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History of The Old Courthouse

The Old Courthouse in Vanderburgh County 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. The Courthouse 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 École de Beaux Arts in Paris, France. The Courthouse occupies a full city block bound by Fourth, Vine, Fifth and Court streets in Downtown Evansville. The block in which the Courthouse resides was once a turnaround basin for the Wabash and Erie Canal, the longest canal constructed in North America running for more than 460 miles, before it was filled in around 1860.

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Franz Engelsmann of Chicago, Illinois 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 of 216 feet, the Courthouse’s Bell Tower dominates the skyline of Downtown Evansville. 

c1907 vs. March 2022 by Evansville Aerial 

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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.

To date, this is the only known photograph of the Courthouse under construction. Plans were drawn in 1886 by the architect, Henry Wolters, of Louisville, Kentucky. The contract for construction was awarded to Charles Pearce & Co. of Chicago in 1887.

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Aerial view of the Ohio River and Evansville during the Great Flood of 1937

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 Great Flood of 1937 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.

Click here to read the speech John F. Kennedy delivered on the steps of the Old Courthouse on October 4, 1960 during his presidential campaign that he later won and was elected the 35th President of the United States.


In 1969, the Old Courthouse was vacated and was no longer operational after the county government offices were moved to the new Civic Center Complex, where they remains to this day. 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 Old Courthouse and neighboring Sheriff’s Residence and Jail, back into public use.

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Old Courthouse Courtroom in its final days in 1968

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The Conrad Baker Foundation, named in honor of the first governor of Indiana to hail from Evansville, 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, its own Christian Decker Design Shop, and fundraisers. Many remember the building coming to life during this time with fundraising events such as “New York, New York.” The Conrad Baker Foundation eventually boasted the largest membership of any local preservation organization within the state. An active Ladies Auxiliary held craft shows twice a year along with other fund-raising activities. The Kraftwerks Annual Craft Show grew out of the Conrad Baker Foundation Craft Show.

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Conrad Baker

In 1990, the organization’s name was changed to the 'Old Courthouse Preservation Society' to better reflect the group’s purpose and goals. In addition to continuing to rent spaces for offices and events, the Society continued a long tradition of walking tours of the Courthouse and kept the building open to the public six days a week. All of this was overseen and managed by volunteers, a full-time director and a small paid maintenance staff. During this time the Conrad Baker Foundation/Old Courthouse Preservation Society completed many restoration projects including roof and gutter repair, exterior limestone balustrade repair, new skylights, new elevator, cupola renovation, Courtroom and Wedgwood Room renovations, new boiler, repainting of all public spaces, and renovation of most interior spaces. However, despite the Society’s best-efforts management of the building proved infeasible for them. Faced with financial challenges, the Preservation Society relinquished management of the Old Courthouse to the County in 2000.

Also in 2000, the Old Courthouse Preservation Society changed its name to the 'Old Courthouse Foundation.' This move reflects that while no longer a membership organization, the group still exists to continue the original purposes “to restore, renovate, operate and maintain” the Old Courthouse and Sheriff’s Residence and Jail, and to “make long range plans” and “to raise funds” for the same. The Foundation is made up of 21 board members who achieve these goals through tours and other public awareness campaigns, special events, projects, and pursuit of grants, donations, and other avenues of funding.

In 2007, the Foundation was instrumental in having a Preservation Master Plan of the building completed. Other major projects the Foundation has spearheaded since that time include renovation of the old Wedgwood Room and adjacent courtroom into a Grand Ballroom Suite with catering kitchen, renovation and landscaping of the lawn into Bicentennial Park, replacement of broken and damaged marble floor tiles and slate steps, repainting of interior public spaces in period appropriate colors, replication of missing interior doors in various locations, exterior illumination of the bell tower, and most recently restoration of the 4th and 5th Street entrances. The Randall T. Shepard Courtroom was also restored by the Evansville Bar Association with the support and guidance of the Foundation. The Foundation is also proud of its founding of the “I DO at the Old Courthouse” program which gives engaged couples a beautiful elopement venue at a reasonable price. The Foundation is an Affiliate Group of Indiana Landmarks.

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. As a 501(c)3 organization registered with the State of Indiana, the Foundation provides a means of accepting monetary donations and seeking grant funds toward building rehabilitation that might not be available to county government. 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 weddings, private parties and events.

Take a virtual tour here.

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