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Had a design by architect Pat Spillman in 1963 been adopted by the county commissioners, the first floor corridor of the Bartholomew County Courthouse would have been distinctly different than how it looks today. Looks would not have been the only difference. The offices in the Courthouse would have been occupied by officers of both Bartholomew County and Columbus city governments. FROM THE REPUBLIC ARCHIVES
A few months back there was quite a dust-up around town about an early Monday morning gathering in the garage of Columbus businessman Hutch Schumaker, a meeting that some folks described as a clandestine effort to plot the future of the city and county.
It wasn’t much of a secret. The host and attendees — some of whom were elected officials in both branches of government — fessed up to the fact when asked about it.
A few even volunteered one of the reasons for the get-together — making use of the opportunity for several newly elected officials to get to know each other and even to explore ways in which they could work together on issues that affected both governments.
I think that’s what set off alarm bells in some minds. According to the way some of the critics of the meeting thought, the get-acquainted session had turned into some sort of plot to merge city and county governments along the lines of what Indianapolis and Marion County had launched back in the late 1960s. It was called Uni-Gov.
It might as well have been called a communist plot based on reaction in other parts of the state where similar arrangements were proposed and quickly shot down. A quasi-merger was envisioned here in Columbus during the mayoral administration of Democrat Max Andress (1972-1980) when city officials were laying out plans for a new city hall.
The need to move from the old city hall at Fifth and Franklin streets seemed like an opportunity for bigger things in the minds of some community leaders. While city officials were looking for a way to ease the crowded conditions in the older building, county officials were trying to figure out what to do with all the employees who were packed into the courthouse.
The Columbus Chamber of Commerce got into the act, suggesting that city officials be ambitious in their thinking and plan for a building that could not only house municipal workers but add enough space to accommodate a number of county offices.
Obviously that plan didn’t get very far. Instead of sitting down with city leaders to discuss how such an arrangement might work, the county commissioners purchased the former Surrey Inn at Third and Franklin streets and converted it into a county government building.
The so-called merger of the 1970s was seen as a revolutionary approach to unified government at the time, but it was hardly the first time the subject was brought up.
Long before Indianapolis and Marion County had begun their Uni-Gov experiment, Columbus and Bartholomew County were presented with a plan to move most of their departments into a single building. Ironically, both governments were to share space in the courthouse under this plan hatched in 1963.
Earlier this month I came across stories about it in the files of the old Evening Republican from that year. There’s a touch of irony to the 1963 joint proposal. It was initiated by a planning committee of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
The trigger for the idea was a study the Bartholomew County Commissioners had undertaken on how to best utilize space on the courthouse block.
There was another irony in the reason the study was commissioned. The county had earlier erected a new jail on the courthouse block to replace the aging, 19th-century structure that had not only served as a place of incarceration but as living quarters for the sheriff and his family.
The new jail initially turned out to be a shared facility with the staffs of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department and Columbus Police Department doing the sharing.
Perhaps that arrangement was an omen for the future because the Columbus police moved out of the facility called the Law Enforcement Building when the new City Hall opened in 1982.
With a vacant jail and a crammed courthouse, county officials saw the opportunity to reconfigure county offices and perhaps incorporate the aging jail into those plans. The Chamber of Commerce got there first, commissioning an architect named Pat Spillman to draw up a plan.
The caveat to the plan was that it should be a blueprint for joint use by the city and county.
There were some unique features to the Spillman plan. He envisioned a “drive-up teller window” on Jackson Street, for instance, where people could pay utility bills and collect support checks. His vision for the remodeled and jointly occupied courthouse was, floor by floor:
BASEMENT: Building inspector, board of review and Bartholomew County Historical Society museum moved out. Welfare department expanded. License bureau moved out of a hallway and relocated in one of the old museum rooms. Hallway to be used as a reception area for welfare department and license bureau. Former museum space to be shared by city sanitation officer, voter registration, county surveyor and veterans service officer.
FIRST FLOOR: Public counters to be located just off the main hallway for each office. County clerk space expanded. County commissioners and Columbus township assessor moved into voter registration office. County assessor, treasurer and auditor to remain on first floor.
SECOND FLOOR: City offices would take over the second floor with county courts and judges, probation officer and county school superintendent moved out.
THIRD FLOOR: New courtrooms would be built for Circuit and Superior courts.
19TH-CENTURY JAIL: Building would be converted into a museum for the Bartholomew County Historical Society.
The plans were unveiled at a public meeting in October 1963. City officials and members of the Chamber of Commerce thought it was a great plan because the consolidation would save taxpayers money.
County officials were “reserved,” suggesting it might be workable. but only if the city agreed to pay a majority of the costs of remodeling the courthouse. Needless to say, the county eventually took a pass on the proposal.
I don’t know that the 1963 or the 1970ish combined operations could ever have been workable.
It is interesting to note that today, 10 of the county offices (including the Bartholomew County museum) are located in places other than the courthouse. I suspect they all had fewer employees than they do today.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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