CROWN POINT | She’s called the Grand Old Lady, rising majestically like a Victorian aristocratic over the downtown since 1878.
But the Old Lake County Courthouse’s story is a tale of two lives: one a rich history of service, government function and justice; the other a life saved from the wrecking ball that has become a showpiece and a gathering spot.
“This is the heart and soul of the county,” said Martha Wheeler, president of the Lake County Court House Foundation Inc., with offices inside the courthouse.
The foundation was incorporated in January 1971. The group took title to the building in September 1975 and continues to raise funds to restore and maintain the structure built on land deeded by Solon Robinson, Lake County’s first permanent settler.
“It’s almost like it’s alive. It speaks to me every time I walk in here,” Wheeler said as she walked the halls pointing out restorations and regaling her visitors with tales from the building's 135-year history.
“It’s an emotional response,” she said. “It’s not just a Crown Point building. It’s important to all of Northwest Indiana.”
THE GRAND DAME’S FIRST LIFE
Designed by noted 19th century architect John Crombie Cochrane in a blend of Romanesque and Georgian architectural styles popular in the Victorian Era, the central portion of the Lake County Courthouse was erected during 1878 and 1879 by contractors Thomas and Hugh Colwell using 500,000 hand-kilned bricks from the Henry Wise brickyard in Crown Point.
The structure that cost $52,000 was built atop a divide formed by a glacier. It was the most massive structure in breadth and height in existence in the area and could be seen for miles, according to historic records.
As the seat of county government, the building became as much the “hub” of business and justice as the city that grew up around it. The county clerk, treasurer and auditor maintained offices there. County commissioners met to make decisions effecting Lake County residents.
The courtroom on the second floor saw criminal and civil trials play out under an ornate ceiling of faux skylights and brightly painted crossbeams. During the long hot summers, the courtroom’s massive windows brought in passing breezes.
And as Lake County grew, the need for more space to conduct the county’s business became apparent.
The north and south wings were began in 1907 and dedicated in 1909 at a cost of $160,000.
Continued county growth led to the single-story north and south additions completed in 1928, costing another $80,000.
As a landmark, the Lake County Courthouse played host to notables throughout its history. On Oct. 7, 1896, famed orator William Jennings Bryan stumped for election as president of the United States on the steps of the courthouse, reminding Lake County residents of the importance of free silver.
The first major auto race in the United States, a grueling forerunner of the Indianapolis 500 called the Cobe Cup, took place south of the courthouse on June 19, 1909.
The east steps of the courthouse served as the backdrop for presentation of the winner’s cup to Swiss-born master mechanic Louis Chevrolet, who later became head of the Chevrolet Motor Co.
From 1914 to 1940, the courthouse was the epicenter for “the Marriage Mill” where anyone could obtain a marriage license for $2 without any waiting period and “get hitched” across the street at the justice of the peace.
SAVED FOR POSTERITY
In 1971, the Lake County Board of Commissioners began planning a new Lake County government complex with such amenities as air conditioning and an elevator.
The commissioners earmarked $80,000 to demolish the old Lake County Courthouse, Wheeler said.
That’s when the Lake County Historical Society stepped in, inviting all county historical societies to consider acquiring and renovating the Grand Dame of the county. The “Save the Courthouse Campaign” began in September 1971.
On May 17, 1973, the Lake County Courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historical Places. Eight months later, the Indiana General Assembly recognized the grassroots involvement of Lake County residents and passed a bill requiring County Commissioners to deed the structure to the foundation and contribute the $80,000 it had set aside to demolish the building to that organization.
Over the last 40 years, more than 150 people of every age and walk of life have contributed talent and tens of thousands of work hours to restoring the old courthouse to its original magnificence, Wheeler said.
Marion Kellum, an art teacher at Crown Point High School for 36 years and on the foundation’s board of directors, is among those many volunteers.
“Two summers ago, they had to do repairs on the roof,” Kellum said, recalling his visit to the old clock tower that looms over the courthouse in the bucket of a crane.
“I was looking down on the clock tower. Then I looked out and I saw the skyscrapers of Chicago. It was magnificent,” he said.
Dean White has been a major benefactor in the restoration, Wheeler said. Nearly three years ago, White pledged up to $2 million for capital improvements if the foundation could raise another $2 million. That campaign is nearing its end with that goal in sight.
Today, the Old Lake County Courthouse serves many purposes including the setting for weddings and wedding receptions, plays in the 176-seat courtroom, Veterans Day ceremonies, concerts, festivals and community galas.
Some of the rooms on the upper floor and the basement Court House Shops have become a commercial hub with small specialty shops, restaurants and artists’ studios.
“Saving and maintaining this courthouse has been a collaborative effort between so many groups,” Wheeler said, including the Lake County Historical Society, the Old Homestead Preservation Society and the Crown Point Community Foundation.
“Crown Point is such a wonderful city.”