Indiana’s courthouse squares: every picture tells a story

Topic: College of Communication Information and Media

October 24, 2013

Telecommunications instructor, Chris Flook
Telecommunications instructor, Chris Flook

From the hitching posts in LaGrange to the heavy foot traffic in downtown Columbus, Ball State University’s Chris Flook, a telecommunications instructor, is a witness to the variety of Indiana courthouse squares.

He spent last summer driving across the state to photograph all 92 county courthouses and adjoining squares as part of Indiana Courthouse Squares (indianacourthousesquare.org). The site also provides historical information as part of an effort to document the buildings as well as prepare materials for the state’s bicentennial in 2016.

“In LaGrange, you can have a BMW and recreational vehicle parked next to a horse and buggy — letting outsiders know that a great many Amish residents live there,” Flook said. “While in Columbus, you have a vibrant downtown with younger people working and walking around because of the corporate influence of Cummins.

“On the other end of the spectrum, one county in southern Indiana has maintained its courthouse, but the surrounding business district is in pretty sad shape. Many small communities suffered from recessions as well as population loss. In some places, the courthouse was located in a scary downtown filled with boarded up buildings and scarecrows looking down from above.”

Flook not only marvels at the variety of small rural downtowns but also the intricate design of the courthouses — taking a visitor back to a bygone era when constructing a multistory building in the rural Midwest was a monumental task.

“Most of our courthouses date back to the 1800s when the courthouse square, church, school and main street business district were located within a few blocks,” Flook said. “In my opinion, the people from the Victorian era age had the right idea when they built their cities. Everything was located so you could walk from one place to another or take the horse and buggy a few blocks.”

Eighty-three communities have retained their historic courthouses. Several counties lost their historic courthouses due to natural disasters (Crawford and White) or choice (Cass, Clark, Delaware, Floyd, Madison and Marion). Martin and Perry counties have retained their original structures as part of historical societies but have modern buildings to serve government business.

“As a longtime resident of Muncie, it pains me to see that our courthouse has been destroyed and replaced by a modern but ugly building that serves as an example of post-World War II brutalism,” Flook said. “The square is fortified to basically keep enemy tanks out. As a result, the city had to re-create the square several blocks away as part of an effort to reinvigorate downtown — basically re-creating what communities across the state have celebrated for generations.”

He witnessed those celebrations as he crisscrossed the state, enjoying the scenic countryside as he drove on mostly quiet roads.

“Since Indiana is primarily a rural state, I wanted to take state highways from one town to another and most cases that only took about an hour or less,” Flook said. “While I was working, I wanted to get a real flavor for each community — sleeping in a locally owned bed and breakfast and eating at a mom-and-pop restaurant.

“In the end, I got a real feel for the local cities and towns, meeting some wonderful people. In Vincennes, you can immediately tell the French influence from the street names as well as the Catholic cathedral and Catholic high school.”

Flook has shared the collection with the Indiana Department of Tourism, hoping the photographs raise awareness of the historical significance of Indiana’s courthouse squares and possibly lead to economic development.

“Indiana is full of fantastic small, rural communities that are wonderful places to live but need rallying points,” he said. “The town square can continue to be important from a business and societal standpoint. In many communities, you have farmers markets and festivals bringing people to the square, boosting business development. I think people would be more inclined to live and work in a small Hoosier town if they knew what there was to offer.”

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