“An architectural triumph….the new county courthouse will remain an everlasting record of the handiwork of the nineteenth century architects and artisans.”
-Evansville Journal, November 1890
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. Much about the history of Vanderburgh County can be gleaned from the sculptures which were all carved onsite. The building is constructed of Bedford Stone, limestone native to Indiana, and the interior boasts marble floors, Ettewa pink marble wainscots, slate stairs and wrought iron and brass handrails. At its tallest point, 216 feet, the courthouse’s bell tower dominates the skyline of Downtown Evansville.
Construction on the courthouse began in 1888 and was completed by 1890 at a cost of $379,450. 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 Commissioners room served as the military headquarters during the 1937 flood when martial law was declared and the courthouse was 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 it. 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 building 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 recently restored Ballroom, Randall T. Shepard Courtroom and Governor’s parlor available for private parties and events.