Throughout the history of the preservation movement there have been moments that kicked preservationists in the seat of their pants. Sometimes these moments, like the demolition of Penn Station in New York City, give the movement meaning and impetus. Sometimes they simply cause pain and make preservationists wish they’d done something. One of those moments occurred in the early 1960s in Indianapolis when the Marion County Courthouse was demolished.
The majestic courthouse is the one of our saddest losses out of the countless numbers our city has experienced over the years. It was razed in the 1960s and many of us don’t remember seeing it standing. We know it only from photographs. But most who care about architecture, preservation or history understand that this bit of lost Indianapolis is a truly sad loss. We mourn it.
So when I got an email a few months ago from the state archivist, Alan January, who said he thought I might want to see some new information the archives had discovered about the courthouse. I got the note because I’d written the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis entries about the city buildings and the courthouse architect, Isaac Hodgson, and when January had looked up one or both entries he’d found my name and thought maybe I’d be interested. Heck yeah, I was interested.
The first Marion County Courthouse was completed in 1825 and originally doubled as the state capitol building when the legislature moved here that year. Fifty years later the city was becoming cosmopolitan and it was time to replace the old brick and frame courthouse.
The county hired Isaac M. Hodgson to build a new courthouse. Hodgson, who was born in 1826 in Belfast, Ireland, had attended the Royal Academy. At age 16, he entered the office of Sir Charles Lanyon, architect of the Palm House at the Belfast Botanical Gardens and of Killyleagh Castle in Ireland. In 1848, Hodgson immigrated to New York and then to Louisville, bringing his architectural training with him. In Louisville he got practical experience, working as assistant architect on several city buildings.
In the 1850s Hodgson relocated to Indianapolis. In this still young city, he was one of only six professional architects. After a decade or so of working here, he landed the commission to design the buildings at the United States Arsenal in 1863 (now Arsenal Technical High School). He also designed several of the original buildings for the Female Reformatory in 1870 and he designed several residences.
In 1876 his Marion County Courthouse was befittingly the most elaborate courthouse in the state. It was one of several courthouses he designed in the Midwest.
The Marion County Courthouse was completed July 5, 1876. The building fronted Washington Street and covered the block between Alabama and Delaware, standing about where the plaza is for the current City/County Building.
This elaborate courthouse building cost $1,422,000, to build, almost twice the original estimate. It was ornate Second Empire style with a mansard roof, towers on each end and a clock tower in the center. The building was five stories tall with the clock tower rising several stories higher. The façade was Indiana limestone with red granite. When it was completed, a local newspaper reported that it had a “bewildering profusion of colors,” along with interior frescoes and intricate trim.
This second courthouse remained in use for 85 years. When Charles Bookwalter took office in 1906 one of his priorities was to construct a new city hall. On September 30, 1908, the Neoclassical City Hall opened. Probably from that moment, the old elaborate courthouse began to feel dated in comparison to the subtle beauty of the new City Hall (which we now call “Old City Hall”).
By the 1950s an increasing number of city and county offices were renting space outside the city hall and the courthouse. Interest in a single new building where both city and county office could be consolidated rose. In 1962 Allied Architects completed the current high-rise International Style City/County Building. For a short time the extra fancy courthouse remained beside this young upstart, but not for long. Within a year, the old courthouse was gone, forever antagonizing future preservationists who, in hindsight, cry over its loss.
So, what can be news about a courthouse built in 1876? What had the archives turned up that excited Alan January enough to contact me?
Turns out they have been processing 19th Century Indiana Supreme Court documents. Among them is a lawsuit that Isaac Hodgson brought against the Board of Commissioners of Marion County.
In Case No. 10,079, filed in 1884, Hodgson sued the commissioners, stating that he had not been paid the balance due him for his design work as the architect and superintendent of construction of the courthouse. A lower court had denied his suit, so he appealed it to the Supreme Court. His attorneys claimed the lower court had not properly recorded affidavits supporting his case. Unfortunately for Hodgson, the court decided against his claim and upheld the lower court’s decision.
The case doesn’t offer much for the historical records. However, the treasure included with the record were the drawings submitted as evidence. Folded into squares for more than 125 years in the massive bunch of records passed along to the archives, were Hodgson’s original drawings and an original rendering of his design.
Conservation technician, Elizabeth Hague, lovingly unfolded those drawings, working on them for more than three months to flatten and clean them so that they could be viewed. And two weeks ago I got to see them. Some of the sheets were too dirty to get very clean, the creases and stains still showed. These had apparently been working drawings, perhaps carried around the construction site by Hodgson or his builder.
On several sheets of the shiny fabricky paper, in Isaac Hodgson’s hand, were details, about the building we wish still stood. “Good wooden finish to all doors, windows, etc. Tiles to halls and wood flooring to the rooms…Slate to the roof, rough plate glass to the roof over central hall and polished plate glass to the windows…” was written on the top of the first story plan. The ink a little smudged at the top from architect Hodgson’s hand as he wrote the text.
Page after page of drawings, including a very Escheresque detail of all the staircases and their fancy balustrade lights. That drawing is Elizabeth Hague’s favorite. For me, it may have been the roof plan, showing the “mansarde” on one side and the “naked” roof beams on the other. But somehow, it was that ink smudge that really made me understand that the man I’d researched and written about, whose accomplishments in my city more than a century ago, whose most famous building I lament losing even though I never saw it, that man was flesh and blood. He drew and wrote and misspelled “height” as “hight”, and somehow probably got cheated out of some of the money he was promised for designing that building.
Aside from the few original arsenal buildings at what is now Arsenal High School, I’m not aware of any other Isaac Hodgson buildings that are still standing in Indianapolis. But he was important in our city and not just for his buildings that we tore down. In 1894, he and eight other architects chartered the Indiana Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, an organization that still exists.
And now you can see his drawings, and his handwriting, and that little smudge made by his fist, at the Indiana State Archives. Treasures. Pirate booty. Discovered by archivists. Go see them. Tell Alan January that Connie sent you.
[This article first appeared in Urban Times, October 2013.