Courting a grander vision

Building's elegant design exemplified Allen County's rising fortunes.

of The News-Sentinel

A five-year endeavor
News-Sentinel photo by file photo

A five-year endeavor
The cornerstone was laid in 1897 for Allen County's fifth, and present, courthouse. Construction of the courthouse, one of the area's most impressive buldings, took nearly five years to complete; the project, including furnishings, cost $817,553. The exterior features various styles of columns, sculptures of local heroes and neoclassical details.
Allen County officials could have cast envious eyes at the fancy new City Building when it opened in 1893 at Barr and Berry streets. The thick-walled, sandstone castle of Richardsonian design cost about $70,000 to build and furnish, a considerable sum in those days.

It was an imposing reminder of the city's sober, industrious German heritage, complete with a drunk tank in the basement.

On the brink of the 20th century, the building solidly proclaimed Fort Wayne was here to stay.

A few blocks away at Main and Calhoun streets, the county's staid old courthouse, circa 1862, was sending the opposite message: I'm a worn-out, overcrowded firetrap that stinks like a glue factory from bad plumbing.

In a splurge of civic one-upmanship, the county decided to display its pride in the city's bursting prosperity on a far grander scale.

"It was a likely scenario of the county saying to the city, you built yours in sandstone, we'll do ours in limestone," says Randy Elliott, assistant curator of The History Center, based in the old City Building.

Citizens accustomed to the relatively drab architecture that abounded in Fort Wayne must have gasped in wonder at the scope and splendor of the new courthouse when it was dedicated Sept. 23, 1902.

The courthouse was Allen County's version of Louis XIV's palace of Versailles in France. The Sun King could have been crowned in the regal, luminous rotunda.

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The courthouse is an eye-popping example of the most influential architectural style of the 19th century: Beaux-Arts, French for fine arts. It's short for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) founded in Paris in 1671. In the 19th century, American architects flocked there to study and returned home with blueprints to beautify the American cityscape.

Beaux-Arts architecture glorified the Renaissance ideal of symmetrical buildings in the classical Greek and Roman mold. The basic design is a templelike, imposing structure with graceful columns and central rotunda. The style was used predominantly for public buildings between 1885 and 1925, and is characterized by embellishments of floral patterns, medallions and garlands.

Local architect Brentwood Tolan was said to be strongly influenced by the Beaux-Arts style, which was prominently featured at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. He competed for the courthouse project with 14 other prominent architects. His design was considered most appropriate for a public building. He had plenty of experience, designing half a dozen other courthouses around the Midwest as well as 23 prisons.

On a foundation 270 feet long and 134 feet wide, Tolan built his massive edifice of Indiana blue limestone quarried in Bedford. With the relatively crude force of men, mules, picks, shovels and pulleys, up it went. Laborers and artisans laid block upon block of limestone and row upon row of plainer Doric and Ionic columns on lower levels ascending to fancier rows of Corinthian columns high above.

They topped it off with sculptural reliefs of civic heroes, noble inscriptions such as "Law Hateth Wrong," a huge dome encapsulating the building's three main floors, and the crowning glory - a nearly 14-foot-tall bronze statue of Miss Liberty standing guard 225 feet over the street with her torch and sword, revolving in the wind as a weather vane.

That was just the outside. Inside, the courthouse was a display of faux-marble columns made of pigmented plaster called scagliola, plus real Italian marble stairways, decorative panels, carved hardwood doors and furniture, ornate ceilings, stained-glass windows and panels, allegorical murals, mosaic tiles, splendid statuary, radiant rotunda - the works in public works.

Visitors' eyes were bedazzled by bright shades of gold, silver, green, red, pink and many other colors. They contrasted with muted colors on the impressionistic murals adorning the rotunda.

In a critical improvement over the three previous courthouses built on the same spot since 1831, the artworks and important documents could be displayed and stored in fireproof safety.

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Electric lights - high-tech wonders at the time - were installed. In case they didn't work, a backup network of reliable old gaslight piping was installed. It was never used, except as a convenient conduit for installing modern electrical wiring in the building. The courthouse also boasted elevators and a pneumatic clock system regulated by a master clock on the first floor.

The primary entrance was on the west side of the main lobby facing Calhoun Street. It provided a way station for commuters who used the nexus of trolley lines that converged at Calhoun and Main streets.

Over the ensuing decades, time, neglect and bad taste took their toll. Murals got painted over. Soot from coal heat clogged the intricate details of ceiling panels decorated with 150 kinds of ornate stenciling. The faux marble that once boasted a dozen colors, the largest such collection in the country, crumbled. Rain leaked through the rotunda and caused extensive damage. Grass and weeds sprouted along ledges and crevices on the dome.

Today, thanks to exhaustive restoration efforts costing more than 10 times the original price tag for the building and furnishings, the courthouse shimmers inside and out with the same radiance it had a century ago.

Justice was served - and preserved - for the county's greatest architectural treasure.

Eat your heart out for another hundred years, City Hall.

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