Thinking of what could have been

COLUMBUS’ City Hall will be the subject of an architectural exhibit beginning April 17.

The two-month event, sponsored by the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives along with the Indiana University Center for Art and Design, will explore various aspects of the design process involved in the creation and development of the triangular-shaped building at Second and Washington streets that hosts most of the functions of city government.

Its supporters note with some measure of justifiable pride that the building has been an efficient use of the resources of city government. Not bad for a three-story structure. Thing is, it could have been a lot bigger and housed many more employees, a good number of them with a different employer: Bartholomew County government.

Shared city-county space has been a touchy subject in Columbus and Bartholomew County through much of the history of both forms of government. It’s been done but only on a limited basis, the most notable of which would probably be the Law Enforcement Building that was opened in the 1960s to house the Columbus and Bartholomew County police departments along with the county jail.

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Cooperative arrangements are even in place today in areas such as planning, code enforcement and solid waste management, but as a rule both governments have generally gone their own way.

The effort to join the two has a long history. One of the first came about in 1963, several years before Indianapolis and Marion County embarked on their Unigov journey and shortly after the Law Enforcement Building was opened, when county officials were seeking ways to efficiently utilize the old jail building on the courthouse block.

The Columbus Chamber of Commerce offered a suggestion through a commissioned architect who proposed that city and county government share space in the courthouse. City officials thought it was a great idea. County officials thought it might be workable but only if the city paid a majority of the costs in remodeling the courthouse.

Obviously the county elected to go it alone after the city turned that idea down. That left the city with the problem it had been coping with for several decades, an antiquated City Hall built in the late 19th century that was bursting at the seams.

Finally in 1974, Mayor Max Andress bit the bullet and proposed that a new city hall be built. He made the proposal in a State of the City address March 12, suggesting that a structure adequate to the needs of city government could be built without increasing local taxes. Funding would come from revenue sharing funds the city had begun amassing several years earlier.

The Andress plan was based on a study prepared by the Columbus-Bartholomew Planning Department and a special committee that included members of county government. The scope of the plan was hinted at in its title, “Space for Local Government.”

It was divided into three alternatives: one, to renovate and expand the existing City Hall; a second, to erect a new building for city use alone; and the third, to develop a new government center that would house both city and county government.

Andress discarded the first proposal, and while he suggested that the city was prepared to go it alone on a new building, his preferred solution would be to develop a joint facility. The idea was a ticking time bomb from the start.

Unigov was in its initial phases in Marion County, and Indiana counties with significant rural areas experienced a form of cultural warfare, many non-urban residents likening it to some form of takeover that bordered on communism.

The Andress proposal was far from a token county participation. The city-county building he envisioned would be occupied by the county commissioners, along with the county’s auditor, treasurer, recorder, assessor, engineer, surveyor, and superintendent of weights and measures. City occupants would be the mayor, city attorney, engineer, clerk-treasurer, traffic director, redevelopment director, and the utilities and police departments.

In addition to those, he suggested that a new building could also include the planning and zoning departments serving both city and county and the Operation Life ambulance service, the Cooperative Extension Service, the Soil Conservation Service, the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and the Region 11 Development Commission and Comprehensive Health Planning Council.

Cost estimates for the city-county building ran up to $4,841,000, and the mayor proposed that the city cough up $2,776,000, with the county’s share being $2,065,000. The initial reaction from the county was cautious. County Commissioner Russell Peel suggested that “most (county) offices can work efficiently” (in existing offices), and that, save for the courts, the county was really not in need of space.

A more definitive opposition came from a conservative group called the Bartholomew County Taxpayers Association, which was a political force in the county at the time. A slate of its candidates, for instance, had been elected to the Bartholomew Consolidated School Board and briefly cut ties with the Cummins Engine Foundation, which had funded architectural fees for a number of new schools.

The taxpayers group suggested there wasn’t any need for a new building and that the existing City Hall could be renovated to provide adequate space for several years into the future. Their concerns weren’t limited, however, to costs. In a statement, the group’s leaders said that such a building “would be the first step to Unigov.” Planning officials disputed that conclusion, saying that a joint facility was not necessarily a precedent for joint government but was rather the most efficient way to develop needed space.

Despite the opposition of the taxpayers group and the reluctance of some county officials, there appeared to be public support for a joint facility. A countywide survey revealed that residents favored such an approach by a 2-1 margin.

It took almost three years for the matter to be settled.

On Feb. 28, 1977, the County Commissioners rejected the joint facility proposal by a 2-1 margin. Ironically, attitudes had changed. Whereas Peel had asserted in 1974 that the county was not in need of extra space (except for the courts), another commissioner, William Davis, said in 1977 that “the county was in desperate need of space” and that officials needed to set money aside to build a new facility.

It turned out that there was no need to build. Shortly after rejecting the joint city-county approach, the commissioners were able to purchase the Surrey Inn, a downtown hotel and restaurant, which was eventually refurbished and turned into what is now the Governmental Office Building.

Both city and county governments are much different from what they were in the mid-1970s. The county has since expanded beyond the courthouse and Governmental Office Building, housing court-related offices in the old Elks Club at Third and Franklin streets, for instance.

Considering everything that was originally envisioned in the 1974 joint facility proposal and how both city and county government have since grown, it’s difficult to imagine what such a building would now resemble.

I think it’s safe to say that had it been built and expanded to meet ongoing needs, we would be looking at a genuine skyscraper today.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at [email protected].