Retaining relevance

Time and a growing population have not diminished building's usefulness in the pursuit of justice.

of The News-Sentinel

Symbol of Justice
News-Sentinel photo by Brian Tombaugh

Symbol of Justice
A figure of Justice adorns the south side of the Allen County Courthouse. Even though the county's legal system has outgrown the courthouse, requiring the construction of new courtrooms nearby, the century-old building will remain the symbol of justice in Fort Wayne.
On a cold gray afternoon in November 1897, Charles McCulloch, president of Fort Wayne's Hamilton National Bank, dedicated the cornerstone of Allen County's grand new courthouse with these words:

"I believe . . . such plans have been adopted and such a manner of construction guaranteed as will make this building the pride of the city, county and state for centuries to come."

Added Judge John Morris, who at the time was the oldest member of the county bar: "When the youngest of us shall have passed away, this building will remain

. . . a monument of the skill of the builders . . . their provident regard for the happiness and well-being of generations to come."

Does the courthouse, more than 100 years later, live up to the ageless hopes and dreams its builders expressed so long ago?

In one sense, the answer might seem to be no. After all, two of the courthouse's four main courtrooms were not even used when the building opened. Today, not only are all four courtrooms used constantly, but the county is building three more: Two in the $22 million addition to the jail scheduled to open by early 2003, and one in the $28 million youth detention facility to be ready by 2004.

Does that mean the beautifully restored courthouse is not so much historic as it is obsolete?

Not at all, agree those who pursue justice within its limestone walls. In fact, they say, it is the building's link to the past -- its irreplaceable architectural grandeur -- that make it indispensable today, and will continue to do so well into the future.

"It is, simply, the finest atmosphere for imparting deference to the legal process," said Allen Circuit Judge Tom Ryan, a member of the Courthouse Preservation Trust, which supervised the building's restoration. "The building has its own personality. Nothing compares to what the courthouse does for the public's perception of what the legal system stands for. It's like a judge's robe; it lends decorum to what is going on."

"It's like being in a beautiful old church," agreed Allen Superior Judge Fran Gull. "The building lends an air of dignity and solemnness. I've been in sterile, modern courtrooms; lawyers, defendants and even judges behave differently here."

"There was no lack of foresight; this courthouse is really a statehouse," added Allen Superior Judge Stephen Sims, who is supervising construction of the new Wood Youth Center. "The courthouse will continue to be functional, but the fact is the population of Allen County has skyrocketed in the last 100 years, and government has to keep up."

When the cornerstone was laid, about 75,000 people lived in Allen County compared with more than 300,000 today. But more than the population has changed. When the cornerstone was laid, speakers boasted of the county's 500 miles of gravel roads; today the county has 1,400 miles of roads -- most of them paved. It's only natural, Sims said, for the need for court space to grow along with the county.

"We've been transporting more than 4,000 juveniles per year (from the Wood Youth Center to the courthouse)," said Sims, explaining the logic behind putting courtrooms where the prisoners are: As the need to move people from their cell to the courthouse decreases, so will costs and security problems.

As for the courtrooms being added to the jail, they reflect another fact of 21st-century life: As the population increases, so does the size of government.

The two courtrooms will be used to hear misdemeanor and traffic cases -- cases now heard in the City-County Building. When the new courtrooms open, the space freed up in the City-County Building will go to 11 county departments that are currently "landlocked" and need more space, said Commissioner Linda Bloom.

County Commissioner Ed Rousseau, who was a member of City Council in 1971, remembers few problems when the City-County Building opened that year and the two governments began to share space under one roof. Most expect a similar lack of trouble for the courts despite their increasingly far-flung locations.

"It may be a little more difficult for attorneys," Gull said, "but we can address that through scheduling."

Superior Court Administrator Jerry Noble acknowledged having jury trials in the courthouse and the new justice center at the jail could cause problems. Jurors reporting for duty to the courthouse, for example, may have to be transported several blocks for trial. But the new facilities will solve far more problems than they create, he said.

Sims, in fact, believes distance will become less and less important, thanks to something that was not even a dream when the courthouse was built: television.

In the future, he said, it will be increasingly common to conduct court proceedings via teleconferencing: The judge, lawyers and other participants may not even be in the same building. This, too, would save travel costs, but would have disadvantages as well, Sims acknowledged.

"It's important for lawyers to be able to read body language," he said -- something difficult to do over television. Plus, defendants will continue to have the constitutional right to confront witnesses against them. That's why, he believes, courthouses will never be rendered useless by technology.

Sims does, however, envision a day when the courthouse is reserved for such things as civil cases and family law, including divorces. People charged with serious crimes would go to court closer to their place of incarceration.

Whatever its eventual use, Gull is adamant that the structure never meet the fate of many other old courthouses: It must never become a museum.

"This is too grand a building for that," she said. "People should come here, have business here. People don't go to museums."

Ironically, the fact that the courthouse has in 100 years become too small to meet all the county's legal needs may be the best proof that the building fulfilled the vision laid out for it that cold afternoon in 1897.

As historian Col. R.S. Robertson told the crowd that day, "May our beloved city and county grow on so that a generation not far away in the future may find this, our new courthouse, built for all time, too small for their uses."

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