County’s historic courthouse worth keeping preserved

THERE’S no question about the magnetism of Columbus’ contemporary architecture for thousands of visitors who have never lived in the community.

I suspect, though, that for many who have lived here for all or a good share of their lives, none of the city’s contemporary structures measure up to an edifice that has close to 100 years on most of them: the Bartholomew County Courthouse.

I don’t think anyone has conducted a survey on the most photographed building in Columbus, but my money would be on the courthouse. It’s been around since 1874, and although some changes have been made over the years — livestock no longer munch on the lawn, the ugly jails that were once the building’s immediate neighbors have been demolished and the roof is no longer dotted with at least eight chimneys — it still looks pretty much as it did in the beginning.

That’s because its caretakers over the years have been committed to its restoration and, for the most part, have resisted efforts to take shortcuts in maintaining it. Considering that the courthouse is coming up on its 142nd birthday, it not only looks good but is in reasonably good shape.

But keeping it that way into the immediate future is dependent on the willingness of government officials to pony up an estimated $1 million for repairs to the limestone foundation and brickwork below vents on the lower part of the magnificent clock tower.

Considering the importance of the building and the significant investments that have been committed to preserving it over the past century and almost a half, that would seem to be a no-brainer.

It hasn’t been in some other Indiana counties where government officials have elected to put up new buildings while letting older structures continue to deteriorate. That’s not to say that past Bartholomew County officials haven’t been tempted over the years.

Through its first 80 or so years, the courthouse looked pretty much as it did when it was first dedicated in December 1874. The animals that grazed on its lawn in the late 19th century were long gone by the 1950s, but the building exterior still bore many of the trademarks it had had from the beginning.

For instance, there were still eight out-of-use chimneys on the slate-covered roof, symbols of the method by which individual rooms were heated. There was also intricate grillwork on the towers.

Much of that skyscape was changed in 1953 when county officials authorized a new roof made of copper, replacing the original tiles. While doing that, workers also removed the chimneys and grillwork.

I don’t think anyone missed the chimneys, but there sure was an attachment for the grillwork. One of those who were especially drawn to the beauty of the rooftop fencing was Elsie Sweeney, who mounted a one-woman crusade to have it replaced.

She was a determined woman, and although county officials had agreed to replace the grillwork when the new roof was in place, it took 17 years to get the job done. Ironically, Elsie, an aunt to community benefactor J. Irwin Miller, took matters into her own hands and paid for the project herself. The grillwork was put in place in 1970.

The county officials in place in the 1950s can’t exactly be described as champions of preservation.

In 1950 the Bartholomew County Council was informed that parts of the courthouse tower were in dire need of expensive repairs. County Auditor James Albright told the council that the tower was not only in poor condition but also did not provide any usable space. A suggestion was made that the top part of the tower be lopped off.

Ridiculous as the idea might seem today, it was taken seriously. On Sept. 7, 1950, an item appeared in the Around Town column of The Evening Republican. “In the courthouse remodeling the commissioners are contemplating the removal of the 39-foot tower. It is difficult to imagine Columbus without a courthouse tower, but it may happen in the not too distant future.”

It didn’t, thanks in large part to an immediate outcry from the community as witnessed by a subsequent story in The Evening Republican of Sept. 10, 1951. “Last year there was talk of lowering the roof by taking off the upper section of the building. This brought objections from a number of persons.”

A million dollars is a lot to invest in a building that’s been around for close to 150 years. On the other hand, this particular building is so important in so many ways that not to take this next step would seem as ridiculous as suggesting that the courthouse tower is expendable.

We all know how that idea turned out.

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