Pillar of progress

In 1897, county residents celebrated the first step in the construction of a glorious legal landmark.

of The News-Sentinel

A hundred years earlier, Fort Wayne had been little more than a cluster of settlers' cabins around a log fort. But the city on the cusp of the 1900s was a bustling business center proud of its roots and its progress. To express their civic pride, county leaders undertook the construction of a new Allen County courthouse that would impress upon the nation the area's influence.

"It was a gala day, an occasion fit for the celebration of so grand a triumph of civilization," the Fort Wayne Sentinel touted in a report on the community celebration held Nov. 17, 1897, to lay the building's cornerstone.

The forces pushing Fort Wayne toward construction of such a grand building were both personal and practical.

The city already had gone through three courthouses. The first, built in 1831, was poorly constructed and never finished, according to "An Illustrated Guide to the Allen County Courthouse." County officials abandoned the structure after nine years.

A temporary structure was erected and used until the second permanent courthouse, built of brick, opened in 1847, the guide says. Because Allen County's population swelled rapidly, the community quickly outgrew the building. The third courthouse, completed in 1862, had been in use only about a decade before people again began lobbying for a new edifice.

One concern was fire safety, librarian and historical researcher Rex M. Potterf wrote in the 1970 Old Fort News article "Allen County's Courthouses." The 1862 courthouse had not been equipped with fireproof vaults to safely store county records, Potterf said.

Other reasons may have been more hygienic.

According to Potterf, an 1894 article in the Fort Wayne Gazette newspaper described a stench wafting from the building as "frightful" and one which would send "a hygienist into spasms in short order." The reporter also speculated restrooms had not been "plumbed, cleaned or flushed in the past 30 years."

The city of Fort Wayne, which desperately needed a larger building itself, supported construction of a new courthouse, Potterf wrote. At a meeting between city and county leaders in September 1891, Mayor Richard Zollinger proposed the new courthouse contain both city and county offices. Business leaders also favored the project.

But the city and county, which today share the City-County Building on Main Street, could not agree on a plan. City leaders wanted to build right away, Potterf said. County officials wanted to raise money before starting construction.

The city completed the City Building in 1893 at Barr and Berry streets. The sandstone building now is home to the History Center historical museum. The county proceeded with a courthouse property tax levy of 2 cents per $100 of property valuation, the Weekly Sentinel reported.

By fall 1895, however, county commissioners Sylvanus Baker, Matthew Ferguson and John H. Stellhorn decided it was time to build a new courthouse, the "Illustrated Guide to the Allen County Courthouse" says.

This time, however, community leaders wanted a courthouse that would provide ample space for future growth, news reports said. They also desired a structure that would serve as a monument to Allen County's proud past and its optimistic future.

In May 1896, commissioners settled on a building design, selecting plans drawn by local architect Brentwood S. Tolan. Commissioners awarded the construction contract in May 1897 to James M. Stewart & Co. of St. Louis.

With furnishings, total cost of the building was $817,553. Though a staggering expense then, the project appears to have generated little dissent among residents.

County commissioners had barely finished awarding subcontracting bids in May 1897 when a Canton, Ohio, company filed a lawsuit to block work, the Fort Wayne Sentinel reported. The company wanted to stop the awarding of all electrical and plumbing work to A. Hattersley and Sons of Fort Wayne, which submitted a bid $2,700 higher than the Ohio firm. Hattersley retained the contract.

During planning of the cornerstone-laying celebration, a community leader also questioned whether the county could use public tax money to pay for the event. But the ceremony went on as planned.

Newspaper accounts suggest few people walked away uninspired.

Despite cool weather, people from Allen and surrounding counties filled Fort Wayne's streets to witness a grand parade featuring a dozen marching bands and local and state dignitaries, including Gov. James Mount. Schools and businesses closed so people could attend.

Nearly five years would pass before the community dedicated the completed courthouse on Sept. 24, 1902.

But Judge John Morris' words rang as true on dedication day as they had when he uttered them at the cornerstone laying:

"This building will be constructed of the best and most enduring of material so that, when the youngest among us shall have passed away, it will remain unimpaired as a monument of the skill of the builders; of the wisdom, enterprise and public spirit of the board of commissioners; their provident regard for the happiness and well-being of generations to come; and of the advance of prosperity and civilization of our people."

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