If you’re a fan of architecture like me, it’s easy to forget that, at their core, courthouses are buildings that house the courts. I can throw all the shade I want toward officials who vote to demolish a historic courthouse, but I start to come around when it becomes apparent that the building is no longer able to adequately serve its purpose. That happened in Logansport in the late 1970s. As a result, Cass County has the dubious distinction of being home to Indiana’s most recent historic courthouse casualty.
The early geopolitical history of Cass County is pretty easy to relay since Logansport has always been its county seat. In 1836, officials solicited proposals for a courthouse and paid Joseph Willis $30 to design a two-story stone building. It was finally completed in 1844 for $16,393 once a bell tower and spire were added, but the expense and delays were worth it since the structure was considered one of the finest in the state1.
Logansport was set to boom with its new courthouse and other intiguing developments. Not only did it sit strategically at the confluence of the Wabash and Eel rivers, but the Wabash and Erie Canal had recently been extended through town. So had the Michigan Road, an early superhighway connecting Michigan City with Madison by Indianapolis. Some estimates say that as many as half of the pioneers who settled in northern Indiana did so via the Michigan Road2, and many planted roots in Cass County.
By the 1880s, the new ways of traveling through Logansport caused Cass County’s population to increase fivefold3 and officials needed a new courthouse to serve all the new constituents. Their original plan was to knock the old building down and replace it, but a last-minute plea by attorneys who praised the acoustics of the old courtroom led commissioners to leave it standing and add to its front, bringing it up from the square to the street according to plans from Chicago architect John S. McKean. The project was completed in 1888.
The plan was successful, but the larger building didn’t age well. Old courthouses are fantastic architectural statements, but they’re not easy to maintain; clock towers, rooflines, and chimneys prove especially difficult to preserve over many decades. Many of those elements were removed from the Cass County Courthouse during a 1953 renovation.
In my experience, navigating old buildings that have been added onto over the years is fun when done at your own pace. When time’s of the essence, fumbling through confusing hallways becomes a costly chore! As first built in 1929, my historic high school followed a straightforward design.
By the time I graduated eighty years later, it’d been transformed into a mishmash of Collegiate Gothic architecture, drop ceilings, and modern ramps between glommed-on additions. It was a great to explore after hours, but its layout meant that getting to class on time when the lights were on was a constant practical assessment of my spatial intelligence! I imagine that similar sentiments led Cass County officials to make plans for a new courthouse in the late 1970s.
Today, many county seats feature historic courthouses relegated to lesser duties while the courts and important offices are housed in modern structures nearby. Unfortunately, Cass County’s next courthouse wasn’t intended to augment its elderly predecessor. Instead, it was built nineteen feet west of it, next to a parking lot planned for where the old building stood4.
The new building -known officially as the Cass County Government Building- was dedicated on November 11, 1979. Back then, the structure was heralded as a modern office that offered an enormous improvement over its “timeworn” predecessor. Contemporary accounts noted how much more “badly-needed” space it provided over the old building. “The spic and span public restrooms in the building are a delight to use,” said the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, “far different from the shamefully dirty outdoor toilets that used to stand next to the old courthouse5.”
The nine-year-old in me loves to talk about toilets, but my adult version is thankful that not everything from the old courthouse was destroyed when the building met the wrecking ball. A history committee saved what could be salvaged from the building, including the courthouse clock, which was installed in a small tower near the new building! Two Wils Berry paintings -one of which was the largest painting of Abraham Lincoln in existence6– were also saved and placed inside the new courthouse. Although the demolition company struggled with removing the 3×3 foot stone slabs that formed the walls of the 1844 section of the courthouse, they managed to save the building’s 1888 cornerstone, which was set aside to be installed in the standalone tower7.
All that aside, the 1979 Cass County Government Center may well have been the least architecturally-inspired courthouse in the state upon its completion. Four stories of brick and concrete, the structure looked more like a hospital than a seat of justice! When I arrived at the building’s Fourth Street entrance, its total lack of ornamentation led me to believe I was looking “backstage” at the courthouse’s rear entrance. Then I discovered the clock tower nearby- nope! That was it.
A trip around the courthouse confirmed that the east front was the building’s best side. Although the greenspace around its west side was given a $50,000 facelift in 19798, the lawn was so stuffed with haggard trees that it was nearly impossible to see the ornamental cannon and bell on the grounds by the time I got there, let alone most of the building itself. Thankfully, things were about to change.
A few months after I visited, work began on a $4.3 million project to renovate the courthouse9. The building’s original design included paneling that was accidentally installed in a way that allowed water to infiltrate the inside of the courthouse. A replacement for its roof was ordered. A clock transplant followed, which meant that the 1889 clock on the freestanding tower would be added to a new parapet! The trees on the west side of the courthouse were cut down, the prominent security garage on its east face was repurposed into a community room, and a new vestibule was built to alleviate congestion when entering the building from the east10.
Physical changes like that ensured that the thirty-six year-old building would last a lifetime, and aesthetic changes made an enormous difference towards how I perceive the courthouse. The new paneling streamlines its blocky outline, and ornamental touches like the new parapet and recurring pyramidal motif along its eastern roofline add to the building’s overall architectural cohesion. The clocks look a little weird since they’re not centered over the building’s asymmetrical groups of windows, but at least they’re once again gazing over Logansport from a position of prominence.
I was most surprised to see how much of an impact clearing the trees from the west lawn contributed to the building’s new appearance. Third Street is one of Logansport’s most trafficked routes, and it’s my belief that county seats should establish a visible government presence along a main thoroughfare. While the Cass County Government Building is a far cry from historic courthouses that tower over their rural surrounds, the landscaping efforts and roof additions set it back from the road enough to provide a monumental appearance as best as could be authentically grafted onto the building. Put it this way: I’m sure I’ll notice the Cass County Government Building next time I drive that way through Logansport. I bet you will too. You may not identify it as the courthouse, but at least you’ll notice it!
Architect Louis Sullivan famously coined the phrase “form ever follows function9.” By the 1970s, officials in Logansport were stuck with a courthouse that offered neither of those things. Even though I lament the destruction of its predecessor, I can’t fault commissioners for prioritizing the county’s needs when soliciting designs for a new courthouse, especially since those requirements were wildly different from when the historic building it replaced was first erected and expanded! After all, the essence of a courthouse is to house the courts, symbology aside.
I’m glad Cass County eventually doubled back to spruce up the building’s exterior during its renovation. I’ve got to give commissioners credit for their efforts. As one of Indiana’s seven modern county courthouses, the Cass County Government Building adds some spice to our soup of oldies. It’s different than most, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Cass County (pop. 37,994, 38/92)
Lagrange (pop. 17.755).
Cost: $1.7-$3.5 million ($6-$12 million in 2018)
Architect: Richard Byers
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 4 stories
Current use: county offices and courts
Photographed 8/22/15 and 6/1/18
1 Enyart, David. “Cass County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. December 16, 2018.
2 Esarey, Logan (1915). A History of Indiana. W.K. Stewart Co. Louisville.
3 “U.S. Decennial Census”. United States Census Bureau. Archived from the original on April 22, 2013. Web. December 16, 2018.
4 “Old Courthouse To Be Razed In June For New Parking Lot” The Pharos Tribune [Logansport] March 25 1979: 1. Print.
5 A New County Government Building (1979, November 11). The Logansport Pharos-Tribune. p. 4.
6 “Courthouse Clock To Be In Parking Lot” The Pharos Tribune [Logansport] November 6 1978: 1. Print.
7 “Stone Date Being Saved” The Pharos Tribune [Logansport] August 28 1979: 2. Print.
7 Kirk, Michael. “Rolling out changes: Repairs continue at Cass County Government Building.” The Pharos-Tribune [Logansport]. October 31, 2015.
8 Bids Will Be Taken On Changes In Park (1979, March 20). The Logansport Pharos-Tribune. p. 1.
9 “Renovations underway at Cass County Government Building.” Cass County Online. Existential Media, LLC 2018. Web. December 16, 2018.
10 Sullivan, Louis H. (1896). The tall office building artistically considered. Getty Research Institute.
2 thoughts on “The Cass County Courthouse in Indiana (1979-)”
It does look a little like a hospital!
I agree! Or the student union of a commuter college.
LikeLiked by 1 person