Indiana is recognized for many things—basketball, auto racing, farmland, pork tenderloins the size of a dinner plate. And to connoisseurs of architecture, it’s also the home of one of the most glorious county courthouses in the United States. In 2003 the Secretary of the Interior declared the Allen County Courthouse a National Historic Landmark (web link http://www.cr.nps.gov/nhl/), meaning that it possess “exceptional value or quality in illustrating the heritage of the United States.” Less than 2500 historic places have earned designation as National Historic Landmarks.
“Completed in 1902, the Allen County Courthouse is the embodiment of Beaux Arts architecture popular in the United States at the turn of the 20th century,” noted the National Historic Landmark nomination. “The building stands as a monument to the civic pride and progressivism of early 20th century America and represents a rare example of the combination of classical architecture, fine art and sculpture in an American county courthouse.”
Despite competition from nationally known architectural firms, county commissioners awarded the courthouse design contract to Fort Wayne resident Brentwood S. Tolan (1856-1923). Tolan, an Ohio native who moved to Fort Wayne in 1875, learned his architectural skills from his father, Thomas J. Tolan. The Tolan family made a name for itself in Indiana designing courthouses in Allen, LaGrange, Parke, Kosciusko, Whitley and Delaware Counties.
Beaux Arts designs can best be described as monumental combinations of classical elements accentuated by a profusion of details such as columns, porticos and pediments. (In layman’s terms, a Greek temple with a lot of froufrou.) The Allen County Courthouse is an outstanding example of the style. Its blue Bedford limestone exterior is accentuated by Doric and Ionic columns, carved relief panels, and symmetrically placed windows. A copper-clad dome crowns the roof. The interior is a study in magnificence conveyed by color, decorative details and finishes, especially scagliola (pronounced skayl-YO-luh).
The interior contains more than 15,000 square feet of scagliola—faux marble made from plaster—on columns, walls, pilasters and moldings. Internationally recognized decorative plaster expert David Hayles lauds the Allen County Courthouse scagliola as“…the most important example of the craft to be found anywhere in the world.”
Of the courthouse’s elaborate murals, Richard Murray, senior curator of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art, said: “What is found in the Allen County Court House is on a par with that of the Library of Congress, the Paris Opera, the Reform Club of London, and but a handful of statehouses.” The $35,000 ornamentation budget for the project exceeded the total cost of many other Indiana public buildings of the period. Murals are found throughout the courtrooms and other spaces, but the crowning glory is the rotunda featuring four works painted by Charles Holloway (1859-1941). Holloway, a native of Philadelphia, made a name for himself in Chicago where he created murals for the Auditorium Theater and the Columbian Exposition. In Indiana he also completed murals for the Wells County Courthouse and the Studebaker Company. Murals by other artists are found throughout the courtrooms.
Like Holloway, sculptors Robert J. Stack (1863-1942) and William Barth (1866-1915) traveled to Fort Wayne following their work at the Chicago Columbian Exposition. After completing the Allen County Courthouse and notable commissions, such as the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo and the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, both men returned to Fort Wayne to raise their families. Such great works of art and architecture must be cared for faithfully to address daily grime and prevent deterioration from intensive public use. Despite Holloway’s return in 1911 to touch up his murals, wear and tear exacted their toll. Well-minded attempts at “restoration” also produced disastrous results that later required major attention.
Such was the case in the 1930s when the WPA provided house painters to touch up the murals. Similarly misguided efforts by untrained painters throughout the twentieth century likewise compromised the other courthouse works of art.
Improvements undertaken from 1967-1975 provided modern conveniences such as new heating and air conditioning, wiring and plumbing upgrades, a new roof, new windows and doors, and landscaping. However, it was not until 1994, that large-scale restoration efforts were launched with the creation of the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust. Working upon the advice of nationally-recognized art and architecture authorities, the Trust set out to restore the courthouse grounds, building and artwork. It took eight years and over $8 million to complete the project.. On September 23, 2002, the Allen County Courthouse Preservation Trust dedicated a breathtaking total restoration. For a detailed discussion of the Courthouse’s history and restoration, see The Allen County Court House: A National Treasure Restored by Micahael C. Hawfield (Guild Press Emmis Publishing, 2002).
You can open and print an Adobe PDF document of a walking tour of the Allen County Courthouse by clicking on the link below.