When I was first asked to write an inaugural blog for the new Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse website I was flattered. I began to think about all the topics I could drone on about; the construction, the sculpture, the sculptor, the architectural style, trivia such as the number of bricks or cost of construction. Perhaps I could talk about the building’s importance architecturally on both a local and national scale.
Or, I could talk about something more personal. Something, as a friend told me, only I know and remember. I could talk about the people that I knew who were responsible for this edifice’s continued existence –those folks who believed from the beginning that the “Old” Vanderburgh County Courthouse was worth of saving and re-using in the face of trendy Urban Renewal, and who dedicated thousands of hours to that cause. Those individuals, combined with those that saw the building as the home for their own dreams after it was saved, is now an important part of its history.
I came along as Executive Director of the Conrad Baker Foundation a full 10 years after the County had handed the buildings (Old Vanderburgh County Sherriff’s Residence and Jail and the Courthouse Annex (now long gone) included) over to the Conrad Baker Foundation, with the understanding that under their unique 99 year lease arrangement the county would have no further financial obligation. First, an explanation: the Conrad Baker Foundation was always a confusing title for this organization. It was named for the first (and only up until that time) Indiana Governor from Evansville. The thinking was this non courthouse name would allow the CBF to eventually expand into other related missions. It never did. And the word Foundation implies it had money. It never did. So at 10 years into this adventure I did not meet many of the original dreamers who were responsible for the building‘s salvation. Yet more impressive to me was the fact that so many of those dreamers (long past retirement age) were still hard at it.
The first who comes to mind is Richard (Dick) Brennan. Mr. Brennan served as the volunteer administrator/building manager until just a few months before I was hired. It was he who was responsible for changing the ambiance of the building from a dingy, dated governmental has-been, to an elegant welcoming space by repainting, redecorating, re-lighting (no more florescent giant ice cube tray-like light fixtures running the length of the halls). He recognized that the first step in bringing the public back into the building was to revive its original elegance- even if it meant leaking roof and cranky boiler would have to wait. The first incarnation of the Ballroom as “The Wedgwood Room” (now The Ballroom) painted in soft blues and golds, with period draperies and crystal chandeliers was his. Also the Governor’s Parlor and other spaces began their aesthetic revival under his hand as a retired decorator. He also took the brunt of many battles to keep the building open and to begin to bring new tenants into the newly minted “Old Courthouse Center” as a home for artists, shops and non-profit organizations. His vision can still be seen in many decorative touches throughout the building.
Alexander Leich was a gentle quiet man who served as first President of CBF. I knew him as the treasurer. I’m told that through his likable, quiet manner and many connections in the business and governmental circles he might have been the person most responsible for the successful effort to save the building. If that is true his humble nature prevented that story from entering the popular narrative of how the building was saved. I hope future research brings his full efforts to light.
The CBF’s practical money man was board Secretary Fred Reichmann. A nephew of Mayor Benjamin Bosse, Fred’s civic dedication ran in his blood. Mr. Reichmann came into the CBF offices at least twice a week to write checks and offer welcome advice. While the Old Courthouse was filled with dreamers, Fred served as a solid voice of reason. As I served in my first executive position he was my mentor. He knew how to question, and he knew how to congratulate. I always knew if Fred agreed with me I was making a good decision.
The de-facto Old Courthouse historian was Ken McCutchan. A local radio personality descended from early Vanderburgh County settlers, Ken had written several books on local history. Included on that list is the 1972 “A Pictorial Study of the Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse” which did much to publicize the building and the imaginative sculptor Franz Engelsmann’s work. Ken also wrote the building tour script which is still in use. Ken served as curator for the collection of left behind county furnishings as well as assisting to add to the collections to fill in gaps.
Of this generation of Old Courthouse devotees the last I will mention today is Bernice Brill. Bernice dedicated herself to a shop ran by the CBF to raise funds. CBF was given, in trust, an outstanding collection of over a thousand 19th century hand stamping blocks made by an early Evansville resident, Christian Decker. The purpose of the blocks was to transfer designs on to fabric as patterns for embroidery. Bernice and her volunteers ran the shop 6 days a week for many years, and they developed a cottage industry making custom orders of clients worldwide. They also made and sold kits – ready to embroidery using the blocks in their intended fashion. But Bernice and the Christian Decker Design Shop were also an imaginative group, developing other ways to use the designs. When a window restoration project left huge panes of old replaced glass, Bernice and her volunteers learned to cut the thick panes, grind the edges and etch Christian Decker designs on them as window and Christmas tree ornaments.
These are just a few of the dozens of volunteers who were there at the beginning of this great civic effort. The CBF was a membership organization – the largest local preservation organization in the state at that time- and many of those members helped with their time as well as their money. And there were other groups – The Old Courthouse Auxiliary was the largest and most active – but that’s a whole other story.
by: Larry Bristow, Old Courthouse Foundation Vice-President