The Monroe County, Indiana Courthouse (1908-)

The Monroe County Courthouse there has a fish on its weathervane. Why? I’m not sure! If you read on, maybe we’ll find out together. 

The 1908 Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington.

Bloomington -the seat of Monroe County best known for being home to Indiana University- has hosted three courthouses since 1818. The first is said to have been a “double building” with two log sections measuring 20×20 and 20×12 with a sidewalk between them1. Squat structures that measured only ten feet to the eaves, each cabin had an east-facing window for natural sunlight. After only a year of service, the buildings were deemed insufficient for county business, so commissioners contracted architect William Low to draw up plans for a replacement.

Wishing for a new courthouse is quick work, but actually erecting one can take a while. In Bloomington, it took hapless builder John Ketchum seven years to produce the city’s second courthouse! That’s long enough for a whole war to happen2! Thankfully, the double buildings were positioned on the south side of the square and could still be used while the new building was being assembled.

This shot is one of two of the dome that didn’t turn out. Above it, you can see the fish.

In the same amount of time it takes for the human body to replace all its cells3, Low and Ketchum came up with a coffee mill-styled structure measuring 45×40 feet that was occupied by May of 1826. The building was reminiscent of the old trio of courthouses in Wilmington, Corydon, and Rome, which are two stories with three bays and capped with a hipped roof and octagonal, cupola. Forty four of Indiana’s ninety-two counties once featured a coffee mill style courthouse!

The same year, an early settler named Austin Seward created a three-foot-long fish of gilded copper that was added, upside down, to the weathervane above the building’s cupola4. No one knows why he did that or why his handiwork was featured so prominently. It’s a mystery.

A $7,000 expansion that some consider enough of an alteration to be a brand new courthouse was finished in 18505. It added two wings, each two stories tall, that stretched out beyond the building’s old entrance to accommodate a set of four pillars beneath a pediment that created a recessed entryway. By the 1870s, the courthouse featured a thin Second Empire clock tower with a mansard roof that replaced its original cupola6.

The building’s secondary facades are indicative of a Neoclassical style rather than its Beaux Arts faces. That’s the fish up top.

The enlarged building eventually became too small for Monroe County’s needs, so officials hired Fort Wayne architects Wing & Mahurin to design its replacement. In 1908, the architects turned in a stunning Beaux Arts courthouse with all the trimmings of the trope like monumental staircases, statuary, arched windows, symmetry, and classical details7. Wing & Mahurin even made room for Austin Seward’s inverted fish weathervane! Words cannot express how much I love that they did.

Statuary like this cements the courthouse in place as a Beaux Arts construct.

Despite its prominence as one of Wing & Mahurin’s masterworks, the courthouse led a troubled life for much of its existence: in 1961, Floyd County officials demolished their old courthouse and an entire city block of historic structures to make room for a modern City-County Building that revitalized downtown New Albany. The following year, commissioners in Monroe County nearly did the same since their needs again outgrew the space the old courthouse could provide. Frugal minds prevailed, though, and the structure was left standing. Unfortunately, a substantial change was necessary to keep the courthouse in service- new offices that stacked up through its rotunda, obscured Gustave Brand’s stained glass dome for all but those who ventured to the superior courtroom.

The courthouse sits on a raised berm behind a retaining wall, making photos difficult to capture. But I’m also not great to begin with.

Though the interior renovation helped with space concerns, commisioners determined they needed more room by the 1980s and proposed replacing the building again. Thankfully, a grassroots campaign of supporters armed with petitions and protests slapped it down pretty handily. Their efforts were so effective, in fact, that commissioners dramatically changed course from demolishing the 75-year-old building to outfitting it with a $2.3 million renovation8 that removed the intruding offices, opened up the glass dome, and recreated intricate plaster moldings around ceilings and columns that had been lost to time9. Eventually, the rest of Monroe County’s offices moved to a new building at the corner of College Avenue and West 7th Street. 

The courthouse sits on a raised berm behind a retaining wall, making photos difficult to capture. But I’m also not great to begin with.

We should all be glad that the restored Monroe County Courthouse in Bloomington still stands. As for the fish, it was re-gilded in 1950 and still swims from its perch a hundred and eight feet above Bloomington today10. I’m sad to say that I still can’t tell you why it’s there. No one seems to know! I can say that kids aged 4-14 named him Hoagy as part of Monroe County’s bicentennial celebration in 201911.

Whether the fish was named after those kids’ favorite type of sandwich (unlikely) or Bloomington’s favorite composer (getting warmer), I hope that Indiana’s only courthouse fish continues to spin freely for many more years atop the weathervane of Monroe County’s fantastic courthouse.

Monroe County (pop. 141,888, 12/92)
Bloomington (pop. 82,575)
70/92 photographed
Built: 1908
Cost: $250,000 ($6.65 million in 2016)
Architect: Mahurin & Mahurin
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 108 feet
Current Use: Some county offices
Photographed: 3/27/16

Sources Cited
1 Allison Lendman (April 6, 2002). “A Brief History of the Formation and First Year of Existence of Monroe County Indiana”. Monroe County History Center.
2 “Seven Years’ War” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Britannica Group, Inc. July 20, 1998. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
3 Opfer, Chris. “Does your body really replace itself every seven years?” HowStuffWorks. Infospace Holdings, LLC. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
4 “The Copper Fish” Bloomington, Indiana. Visit Bloomington. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
5 Enyart, David. “Monroe County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
6 Krause, Carrol. ”Step back in time with Monroe County’s courthouse” Houses and Books. Web. 8/4/2013. Retrieved 1/4/2020.
7 Klein, Fogle, and Etienne. Clues to American Architecture. Starhill Press [Washington, D.C.]. 1986. Print. 38.
8 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Print.
9 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Monroe County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
10 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. 1913. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Indiana University Libraries. Web. Retrieved 1/4/20.
11 Jackson, Lindsey. “Bloomington Residents Vote To Name The Courthouse Fish ‘Hoagy’”. WTIU. Indiana Public Media. Web. Retrieved 1/4/2019. 

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