I tend to view county courthouses individually as part of a larger portfolio. Like many people, I prefer old ones over their modern counterparts, and 92% of Indiana counties still feature at least one historic courthouse. The White County Building in Monticello is less than fifty years old, but officials had no choice but to build the heavily-fortified courthouse: it replaced an eighty-year-old landmark that was flattened by a tornado.
In 1974, nine separate cyclones throughout Illinois and Indiana killed eighteen people and inflicted more than $100 million in damages during a two-day span that became known as the Super Outbreak. The strongest hit Monticello dead on in an unprecedented show of force1. Lives were spared downtown since stores had closed and school was already out for the day, but a hundred homes and an additional hundred businesses were wiped out. The community was devastated2.
The ruined courthouse was similar to the current Blackford County Courthouse in Hartford City, designed by the same architects. The three-story building boasted octagonal turrets rising from three corners, and a three-story clock tower capped by a steep, pyramidal roof ascended from the fourth. Projecting, gabled entry masses divided each of the building’s elevations in half, and the courthouse was topped by a steep hipped roof and four chimneys. Obviously, it was dramatically different than the building we see today.
Photos taken in the Super Outbreak’s aftermath show the courthouse stripped to the joists and its chimneys outright demolished. Most of the structure’s windows were blown out, and most notably, the clock tower was gone, detached as cleanly as if a giant had lopped it off with an enormous pair of scissors. Broken glass, roofing tiles, and masonry coated the town square. Nearby, the bell tower was blown off the top of City Hall! It was later recovered and now sits next to Monticello’s old Carnegie Library.
Under normal circumstances, improving or building a courthouse can take years. No one had planned a new courthouse before the tornado hit, so the whole thing had to be orchestrated on the fly. Regrouping in temporary space in Monticello’s National Guard Armory3, officials earnestly commissioned an architectural study to judge whether the wrecked building could be saved. Even if it could be, they’d need more space to consolidate offices scattered across downtown. Early estimates indicated that the building would cost $2 million to reconstruct and expand or $31,000 to demolish outright4, but the tornado leveled so many buildings that officials worried there wouldn’t be enough property tax revenue to sufficiently pay for either option5.
Money ultimately became available in the form of disaster relief aid and it took county officials less than a year to decide to construct a larger, modern courthouse. The new, gleaming building was completed in 1976 on the site of its predecessor, and several artifacts from the building’s predecessor were salvaged and incorporated into the landscaping surrounding the new one6.
By 1976, most of Monticello’s downtown district had been rebuilt or relocated. Residents surely missed looking up and seeing the iconic clock tower of the destroyed courthouse, but came to accept its replacement as another sign of progress and recovery from the Super Outbreak. Although the current courthouse doesn’t replicate the style of its precursor, it stands as an honest example of 1970s public architecture and features two cornerstones. One is standard, and one depicts a silhouette of its forerunner next to the inscription “DESTROYED BY TORNADO APRIL 3, 1974.”
Three stories tall, the White County Building would be nearly square were it not for central entry projections on each of its sides. The first floor is faced with a horizontal band of windows that flank recessed entries accessible from beneath the projecting masses. Dark brick walls on each side are delineated into visible stories by wide, contrasting concrete bands. The corners of the building are framed by similar vertical spans and narrow windows. Facing east on the town’s square next to a brick plaza, it looks like it would put up a fight against Mother Nature’s occasional hysterics.
White County’s 1894 courthouse was the only one in Indiana to be replaced by a modern structure due to complete necessity. If the tornado hadn’t hit, I suspect we’d see in Monticello what we often see across the midwest: a historic courthouse relegated to housing several minor offices while a modern justice center houses the actual courts elsewhere. It’s unfortunate that a tragedy of the Super Outbreak’s magnitude forced the county to acknowledge its need for more space and modern design, and although I’m glad the White County Building fits the needs of its constituents, I’m sorry that it came through the undeserved loss of its landmark predecessor.
White County (pop. 24,466)
Monticello (pop. 5,362).
Cost: $2.4 million ($10.1 million in 2016)
Architect: Longardner and Associates
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County courts and offices
1 “Monticello Subdivision Disappears” The Journal and Courier [Lafayette] April 8, 1974: 17. Print.
2 “Tornado-Stricken Monticello Rebuilds for Brighter Future” The Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis] February 26, 1976: 6. Print.
3 “Armory Becomes New Courthouse” The Journal and Courier [Lafayette] April 9, 1974: 7. Print.
4 “Unit To Study Needs” The Journal and Courier [Lafayette] June 28, 1974: 9. Print.
5 “Monticello Struggling to Recover” The Muncie Star [Muncie] March 30, 1975: 35. Print.
6 “Town Marks Comeback” The Times [Munster] April 3, 1977: 24. Print.
3 thoughts on “The White County Courthouse in Indiana (1976-)”
Ted, interesting piece. My father was a Sergeant in the National Guard and was activated for cleanup and looter control there.
He was there a week and when he returned home we took a road trip and saw the damage. I remember a car standing upright against a building across from the courthouse and the courthouse itself, A whole subdivision was nothing but concrete slabs and bath tubs, all the debris was a block over.
I don’t have any photos, but still remember almost 50 yrs ago..
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Wow. What you saw would be almost unimaginable in person. Cars standing upright! Just east of Muncie, Monroe-Central High School was destroyed during the super outbreak. Rebuilding that school, which was only eight or nine years old, meant for a similar, involved, process that White County went through. Both were big community events.
I hadn’t thought about loot control and hadn’t seen any mention that in the newspapers I used for my research. Obviously it must have been a big concern, but did your father say anything about any problems with that?
Ted, they had a few issues of people running roadblocks, but they were locals trying to get to their homes or what was left.
They were mostly there to help with cleanup duties and help the locals until utilities were restored. I’m sure having armed guardsmen around helped keep theft to a minimum.
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