vertically. Stylized capitals top the pilasters that define the window bays, and although the courthouse doesn’t shout it in your face, those elements are undoubtedly Art Deco. Iit took me a few trips to Kokomo to appreciate how each detail contributes to the overall aesthetic.
The Howard County Courthouse is only a baby compared to the rest of the state’s collection, considered one of the last historic courthouses in the state along with its Art Deco contemporaries in Shelbyville and Covington7.
Take the steps leading to the building’s main entrance: they’re framed by tall, streamlined lanterns, and the entry projection features Art Deco detailing on each side. While most county courthouses might be content with a bust of Washington, Lincoln, or a personified Liberty, the doors of Howard County’s feature busts of two local heroes: the inventor Elwood Haynes and David Foster, the founder of Kokomo. Personalized elements like that are rare on our courthouses.
It would have been a real shame if the courthouse hadn’t withstood that blast thirty-five years ago, but some good did come from it. The bombing resulted in several new security procedures, including the addition of a dedicated canine unit (the county had been using nearby Grissom Air Force Base’s bomb dog), a computer networking system for communications, and a new crisis radio configuration8. Hopefully, it also strengthened our appreciation for our less common historic courthouses.
As a city, Kokomo has made unique and crucial contributions to Indiana’s culture and history. It’s only fitting that its stately courthouse is both important and distinctive. As the Art Deco style has come back to inspire aesthetics everywhere, from interior design to engagement rings to fashion collections, now is the perfect time to pause to appreciate Howard County’s 30s-glam courthouse. From boomtown to bomb town, the courthouse continues to anchor downtown Kokomo.
Howard County (pop. 82,760, 18/92)
Kokomo (pop. 56,895).
Cost: $450,000 ($7.78 million in 2016)
Architect: Oscar F. Cook
Style: Art Deco
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: Courts and some county offices
1 Enyart, David. “Fires and Tornadoes” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
2. “Drug Defendant Believed Dead in Bomb Blast in Courthouse” The New York Times [New York]. April 15, 1987. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
3 “Courthouse Bomb Kills Drug Suspect” The Chicago Tribune [Chicago]. April 15, 1987. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
4 “30 years after Howard County Courthouse bombing, survivors still remember the terror” The Kokomo Tribune [Kokomo]. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
5 “The Courthouse back in 1920” The Kokomo Herald [Kokomo]. March 29, 2013. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
6 “Kokomo was not built in a day” Visit Kokomo Blog. Kokomo Visitors Bureau. December 9, 2011. Web. Retrieved 4/13/17.
7 Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
8 “Explosion alters some procedures” The Kokomo Tribune [Kokomo]. April 15, 1988: 3. Print.