The Fayette County Courthouse has a weird design unlike any of its peers in Indiana. In fact, some of it dates all the way back to 1849! By that measure, it’s the second oldest courthouse still in use in Indiana. You wouldn’t know that by looking at it, though, since almost all the visible parts of the building resulted from an extensive 1891 renovation that vastly increased its size and ornamentation.
Architect John Elder designed the Greek Revival iteration of the courthouse. It rose two stories behind an open portico that stood atop an arched, stone base1. A square bell tower layered like a wedding cake capped the building’s pediment, and wings on either side of the main structure held county offices, a jail, and a sheriff’s residence2. You might say it was the state’s first justice center- more than a hundred years before counties started consolidating offices and referring to them as such. Architecturally, the closest courthouse in Indiana to what Connersville had is still standing in Paoli, but with flanking wings and a bigger bell tower.
Fayette County’s growth eventually meant that the courthouse became outmoded. Factories in Connersville first pumped out buggies and furniture, then air turbines, piano tuning pins, and automobiles. At one point, at least seven brands of cars had components made in town! All the industry led the city’s population to spike to 4,548 in 1890- an increase of nearly four times since the courthouse was originally built. Commissioners had to act quickly to accommodate a bigger, busier constituency.
Rather than tear the courthouse down and start fresh, commissioners hired Richmond architect W.F. Kauffman to extensively modify the courthouse in 18913. Enormous Romanesque buildings were becoming popular and replacing the geriatric Greek Revival stylings of generations past, so Kauffman started by lopping off the columns and central clock tower. He covered the old building in running bond brick that concealed the Greek Revival details and began adding to the one-story wings on each side of the pediment. The southwest wing gave way to a cylindrical, turreted clock tower, and an octagonal, peaked roof rose from the building’s northeast. Uniquely, the redesigned courthouse featured two front entrances, each flanking the building’s original mass. Two sets of dormer windows and a couple of small turrets completed the building’s makeover.
Despite the level of industry building around Fayette County, Connersville’s courthouse remained in its 1891 configuration until the 1950s when a functional brick addition was added to the southwest of the building- obscuring all but the roofline of the original 1849 structure. A small addition in 1960 did the same for the northeast side, and the original turret was replaced by a flat roof. The new cap later gave way to a dome4 that made the tower look like a gigantic brick salt shaker with a clock slapped on its side.
Inside the building, commissioners layered on more egregious offenses: drop ceilings and drywall were installed to cover up most of the original building’s decorations, including those from the 1849 portion. Although the sheriff’s office had long since moved across the street to a different historic space, officials were still running out of space. In 2004, they hatched a plan.
Instead of demolishing the courthouse or relocating its facilities, commissioners um, commissioned a new, three-level addition to the building’s rear that both matched the scale of the 1890s structure and increased its utility. The main facade of the new structure -the building’s north side- features a gabled entrance of brick and limestone that matches the main elevation.
The addition closely matches the building’s primary facade, even featuring a similar, ornamental checkerboard motif at the crux of its gable. My favorite part, though, is how the right side of the arch in the photo above gradually falls away past the corner of the addition and briefly wraps around its side. Architects didn’t have to replicate a prominent feature from the 1891 facade, but they did it anyway. I love it.
Away from the north front, the rest of the addition appears to flow harmoniously into the older building inventively, even if the resulting floorplan must be a labyrinth. The high school I graduated from -originally built in 1929- was a mishmash of ramps, infills, and drop ceilings between additions that made navigation annoying despite having little effect on the exterior of the building. I’d imagine the Fayette County courthouse is the same. The renovation efforts did bring some harmony to the building’s outside appearance, though, since they involved restoring its conical turret5.
Although Connersville’s industrial prominence has fallen off from its heydey, its citizens still have a great old courthouse to call their own and we touristy courthouse folks are left with a unique example of a rare, Romanesque design.
Indiana has seen courthouses torn down, mercilessly expanded, mercifully expanded, and even usurped entirely. Although Cass, Clarke, Crawford, Delaware, Madison, and Marion Counties decided to start over entirely, Fayette bucked that trend and kept their old building in place when they chose to add to it rather than relegate it to the trash can of history. Officials and citizens alike should be applauded for their efforts!
Fayette County (pop. 23,360, 65/92)
Connersville (pop. 13,310)
Cost: $36,192 ($1.2 million today)
Architect: W.F. Kauffman
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County courts and offices
1 History of Fayette County, Indiana (1885). Warner, Beers & Co. [Chicago]. Book.
2 Barrows, F.I. (1917). History of Fayette County Indiana Her People, Industries and Institutions (1917). B.F. Bowen & Company [Indianapolis]. Book.
3 Counts, Will; Jon Dilts (1991). The 92 Magnificent Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. Print.
4 Enyart, David. “Fayette County” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. December 16, 2018.
5 Deacon, J. “Fayette County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved January 22, 2023.