The Elkhart County, Indiana Courthouse in Elkhart (1915-1972-)

Lots of Hoosier cities are home to prominent intersections. One of the most famous is 96th Street and Hague Road just east of I-69! Elkhart -which flourished for much of the 20th century thanks to the musical instrument and RV industries- had its own landmark junction downtown: for about 45 years, the corner of 2nd and High signified the city’s prosperity and promise. 

The 1915 Elkhart County Superior Courthouse and Municipal Building.

The prominence of “The Corner of Education, Justice, and Religion,” as the intersection was advertised on old postcards, began in 1907 when Andrew Carnegie funded an impressive, neoclassical library at the northwestern corner of the crossroads1. Elkhart’s First Presbyterian Church, an ornate structure with a stained glass rotunda that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Indiana’s finer courthouses, joined the library immediately to the south in 1909. On the southwest corner, Elkhart High School was enlarged in 1911, and Elkhart’s municipal building -consisting of city offices and the county’s superior court- was built in 1915 to round out the picture. E. Hill Turnock, a local architect originally born in Great Britain, was responsible for designing all of the buildings aside from the library2

“The Corner of Education, Justice, and Religion,” as it appeared on an old postcard.

Only the addition of an apple pie bakery and a baseball diamond could have made the intersection more quintessentially American, but despite its gravitas and symbolism, most of the buildings didn’t last: the old church was demolished in the early 1960s after the Presbyterians moved to a modern sanctuary on East Beardsley. Next up was the library, which moved across the street to the former church site in 19633. The venerable Elkhart High School -after swelling to encompass the entire block with various expansions and additions that included the old library building- was finally torn down in 1972 upon the completion of a new school northwest of town4. Only the municipal building was left standing. It still does.

This marker memorializes the site of the former Elkhart High School.

As I mentioned, the municipal building held Elkhart County’s superior court from its construction in 1915 until 1971. Before that, superior court was held in a special, fifth-floor chamber in an office building elsewhere downtown5. But what, exactly, is a superior court? Longtime readers know that it must differ from the supreme court, which has tomatoes and sour cream and costs a dollar more at participating Taco Bell locations. 

A lawyer friend explained it to me once like this, I think: The superior court once was “superior” to lower circuit courts with limited jurisdiction, but that differentiation has pretty much become meaningless in modern times. Today both circuit and superior courts enjoy general jurisdiction across all civil and criminal cases. For most of its life, the Elkhart Municipal Building likely handled local cases that the regular county courthouse in Goshen couldn’t accommodate.

A stone carving of an Elk projects from the building’s entrance arch.

Like many of Turnock’s designs, the three-story, seven-bay wide structure was constructed from dark brick and features Bedford limestone accents such as its water table, lintels, and parapet. Access is gained from the east side through recessed doors under a limestone entrance arch that projects slightly from the rest of the building. A stone carving of an Elk’s head -not its heart, as I assumed would be more appropriate- juts out from above the keystone.

The primary face of the building is separated into three segments consisting of a triple-bay facades that flank the building’s central portion. The first two floors of each side bay feature rectangular, one-over-one windows, while the windows of the third story feature shallow arches and are connected by a limestone belt course with centered stone medallions. Another belt course spans the width of the building near its peak, and a large, projecting cornice with heavy modillions caps the building below its narrow parapet. Of every courthouse I’ve been to, this one has the greatest flagpole-to-building height ratio. It’s huge, and flags were at half-staff the day I was there to honor the victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. 

Note the building’s large modillions and massive cornice.

The courtroom takes up most of the building’s third floor, and it features a stained glass skylight6. The structure hasn’t served as a courthouse since 1971, though, when a brutalist replacement was built on the site of the old high school. The less said about that building the better, but it did at least incorporate part of the old high school. Another treat for the historically-minded is the small monument to the old Elkhart High School located right at the corner. Other historical markers and interpretive signs stand at various points around the intersection. For a city that demolished three-quarters of its most notable intersection, Elkhart sure does value its history! 

The facade of part of the old Elkhart High School vocational annex was preserved and incorporated into a later superior courthouse.

I can’t say that I blame local officials for doing it. Like many industrial communities across the state, Elkhart’s economy ramped up in 1950s and 60s. What we now think of as old buildings hadn’t yet gained the patina that history later provided- they were just ancient and outmoded, as modern courthouses in Anderson, Muncie, Marion, New Albany, or any number of communities looking for a way to grab onto part of the jet age with a modernistic downtown attest. Even Elkhart’s ugly 1971 superior courthouse was at the forefront of construction at one point, representative of the “systems analysis” mode of design and consisting of modular, prefabricated subsystems as found in several Indiana high schools7. It’s sometimes easy to forget the context of a building or an intersection, even if that context is subject to generational change. 

Theankfully, the courthouse is still in use as the Elkhart City Hall today.

Even though it no longer functions as a courthouse, the continued use of the Elkhart Municipal Building by city officials represents not only the context of when it was finished in 1915, but also the conditions of a community that values historic preservation today. Though it now looks across 2nd Street at an empty parking lot instead of a sumptuous Carnegie library, its gaze is indifferent- it’s only a building, after all. Thankfully, residents weren’t indifferent in keeping it standing while its surroundings were razed.

Today, the intersection retains its title as “The Corner of Education and Justice,” if not religion; based on the city hall, the newer superior courthouse, and the library. But two out of three isn’t bad, and there are other great old churches to be found in the area. In its Municipal Building, Elkhart has a structure that deserves continued pride, particularly when compared to its successor. Thankfully, it seems like the city agrees! 

Elkhart County (pop. 197,559, 6/92)
Elkhart (pop. 52,558)
Built: 1915
Cost: $100,000 (about $3 million in 2023)
Architect: E. Hill Tornock.
Style: Georgian Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: City offices
Photographed: 2/18/18

Sources Cited
1 Indiana Carnegie Libraries. Hoosier Indiana. Web. Retrieved 5/4/2020.
2 “One architect, three cities: How one man built Elkhart County” January 25, 2017. WSBT22. Sinclair Broadcast Group [South Bend]. Web. Retrieved 5/4/2020.
3 “The home for information: A History of 115 years and counting” Elkhart Public Library. 2020. Web.Retrieved 5/5/20.
4 Konrath, R. (2013, June 13). Re: The Old SCHOOL. [Facebook comment]. Web. Retrieved May 5, 2020.
5 Enyart, David. “Elkhart County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 5/5/20.
6 The Municipal Building”. KIL Architecture Planning. South Bend. Web. Retrieved 5/5/20.
7 Poice, J. “A Case Study In Systems Building”. Stanford University Planning Lab [California]. 1970. Print.

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