LAPORTE — Before television, before radio, courtrooms provided live entertainment for residents. People would come from miles away in their horse and buggy to watch trials in progress.
Maybe the defendant or victim was someone the observer knew, or maybe it was just curiosity that drew the audience to the courtroom. When they arrived, however, the audience was treated to courtroom drama but also the minutiae of courtroom procedures.
The scene was set by the courtroom’s dramatic stained glass windows, included a depiction of justice personified, and oak paneling and furniture. The skilled craftsmanship is evident in the 1892 building.
“I have to believe that some of this wood in here is LaPorte County wood, and as you can see it was quite spectacular,” LaPorte County Historian Fern Eddy Schultz explained during a tour of the LaPorte courthouse.
“It has been advertised as one of the most beautiful courtrooms in the state of Indiana,” Schultz said.
But beauty doesn’t guarantee comfort.
Sometimes, when the weather became too cold, trials had to be postponed because the fireplaces couldn’t kick out enough heat for the elaborate courtroom, Schultz said.
“Sometimes it was below zero for several days in a row, and it wasn’t conducive to holding trials when you had just the heat from a fireplace,” she said.
Today, the courtroom retains its 1890s charm but now features 21st century conveniences like the ability to easily project videos for the benefit of the judge and jury — and, of course, a modern HVAC system.
It is one of two courthouses in LaPorte County, the only Hoosier county to have two fully functioning courthouses. The other is in downtown Michigan City.
Most people get to visit the first and second floors of the LaPorte courthouse. They don’t see the judge’s private office and law library on the third floor.
They do see evidence of the change in county government over the years — including a sign for the school superintendent’s office. That was back when the township trustees ran the public schools, before the 1959 state law that encouraged township school systems to be consolidated or reorganized, a process finally completed several years ago when Tri-Township Consolidated School Corp. was formed in LaPorte County, in the Wanatah and LaCrosse area.
Visitors also can see evidence of restoration.
“There were 273 pieces of leaded glass in the original skylight, and it weighed 4,641 pounds,” Schultz said.
A restoration in 1921 took 125 pounds of putty for the glazing. It was closed when commissioners were worried about leakage.
“In 2006, the panes were replaced with laminated glass, and the panes were arranged in a pattern very close to the original pattern,” Schultz said.
Visitors who want to see the skylight have to go the second floor because the elevator blocks the view from the first floor.
The first elevator was installed in 1907, replaced in the early 1920s with a cage type elevator. Kids would come in just to ride the elevator. It was replaced in the 1970s, Schultz said.
The building has seen some remodeling over the years, but nothing as extensive as in 1937, when the entrance on Michigan Avenue was removed. An enormous fireproof vault was installed in its place.
“It goes from the basement up through the first floor and second floor,” Schultz said.
“We were one of the early courthouses that were considered fireproof. At least our records were in a fireproof location,” Schultz said. A number of courthouses have been burned and records destroyed, she said.
The exterior is made of red sandstone from the Lake Superior region. “I don’t believe there’s any other courthouse in the state of Indiana made of red sandstone,” Schultz said. It was shipped to Michigan City, brought by rail to LaPorte, then cut to size on the courthouse lawn.
Nearly four dozen gargoyles are sculpted into the interior supports and exterior walls.
The existing building is the third on the site. The first was in 1834, two years after the county was formed. The second was in 1846. That cornerstone is incorporated in the existing structure. No one knows what is in the 1846 cornerstone, Schultz said.