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Courthouse ready for next 75 years

Courthouse ready for next 75 years
Courthouse ready for next 75 years
Former Harrison County Commissioner Terry Miller, left, talks with Commissioner James Goldman after the courthouse renovation dedication ceremony Saturday morning. Both were in on the planning for years. (Photos by Randy West)

All the long oak hard-back benches in Harrison Circuit Court Judge H. Lloyd (Tad) Whitis’s courtroom were full Saturday morning to honor the stylish renovation of the Harrison County Court House in Corydon. The program, chaired by Commissioner J.R. Eckart, marked the end of a $4.5 million renovation that started in 1991 with a space needs study. Only a little work remains to be done.
Through the years, the boards of county commissioners, county councils, architects, engineers and restoration workers managed to completely modernize the three-story Bedford limestone building put up in 1928 and 1929 while preserving its solid look of strength and dignity.
Architect Joseph Mrak, senior vice president of the RQAW Corp. in Indianapolis, specializes in both constructing and preserving government buildings throughout Indiana. He was in charge of this restoration as well as the construction of the Harrison County Justice Center in 1996. He said the courthouse project gave him immense satisfaction because he was taking a 75-year-old building and giving it new life for another 75 years. He said the courthouse is symbolic of the strength and all that’s good about this community.
State Rep. Paul Robertson, D-Depauw, noted that his great-great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Dennis Pennington, was in charge of building the First State Capitol on the town square in 1812. He said by completing this courthouse restoration project, county government announces that it’s focused on the future, which is ‘always a plus for any community.’
The renovation is subtle because the courthouse still looks very much like it did before. On the outside, new steps and sidewalks were added a few years ago, about the same time the bricks were tuckpointed and new windows installed.
Inside, Judge Whitis’s courtroom on the third floor is spectacular. First, the bumpy old carpet was replaced. When the dingy acoustic ceiling tile, electric fans and fluorescent lights were taken down, there was a big surprise: majestic barrel-vaulted ceiling and ornate crown molding. An architectural treasure had been hidden for decades.
The corbel vaults were replastered in white, and big ‘inverted dome, pendant chandelier’ lights were hung, reflecting the austere ‘transition’ style of architecture that was briefly in vogue before the Art Deco period of the 1930s, said RQAW project manager Mariana Duval of Indianapolis. She is a Romanian emigr’ who came to this country by way of Paris and Algeria.
The vaulted ceiling, new chandeliers and north light that pours in through the new eight-foot-tall windows gives the courtroom a brighter, healthier atmosphere, despite the dark oak stain and three layers of clear varnish on all the original woodwork. Former councilman Paul Reas noted that even the once-wobbly pedestal seats in the jury box are now sturdy.
Rather than tearing out all the plaster to rewire the courthouse, ‘surface mounted raceways’ were added to the walls for power and data transmission. Outlets can be moved anywhere on the raceway for flexibility in the years to come.
New windows look very much like the old ones (Mrak said they were made by the same company, Hopes of Jamestown, N.Y.) except the new ones are one-inch-thick, insulated, double-pane glass with steel frames. The old ones were one-eighth of an inch thick and energy-deficient, and each window had its own air conditioner.
The biggest surprise to the courthouse visitor will be the second floor. The old lobby, which wasted much valuable space, is now filled with chairs, desks and computers used by Auditor Pat Wolfe’s staff. The new space is enclosed by handsome wood paneling that blends into the retro theme and color of the courthouse interior. The old terrazo floors with colored marble chips were badly cracked. They were ground down, and the marble chips and dust were recycled by filling in the cracks before the floor was sealed with urethane.
The circuit court clerk’s office, once a confusing maze of files, boxes, counters, storage spaces and one strange metal stairway, is now spacious, airy, customer-friendly, and attractive. Clerk Carole Gaither presided over the transition.
On the ground floor, outside the commissioners’ room (where Caesars provided a tableful of hors d’oeuvres for guests on Saturday) and the county engineer and surveyor’s offices, the public space now has something to look at: two trophy cases, plus a large, highly detailed 1860 map of Harrison County. Sketches of the finer homes of the era are in the margins.
The rolled-up map, in pieces, was rescued by the Luckett family in the 1930s and given to former Harrison County Historian Frederick P. Griffin. Griffin gave it to Caesars in hopes they would have it restored. They did. Caesars spokesperson Judy Hess took it to the Carnegie Center in New Albany, who referred her to The Speed Museum in Louisville. There she was told the best person for paper restoration was Christine Young in Nashville, Tenn. It was restored there and brought back to Harrison County by Caesars in a new frame and given to the people of Harrison County.
A number of residents took turns studying the map Saturday, looking for their family’s homeplace.
Joe Pash, business development manager for Performance Services, an Indianapolis engineering firm that did all the heating, air conditioning, electric and plumbing, said Indiana has 92 courthouses and ‘maybe one-half look as good as this. Too few communities invest back in infrastructure.’ He said the turnout that morning ‘indicated the passion this community has for its courthouse.’
He singled out former commission chair Terry Miller for showing the leadership for getting the project ‘back on track’ in the late 1990s.
Pash said the courthouse was not closed one day during the renovation, and he complimented the courthouse workers for being so patient and cooperative while being surrounded and inconvenienced by the restoration effort.
Congressman-elect Mike Sodrel praised Harrison County for its preservationist spirit. He complained that in New Albany, many historic government buildings were torn down in the 1960s in favor of more modern structures.
Steve Fry, a third generation member of the family that started the Upton Fry construction business, thanked Auditor Pat Wolfe for her invaluable help. Upton Fry was the general contractor.
Robertson gave the commissioners an Indiana flag, and Harrison County Veterans Service Officer Marion Wallace gave them an American flag to fly over the courthouse.
Sharon Simpson and Beth Bostock led the audience in singing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’