History of The Old Courthouse
The Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse is considered by architectural historians to be one of the most important examples of 19th century governmental architecture in the country. It was designed by Henry Wolters of Louisville, Kentucky and exemplifies Beaux Arts architecture, which was just coming into vogue at the time of the Courthouse’s design, replacing heavier Victorian styles. Wolters himself studied at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris. It occupies a full city block bound by Fourth, Vine, Fifth and Court streets in Downtown Evansville, which was once a turnaround basin for the Wabash and Erie Canal.
Franz Engelsmann of Chicago is credited with carving the fourteen main statues that surround the courthouse. The figures represent allegories such as the Fields of Endeavor, the Arts, Law, and Justice. Also evident are cupids, local flora, U.S. and Indiana symbols, and the date the cornerstone was laid. Much about the history of Vanderburgh County can be gleaned from the sculptures which were all carved onsite. The building is constructed of Indiana limestone quarried from Indiana’s limestone belt, and the interior boasts marble floors, Etowah pink marble wainscots, slate stairs and wrought iron and brass handrails. The sub-basement is Kentucky limestone.
At its tallest point, 216 feet, the Courthouse’s bell tower dominates the skyline of Downtown Evansville.
Construction on the courthouse began on November 9, 1887, and was completed by 1890 at a cost of approximately $500,000. County government personnel started moving into the courthouse in early 1891.
The courthouse was the epicenter of community life and for the big events of its day. The building served as the military headquarters during the 1937 flood when martial law was declared. The courthouse was also a stop on the campaign trail for President Harry Truman in 1948 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Both gave speeches from the courthouse steps.
The building was vacated in 1969 when county government offices were moved to the new Civic Center Complex. Despite efforts to demolish the courthouse in an attempt to modernize downtown, it was the sheer cost of the proposed razing that helped spare the building. The county instead leased the building to a group of citizens who formed the Conrad Baker Foundation for the purpose of saving, restoring, and placing the ld Courthouse and neighboring Sheriff’s Residence and Jail, back into public use.
The Conrad Baker Foundation operated the “Old Courthouse Center” along with the former Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Residence and Jail as a home for non-profits, artistic retail and public reception rooms. It was a grassroots effort funded solely through rental income, donations, and fundraisers. Many remember the building coming to life during this time with fundraising events such as “New York, New York.”
In 1990 the organization’s name was changed to the Old Courthouse Preservation Society. Faced with financial challenges, the Preservation Society relinquished management of the Old Courthouse to the County in 2000.
Today, the Old Courthouse remains open and vibrant under the management of the Vanderburgh County Board of Commissioners. Preservation and restoration are a collaborative effort between the Old Courthouse Foundation and Vanderburgh County. The County Engineer and Veteran Service offices are still located in the building while the remaining office space is leased for private business use. The Old Courthouse is also a sought-after event venue with the restored Grand Ballroom, Randall T. Shepard Courtroom and Commissioners’ Parlor available for private parties and events.
Take a virtual tour here.