News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 4, 2013

Icons of Indiana: Every county courthouse, square a cultural center of American civic life

Man surveys, photographs 'soul' all 92 counties

TERRE HAUTE — Counties in Indiana all have historic gems, and a man spent last summer photographing these gems.

The gems?

Courthouses and surrounding squares.

Courthouses stand in the heart of a city — often surrounded by a square and sometimes overlooking a main street — serving as a constant reminder of the rule of law.

But courthouses and courthouse squares also play an important role in a community’s social and economic activities, said Chris Flook, a telecommunications instructor at Ball State University, who traveled across Indiana to photograph and study all 92 county courthouses and adjoining squares.

The project is called Indiana Courthouse Squares, and the photographs are featured on its website, indianacourt housesquare.org.

Among Flook’s aims were to document the buildings and update historical records. The website also offers historical information about each courthouse and courthouse squares, which is being done in preparation for Indiana’s bicentennial in 2016.

“I wanted to do a big survey of [courthouses and squares] in the entire state,” Flook said.

Including those in the Wabash Valley.

The Vigo County Courthouse was  “interesting because it’s not a traditional square,” said Flook, who spent about three hours in Vigo County.

In addition to Vigo, his weekend trip also included visits to Knox, Sullivan, Clay and Putnam counties.

He found something “unique” in Vigo.

“An attention is paid towards how the landscaping looked,” he said.

The courthouse area is “Like a park,” he said, having spotted some people eating lunch during his visit.

“The courthouse is absolutely magnificent,” Flook said.

Built in 1888 by architect Samuel Hannaford, the present Vigo County Courthouse is the county’s third court building. The first one was completed in 1822, about four years after Vigo County was formed by the state legislature, according to a 2006 article published in the Tribune-Star.

It lasted until 1866.

Next, a four-story brick building on the northeast corner of Third and Ohio streets served as a temporary courthouse for 22 years.

The present courthouse was dedicated on June 7, 1888. Around seven years ago, it underwent an $8 million interior renovation project, according to the Tribune-Star.

It may not be on a square, but people still gather there.

“Even though Vigo is non-traditional, it was still a place where people gathered around, enjoying lunch,” Flook said.

“The idea that it’s actually someplace that people want to be” makes the courthouse and its surrounding park-like area special, he said.

Soul of the Community

Another spot in the Valley that Flook visited one summer Saturday morning was the Sullivan County Courthouse and its surrounding square.

The courthouse was built in 1926, and its architect was John Bayard.

Flook noted the square in Sullivan did not have a lot of people present, “but it could have been the time of day.”

But the courthouse square shows a lot of potential because it can serve as a place for people to gather for social events, such as festivals and farmers markets, Flook noted.

Another Wabash Valley location, the Parke County Courthouse square in Rockville, hosts the annual and well-attended Covered Bridge Festival.

And it is an asset.

A 2008 study by the Knight Foundation determined “drivers” that motivate people to “attach” to their community. Two of these drivers were “surrounding aesthetics” and “social opportunities,” according to the Indiana Courthouse Squares website.

“American courthouse squares were surrounded by restaurants, shops, government offices and transportation hubs,” the project website states. “These amenities offered unique opportunities to landscape and construct edifices with aesthetics in mind, while furnishing the mechanism for a community’s social interaction .”

These aspects of the courthouse square are closely aligned with the two drivers found in the Knight Foundation study called “Soul of the Community.”

“Indiana is full of fantastic small, rural communities that are wonderful places to live, but they need rallying points,” Flook said.

“The town square can continue to be important from a business and societal standpoint,” Flook said. “I think people would be more inclined to live and work in a small Hoosier town if they knew what there was to offer. “

And Wabash Valley appears to be heading in the right direction.

Flook offered an observation when he stayed and dined in the Valley.

“There are still a lot of small, locally owned businesses,” Flook said. “That’s really refreshing to see.”

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or dianne.powell@tribstar.com.

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