Courts in the Classroom
Supreme Court of Indiana
Division of State Court Administration
30 S. Meridian Street, Ste 500
Indianapolis, IN 46204
Dr. Elizabeth R. Osborn
Public History and
2011 Outstanding Public
History Project Award
from the National Council
on Public History
Provided by the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana.
Growing up in Indiana, one might assume that virtually every county in the United States has a courthouse square. They are as natural to Hoosiers as corn and soybeans. However, it seems the courthouse square is a phenomenon concentrated in Tennessee , Kentucky , Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. Of course there are exceptions, and northeast Texas and Georgia will claim a right to be on the list, but none have embraced the courthouse square like the "heartland."1
Ball State University professor David R. Hermansen identified three types of courthouse squares in Indiana: Shelbyville, Lancaster, and Harrisonburg. Seven counties-Martin, Montgomery, Ohio, Perry, Steuben, Warren and Wells-have no courthouse square.2
In his 1968 article, "The Central Courthouse Square in the American County Seat," cultural geographer Edward T. Price linked the spread of courthouse square designs to settlement patterns. Price noticed a link between the type of courthouse square a county has and the immigration patterns of the area.
The open square space in the middle of a town is a phenomenon that dates back to medieval Europe where examples exist in Germany and Poland.3 Noting the number of German immigrants in Indiana, it's not surprising that we find similar designs here. In the United States, the public square traces its roots to early eighteenth century settlements along the east coast, but these typically did not contain courthouses.
The Shelbyville, or Block, Square is the most common design in Indiana, found in 79 of our 92 counties. It derives its name from Shelbyville, Tennessee, where in the early 1800s, planners developed a full city block with streets intersecting at each corner (see Figure 1). The courthouse was placed in the center of the square.
The Lancaster Square comes to us via Pennsylvania, where in 1682 the Philadelphia Plan called for the creation of an open square in the center of town. In 1739 the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania Courthouse was placed in the center of the green space, hence the name "Lancaster Square."4 As Price writes, "The central courthouse square must be added to the farm practices, rural and urban settlement patterns and house types, the Kentucky rifle and the Conestoga wagon, that settlers carried with them from southeastern Pennsylvania."5
Where the Lancaster and Shelbyville squares differ in design is the placement of the streets. The Shelbyville Square has streets intersecting at each corner, while the streets of the Lancaster Square converge at the sides6 (see Figure 1). The Lancaster Square makes for a dramatic courthouse view and is found in the neighboring counties of Dubois, Orange and Washington.7
The Harrisonburg Square is a combination of Lancaster and Shelbyville plans. It is a rarity in Indiana, with the only examples found in Lake , Johnson and Vanderburgh counties. In this plan, streets intersect at the corners and converge at the center of the east and west streets (see Figure 1).
The courthouse square serves a number of purposes both past and present. In addition to being a showcase for memorials, sculpture and often times military hardware, the square continues to serve as a gathering place for festivals, demonstrations and commerce.
Perhaps William Faulkner best summed up the lure of the courthouse square in Requiem for a Nun :
.but above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county's circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judiciate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and hopes....
1 Edward T. Price. "The Central Courthouse Square in the American County Seat," in Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture . Ed. Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1986) p. 125.
2 David R. Hermansen. " Indiana County Courthouses of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century." Special leave report, Ball State University , Spring 1985.
3 Price, p. 128.
4 Price, p. 130.
5 Price, p. 130.
6 Hermansen, p.2.
7 Hermansen, pl 2.