Thursday, June 19, 2014

World-Class County Courthouse

by Tom Castaldi

Allen County’s first courthouse was built on the "courthouse square" in 1831 but was so poorly constructed it had to be abandoned a few years later as unsafe.  The second courthouse was erected in 1847 by local contractor Samuel Edsall, yet this also proved to be inadequate.  The third courthouse was a large brick structure designed by Edwin May of Indianapolis; its cornerstone was laid in May 1861 and the building was in use by July 1862.

The courthouse yard was the scene of many patriotic gatherings during the Civil War and afterward; however, by the 1890s, the building had become so dilapidated that it had to be replaced.  Some civic leaders proposed to build a shared building for both the city and the country; when no agreement could be reached among the politicians, the mayor led Common Council to build a city hall while the county commissioners built the fourth and present courthouse. It was not until 1971 that a combined City-County facility was built.
On November 17, 1897, the day the cornerstone was set, thousands filled the streets around the court house square to see Governor James A. Mount and his entourage officiate in the ceremony.  Louis Peltier, who had been born in the Fort in 1813, was the guest of honor.  Designed by local architect Brentwood S. Tolan, the structure was completed on September 23, 1902.

Including its interior furnishings, this proud Allen County Courthouse building cost over $800,000.  The courthouse is constructed of the blue limestone of Bedford, Indiana, and Vermont granite in a balanced combination of styles from Grecian and Roman to Renaissance.  The simple Doric lines of the first floor rise to the more elaborate Ionic columns of the second story, while the ornate Corinthian and Roman Imperial styles dominate the third level.

Crowning the structure is the great copper-sheathed dome on which turns the copper statue of Miss Liberty, 225 feet from street level.  A wind vane, a 13 feet 8-inches goddess weighing 800 pounds, Liberty always holds her torch of enlightenment toward the breeze as she turns on graphite-packed ball bearings.


This remarkable building that serves the county's judicial needs and has been called “among the very finest ‘Beaux Arts’ style public building in the nation”, according to Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Art’s senior curator, Richard Murray. 

One look at the great structure inspires the spirit of the Renaissance reflected in the exterior decorations.  The friezes and cornices around the building are filled with the sculptured images and proverbs of the history of Allen County, American government, industry, virtue and the law.
Inside, the celebration of civilization and local history continues in brilliant color.  Through each of the four entrances the visitor passes the bright pillars of marezzo scagliola an imitation marble that represents the largest collection of this lost art of faux marble in the nation and possibly in the world.

Across the intricately tiled floor stands a marble stairway leading to the second level.  At the center of the building, in the rotunda, the eye is drawn to the brilliant illuminate glass dome that connects the galleries to the Circuit and Superior Court chambers.
The four large murals in the dome were painted by Charles Holloway, a gold-metal winning artist at the Paris Exposition of 1900 who also executed the paintings on the proscenium arch of the historic 1888 Auditorium Theater in Chicago.  On each of the walls the murals depict in allegory the opposing themes of Despotism and Anarchy (on the south wall) and Democracy and Lawful Government (on the north wall), with those of Peace and Prosperity (on the east wall) and finally images of War and Despair (on the west wall).

Scenes and sculptured panels continue throughout the four courtrooms.  Here are murals and sculptures depicting the history of the law, and the peaceful pursuits of agriculture, the terrors of war, and the workings of justice.  There is also artwork showing the earliest events in local history, including the arrival of Anthony Wayne, the burial of Little Turtle, and the completion of the Wabash & Erie Canal.

By 1995, a badly needed restoration of the old Courthouse was initiated.  Amateurish attempts to improve the murals in the 1930s completely painted over the original artwork.  Gold leaf ceiling panels ornately stenciled had darkened due to a coal heating system and now has been restored.

A group of concerned citizens formed the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust to raise necessary funds to restore and maintain the artwork to the original grandeur of this national treasure.  Jeffrey Green, president of the Ever Greene Studios said, "It is certainly on par with the Library of Congress, the Paris Opera or any other world class building of the period." 

Originally published in Fort Wayne Magazine “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi”  Oct 2007 No. 36)Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m., 8:35 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on WLYV-1450 AM and WRRO 89.9 FM. Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history

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