The Tippecanoe County Courthouse in Indiana (1884-)

Mark Twain came to Lafayette a year after the Tippecanoe County Courthouse was built. Sardonic old humorist that he was, Twain was impressed by the structure, even going as far as calling it striking. “Very striking indeed,” he quipped. “I should judge that the courthouse struck the taxpayers a very hard blow1!”  

The 1884 Tippecanoe County Courthouse in Lafayette, Indiana.

Twain ‘s assessment was on the nose since the courthouse cost $500,000, twice its original estimate2. In addition to being Indiana’s second-tallest historic courthouse behind Fort Wayne’s, the 212-foot tall building features a hundred columns and a 3,000-pound bell3. The structure is a true monument to civic pride. Architecturally, it rivals -and exceeds- some state capitols. It’s taller than twenty-five of them!

The enormous scale of the Tippecanoe County Courthouse isn’t all that makes it great: the building’s exuberant design makes it tricky to assign a specific architectural style! For starters, six of the building’s turrets are pyramidal mansard roofs with dormer windows, echoing the Second Empire mode of architecture. Its columns are neoclassical. The white limestone of the courthouse’s finish reflects early Beaux Arts influences, and the building’s layout, roughly in the form of a 150-foot Greek cross, demonstrates a Byzantine influence. The courthouse features nine statues, all influenced by classical art.

The 14-foot tall statue of “Justice” extends the building’s height to 226 feet.

The artistic visages of George Rodgers Clark, George Washington, and Tecumseh survey downtown Lafayette from building’s north and south rooflines, while allegorical statues of Justice, Industry, and Agriculture stand watch from over its east and west entrances. Local historians first thought the 14-foot figure atop the dome represented Liberty, but a spring cleaning of the structure’s attic found a set of scales that led them to believe that it’s a second representation of justice4.

Second Empire mansard roofs, Neoclassical columns, a Byzantine layout, and Beaux Arts surface materials all combine to make the courthouse look like no other in the state.

Other statues decorate the rest of the building’s alcoves in opulent touches, but no one’s quite sure of which architect to credit for its ebullient appearance. Elias Max, a local contractor, was long held to have designed the courthouse but later researchers weren’t sure about that conclusion5. In the early 1880s, James F. Alexander, a Lafayette architect, submitted plans for a new courthouse to commissioners but didn’t win the job. Later, it became apparent that, aside from some small points of contention, the “Max Plan” was awfully similar to Alexander’s disfavored design.

Today, historians behind the courthouse’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places credit Alexander, who was long held to have simply been its “Superintendent of Construction6.” It’s unfortunate that we can’t give someone proper credit for its design,

The courthouse towers over the Chase Building (labeled here has Centier), Lafayette’s tallest modern building, by more than eighty feet.

The present courthouse superseded two earlier ones in Tippecanoe County. The first was a small, three-bay, colonial brick structure. It was two stories tall and featured a squat bell tower with a steeple and prominent weathervane. A larger, classically-influenced courthouse with two columns framing its main entrance replaced it in 1845 and cost $5,000. An artesian well was drilled near the second courthouse in 1857, and Mark Twain compared it favorably to the town’s dried-up portion of the Wabash-Erie Canal7. The well’s sulfur smell led it to be plugged in 19398

It was raining both times I visited Lafayette’s courthouse square, so I didn’t spend as much time appreciating the grounds as I could have in better weather. Nevertheless, the building’s surrounds are home to some interesting items, such as a Lorado Taft statue of Marquis de Lafayette that was added on top of a fountain at the northeastern corner of the square in 18879. Two cannons, donated by the Grand Army of the Republic, were moved to the courthouse site a decade later. Today, the grounds also feature a Howitzer in the northwest corner and a Parrot cannon on the southeast side of the courthouse site.

You can see the de Lafayette statue in the crux of the building’s north and east sides.

Like many historic courthouses, Tippecanoe County’s features monumental stairways that provide access to the building’s ground floor since it sits upon a raised basement. Over time, those types of stairs have dwindled due to modern accessibility requirements, and some counties have removed them completely. Thankfully, officials here were able to compromise: rather than destroy them during a 1966 renovation, the stairs were left in place with just their central segments cut out to provide ground-level access to the building. Above those modern entrances, each of the eight original walnut doors weighs five hundred pounds. They’re huge.

Adaptability is crucial to the survival of any old building, and the Tippecanoe County Courthouse has been modified in other ways. The courthouse got its first elevator in 1906, and a 1991 restoration that cost $15 million over two years added a fourth floor by repurposing the building’s old attic into offices for the prosecutor and court-appointed special advocates office. The renovation restored many of the courthouse’s most elegant features, but it also positioned it for the twenty-first century. Another project, to replace the roof and repair the dome, cost $3.5 million and was completed in 201610.

The building’s monumental stairs were cut through the middle to provide easy access to the ground floor, originally a raised basement.

Today, Tippecanoe County’s home to about 200,000 people and is best known for being home to Purdue University. The courthouse certainly lives up to the area’s prominence, but only about 35,000 people lived there when it was built. 130 years ago, commissioners shot for the moon with this courthouse!

I couldn’t help but leave downtown Lafayette without thinking about my dad both times I visited. My dad, a larger-than-life guy, lived by the mantra that anything worth doing was worth doing to excess. Although that might be true sometimes, occasional maintenance, introspection, and restructuring is also necessary. I’m glad that officials in Tippecanoe County made that connection in keeping their excessive gem of a courthouse viable to continue its effective service more than 130 years after it was first erected. The building is one of Indiana’s finest.

Tippecanoe County (pop. 180,174, 7/92)
Lafayette (pop. 70,373)
49/92 photographed
Built: 1884
Cost: $500,000 ($13.3 million in 2016)
Architect: James F. Alexander
Style: Multiple
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 226 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 3/13/16

Sources Cited
1 Kriebel, Bob. “Mark Twain visited, poked fun at Lafayette in 1885.” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette]. March 31, 2017. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.
2 Enyart, David. “Tippecanoe County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.
3 Counts, Will, Dilts, Jon. The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. 1991. Pages 164-165. Print.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Tippecanoe County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.
5 National Register of Historic Places, Tippecanoe County Courthouse, Lafayette, Tippecanoe County, Indiana, National Register # 72000013.
6 (See footnote 5).
7 (See footnote 1).
8 (See footnote 5).
9 “Tour the Courthouse Exterior” Tippecanoe County Courthouse. Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette. 2010. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.
10 Bangert, Dave. “A climb to the top of the courthouse dome” The Journal & Courier [Lafayette]. September 20, 2016. Web. Retrieved 9/8/19.

One thought on “The Tippecanoe County Courthouse in Indiana (1884-)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s