The Shelby County Courthouse in Indiana (1937-)

I tend to think of a city as a boring grid of streets. It turns out that the people who planned about 85% of the county seats in Indiana felt the same way since they feature what historians call a Shelbyville Square, a regular old city block bounded on each side by a street. Ironically, Shelbyville, Indiana lacks a Shelbyville Square. You’ve got to travel four blocks south of the city’s Lancaster Square to see the courthouse, but once you do, you’re in for a treat: Shelby County’s is one of only three art deco examples in the state. 

The 1937 Shelby County Courthouse in Shelbyville.

Lancaster squares like the one in Shelbyville look like squared-off traffic circles. Four other counties in the state -Dubois, Orange, Steuben, and Washington- feature this type of plan, which makes it the second most common plat style among those communities that bothered to do so.

Three Indiana counties have a Harrisonburg square, which takes its name from the city in Pennsylvania. A Harrisonburg square features a central courthouse block intersected on each corner with a city street like normal. But the Harrisonburg square differs from a typical block by including streets that intersect at the center of at least two of the square’s bounding thoroughfares. Indiana courthouses in Franklin, Crown Point, and Evansville have Harrisonburg squares1. They’re pretty rare.

Three common courthouse square types exist within our state.

Like many Indiana communities, Shelby County went through a succession of courthouses before it arrived at the building south of the square today. Organized in 18223, officials first held court at the town of Marion -a few miles northeast on the banks of the Big Blue River- in the house of David Fisher. They didn’t build a courthouse, though, or even lay out a square: The county conducted business at several private residences, including Fisher’s, until they could find enough money to build a brick courthouse. That first brick building sat in the middle of Shelbyville’s Lancaster square. Today there’s little left of Marion.

Four rectangular pilasters, as well as massive windows, characterize the prominence of the present courthouse.

The courthouse in Shelbyville was obsolete and too small by 1849. Residents Edward Toner and Jeremiah Bennett donated a lot south of the business district4, and commissioners decided to build their new courthouse there. Apparently, a lack of foresight meant that the city’s Lancaster square discouraged a courthouse big enough to conduct business, and a contemporary trip through town today seems to confirm it. In 1852, the county hired Edwin May to design a new one on Toner and Bennett’s lot.

May was a prolific area architect who also designed jails, schools, and the state capitol. He designed nine county courthouses from 1851 to 18795 and today, only the courthouses in Vincennes, Noblesville, and Greensburg still stand and resemble his original vision. Officials in Shelby County paid May $27,000 for his 75×100 foot design, which was expanded and remodeled in 1878 by D.A. Bohlen.

The rear of the courthouse is harmonious with its other fronts, but more workmanlike to allow for a modern, primary entrance to the structure.

Despite Bohlen’s renovations, county commissioners again deemed the old building outmoded 57 years later and decided to build another replacement. Their decision couldn’t have come at a better time: thanks to New Deal legislation, the county was able to use a combination of its own funds, along with Public Works Administration cash, to complete the structure.

The 1937 courthouse -also designed by D.A. Bohlen (& Son, by that point)- arrived the same year as Indiana’s other two Art Deco courthouses. A style that originated in France before World War I, Art Deco was associated with luxury and modernity and put extensive focus on expensive materials and craftsmanship utilized in a streamlined manner. In Indiana, the style represented the final vestiges of any courthouse boom we once had.

Tall iron lanterns frame the building’s primary entrance.

Art Deco manifests into the windows of the two-story courthouse, which are transected by squarish pilasters that emphasized the building’s height. The main entrance of the structure, its eastern front, features two outwardly-projecting, three-bay segments on its north and south sides, which lead to a symmetrical five-bay entrance where Doric pilasters capped with metal relief panels rise to the building’s second floor. Tall lanterns frame each side of the wide stairway, and the courthouse sits on an expansive lawn. Though the building doesn’t dominate Shelbyville thanks to its height, the setback gives credence to the courthouse’s importance.

The rear of the building is less ornamental than the front but features similar motifs. Three-over-three windows and setbacks reiterate the style of the primary facade, but it’s clear that the building’s rear was designed to be more functional than a courthouse on a traditional square might have been. A rear parking lot provides access to the Shelby County courthouse annex- a bland, tan-colored, two-story building.

Despite the building’s relatively squat shape, it still dominates the area south of Shelbyville’s downtown.

In 1975, the courthouse was renovated to allow a new county court to take up residence in the building’s basement6, and the courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places thirty-six years later7. I’ve been able to find little information about the rest of the courthouse’s interior, but the building remains an impressive, central component of its surrounds just south of downtown. The courthouse is surrounded by a few old homes that appear historic, some one-story businesses, and a two-story Masonic Temple.

After three tries, Shelbyville finally gained a courthouse that has stood -and will stand -the test of time.

Sometimes an initial plan works great and lasts forever. More often, I’ve realized, plans need to be fine-tuned, adjusted, and occasionally thrown by the wayside. Shelbyville went through that process when it outgrew its Lancaster square, expanded the replacement courthouse, and, eventually, built anew. In every instance, officials looked at what changes in the community required, considered their options, and moved forward with a plan. In It’s a great example of adaptability, something that I can tie to some of my own recent experiences, and the Art Deco Shelby County courthouse is a real jewel in Indiana’s portfolio.

Shelby County (pop. 44,729, 33/92)
Shelbyville (pop. 19,253).
22/92 photographed.
Built: 1936
Cost: $250,000 ($4.32 million in 2016)
Architect: D.A. Bohlen & Son
Style: Art Deco
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 2 stories
Current use: Courts and some county offices
Photographed: 8/18/15

Sources Cited
Indiana’s Historic Courthouses. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
2 Enyart, David. “Shelby County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web.
History of Shelby County, Indiana : from the earliest time to the present. Chicago. Brant & Fuller. 1887. Print.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Shelby County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web.
The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.  Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1994. Print.
Shelby County, Indiana History & Families, Volume 1. Nashville. Turner Publishing Company. 1992. Print.
7 National Register of Historic Places, Shelby County Courthouse, Shelbyville, Shelby County, Indiana, National Register # 11000917.

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