Jot this down: “It must be free from dampness, which would destroy the precious records of the county, on which so much of the ‘peace and quiet’ of our community depends. It must, of course, be fire proof and sufficiently commodious for all legitimate purposes not only now, but for many years to come; must be of durable materials, and last, it must be ‘good looking,’ a monument of the enterprise and taste of the people of one of the wealthy counties of the State1.” That’s the edict Henry County officials delivered in 1864 before they took bids on a new courthouse to replace one that had been lost to fire.
Free from dampness? Fireproof? Commodious? I could probably gather a couple buddies and build something that checks those boxes in a weekend if we sacrificed the “good looking” and “durable” requirements. It took architect Isaac Hodgson a lot longer than that, of course, his Henry County Courthouse in New Castle undoubtedly fit all of the commissioners’ stipulations and turned out a lot better for it. Officials certainly spent a lot more money than my buddies would have- $120,000. Some of the expense was due to the post-Civil War inflation that ran the country ragged, but it would be be impossible for a county to build something as grand as the courthouse in today’s climate.
Hodgson’s building, which is often considered the first Second Empire courthouse in the state, was “admirably planned, and in every essential feature all that a first-class public building should be,” according to local accounts2. Its first floor housed county offices, and an elaborate metal staircase that thwarted the threat of fire allowed patrons to access the 3,250 square foot courtroom that was more than twice the size of the entire courthouse it replaced3. “Great indeed will Henry County have become,” opined the Inter-State Publishing Company of Chicago in its history of Henry County, “when the present court-house proves too small for its needs.”
The monumental courthouse is defined by its 115-foot clock tower. It can be seen from miles away! The tower features a series of arches separated by stone string courses delineating its different levels. The lowest originally served as the building’s primary entryway, while a taller arch above it frames a prominent statue of “Blind Justice.” A third contains a tablet that memorializes the building’s construction, and a set of round windows provide light to the top of the tower from under a pyramidal mansard roof that features four intricate clock faces.
The courthouse arrived at its present-day appearance nearly fifty years after it was first built. In 1906, the building was expanded to the west by a masterfully-designed addition that meshed perfectly with its existing architecture. The additional space provided more room for offices and modern amenities like bathrooms and hot-water radiators4. By allowing its patrons to heed nature’s call from inside, the Henry County Courthouse finally achieved the prominence its boosters first ascribed to the place!
By the end of the 20th century, though, the Inter-State Publishing Company was proven wrong: the had grown too big for the expanded courthouse, so officials renovated New Castle’s historic Masonic Hall building on the southwestern corner of the square to hold county offices5.
Several years later, the county needed even more space, so officials planned a new justice center adjacent to the Masonic Hall. The five-story Bradway Building -New Castle’s tallest commercial structure6– was torn down to make room for the new Henry County Courts Building. Completed in June 2001, a historically-minded hyphen of storefronts connected the new Courts Building with the Henry County Office Building inside the old Masonic Hall.
Between the 1869 courthouse, its 2001 successor, and New Castle’s old Masonic Hall, Henry County’s courthouse square is one of the state’s finest, harmonically combining buildings from different eras into one unified campus by demonstrating how best to blend the new with the old. The county commissioners who ordered the historic courthouse would be mightily impressed, and citizens of the community should be proud. I am, and I don’t even live there!
Henry County (pop. 49,044, 29/92)
New Castle (pop. 17,694).
Cost: $120,000 ($2.16 million in 2016)
Architect: Isaac Hodgson
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 115 feet
Current Use: Some county offices
1 Hazzard’s History of Henry County Indiana, 1822-1906, Vol. II. New Castle. George Hazzard, 1906. Print.
2 History of Henry County, Indiana. Chicago. Inter-State Publishing Co., 1884. Print.
3 National Register of Historic Places, Henry County Courthouse, New Castle, Henry County, Indiana, National Register # 81000013.
4 Indiana Landmarks (2013). Henry County. Indianapolis. Indiana Landmarks. Retrieved from http://indianacourthousesquare.org
5 “Indiana’s Historic Courthouses”. Indianapolis: Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission, 2011. Print.
6 “Bradway Building” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2018. Web. Retrieved August 20, 2018.