The Adams County Courthouse in Indiana (1872-)

Indiana is littered with counties that have been forced to decapitate their courthouses over the years due to natural disasters or structural problems. Although you wouldn’t know it today at first glance, Adams County’s in Decatur is one of them. Its architect, J.C. Johnson, seemed particularly bad at designing clock towers. I guess that’s what’s bound to happen when you’re a self-taught courthouse architect1.

The 1872 Adams County Courthouse in Decatur.

Johnson didn’t really have a choice but to include clock towers in his designs, though: in the 1870s, an architectural style called “county capitol” was spreading across the state2. In it, clock towers were designed to rise from the middle of the building rather than the front to create a scaled-down version of a typical state capitol. Johnson seems to have liked the concept: although his courthouse in Defiance had already been completed with a front clock tower, he used it on both his Indiana courthouses in Decatur and Winchester.

The courthouse was originally designed in the ‘county capital’ style.

It turns out that erecting a massive clock tower above a large, open courtroom wasn’t the best idea- the Adams County Courthouse couldn’t support its weight, even though much of the attic was taken up by bearing walls and steel bridgework. Officials realized that in 1900 and demolished the clock tower, dropping the courtroom ceiling and inadvertently concealing intricate murals that graced the room. By 1902, they’d hired Fort Wayne architects Wing & Mahurin to complete a new front tower3. Today, the extant clock tower is one of the earliest examples of a sympathetic addition to a historic Indiana courthouse. It fits right in.

The 1902 clock tower of the 1872 courthouse.

I’m not aware of any photos of the courthouse with its central tower. I’d imagine it looked like a cross between the current one and the replacement on Johnson’s courthouse in Winchester. Both are formed by three segments: the first is a base, of course. The second segment provides most of their height and features three rectangular louvered panels, each capped by a rounded arch and topped by an oculus. A heavy, modillioned cornice separates that tier from the top section, which holds a central clock face in an arched surround that projects slightly from an elongated dome. The dome is crowned by a cupola and flagpole. The only difference between those two and the original tower probably had to do with materials: the Adams County Courthouse’s old clock tower was constructed of heavy brick, while Randolph County’s is composed of prefabricated aluminum to avoid the costs and structural requirements necessitated to support a heavier arrangement4.

Aside from the ill-fated clock tower, J.C. Johnson got the rest of the building right. It shares many details with his other two area courthouses, along with the 1879 Hamilton County Courthouse that he was brought in to finish after the original architect was fired. And yes, before you ask- that clock tower had to be replaced too, in 19685. This poor guy and his clock towers!

Vermiculated quoins frame the front entry projection of the courthouse.

All those buildings feature Berea Sandstone accents that sharply contrast their red brick massing6, but the ones on Adams County’s courthouse are my favorites: the projecting entry mass of the east facade features alternating carved quoins and keystones that the building’s National Register of Historic Places applications calls “vermiculated”. According to Google, vermiculated means “carved or molded with shallow wavy grooves resembling the tracks of worms.” I’d say that’s a pretty apt description of how the quoins appear, and it was fun to learn a new word.

Those worm-eaten quoins aren’t the only places where sandstone accentuates the building. A sandstone belt course separates the first two stories of the courthouse, and windows on both the buildng’s stories are encased in sandstone surrounds. Normal quoins cover the building’s other corners, and we’ve also got a rough-hewn sandstone foundation and a sandstone front porch. Overall, the effect is quite pleasing, and maybe a little irreverent.

A bricked-up north entryway (partially obscured by a tree) is still relatively harmonious with the rest of the courthouse.

Above the massing but below the tower, the courthouse is capped by a mansard roof, which features dormer windows and sits on another metal cornice. The outside of the building really hasn’t changed much in the 116 years since the tower was reconfigured, but some alterations are apparent. For starters, the front doors of the courthouse are obviously modern, but don’t really take away from the building’s overall appearance. At some point, secondary entrances on the north and south sides of the courthouse were bricked in to provide room for more offices, and a tiny, flat-roofed basement entrance was added to the north side. The changes were minimal.

Adams County’s desire for historic preservation and adaptive reuse doesn’t end with the historic courthouse. When the county’s needs became too great for the old building, officials took over the town’s library, a neoclassical structure erected in 1905 just southwest. Later, officials expanded into the old Decatur High School when they created the Adams County Service Complex, which houses a fitness center and the local parks department, among other things. What can I say- the amount of architectural conservation is inspiring. I love this town!

The rear of the courthouse is nearly as ornate as its primary entrance.

The Service Complex rents their old gym out by the hour7, so you’d better have your phone handy to tell when it’s time to leave or else pay up. But imagine again that you didn’t: even though you’d be in the woeful throes of smartphone separation anxiety, you’d have no choice but to run down South 3rd Street to check the time on the courthouse clock. As you did, I’d hope you’d say a silent thanks to J.C. Johnson, John Wing, and Marshall Mahurin for providing the clock tower for you- it wasn’t always easy!

Adams County (pop. 34,614, 45/92)
Decatur (pop. 9,418).
18/92 photographed
Built: 1872, remodeled in 1902
Cost: $100,000 ($2 million in 2016)
Architect: J. C. Johnson; Wing & Mahurin
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 160 feet
Current use: Some county offices and some courts
Photographed: 8/16/15

Sources Cited
1 Dilts, Jon. The Magnificent 92 Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1999. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. March 19, 2018.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Adams County Courthouse, Decatur, Adams County, Indiana, National Register # 8000914.
4 “Why Purchase a Campbellsville Steeple?” Materials. Campbellsville Industries, Incorporated, 2004. Web. March 19, 2018.
5 “Courthouse” The Noblesville Ledger [Noblesville] June 26,1992:11. Print.
6 Tyndall, John W. Standard History of Adams and Wells Counties, Indiana. Chicago. The Lewis Publishing Company: 1918. Print.
7 Neddenriep, Kyle. Historic Hoosier Gyms: Discovering Bygone Basketball Landmarks. Charleston. The History Press. 2010. Print.

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