If stones could talk….

The old Monroe County courthouse prior to its demolition.

During my 11-year tenure as “Homes” columnist for the Bloomington Herald-Times, I learned many fascinating things. For instance, oral history in Elm Heights says that the three houses on the southwest corner of Fess and University were built using architectural salvage from the original Monroe County courthouse. (That courthouse, constructed in the 1820s, was demolished in 1905 to make room for the current limestone structure.)

In this case, oral history is probably correct. One of those three houses has a basement ceiling supported by hand-hewn timbers with adze marks, an architectural element common in the early 1800s but highly unusual a century later. In the house next door, a massive, non-standard and obviously ancient paneled door was cut down to fit a low basement doorway. And renovations at that second home uncovered piles of soft smoke-smudged antique bricks serving as fill around the foundation.

I think I have identified an additional element of the old courthouse not far from Dunn Meadow: reused limestone foundation blocks which nowadays serve as a humble retaining wall.

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This wall is at the northeast corner of 7th and Dunn.

The entire north side of Seventh between Dunn and Indiana is edged with stone retaining walls. Most of them appear to be roughly pecked into shape using a hammer and chisel. We know from commissioners’ records that when Jack Ketcham built the original courthouse he used stone and lumber from his own property south of Bloomington. The construction took years longer than he had promised, to the great annoyance of the county commissioners of the time. But consider how long it would have taken to shape countless limestone foundation blocks in the absence of industrial milling machinery! When you consider that the bricks were handmade as well, it’s a wonder that Ketcham finished the building at all.

The contrast between early 1800s and 1900s shaped stone.
The contrast between early 1800s and early 1900s shaped stone.

Look how rough, large and heavy these old stones are. 20th-century milled stone was always neatly shaped and the pieces were smaller, to ease the task of stacking them. But even roughly shaped stone was too valuable a commodity to simply throw out when a building was demolished. The reason I believe that these stones came from the old courthouse is because the houses in that block date to the correct time: 1905 and immediately after, according to the Monroe County Interim Report. And there’s so much of the recycled pecked stone that it must have come from a sizable building.

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It’s always a surprise to look at something that I’ve passed countless times and see it with new eyes. I had never thought twice about this block of retaining walls until recently, but the angle of the sun at this time of year made the rough texture of the stones much more visible.

This stone in an Elm Heights alleyway appears to be repurposed.
This incised stone in an Elm Heights alleyway appears to have been repurposed.

Do you know anything about these retaining walls, or about the three houses at the corner of Fess and University? Are there any other buildings in Bloomington allegedly built using salvage from the old Courthouse? If you have any anecdotes, please let me know.

(To learn more about the various incarnations of the Monroe County courthouse through time, see my old blogsite.)

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2 thoughts on “If stones could talk….”

  1. Carrol — You have a good eye for above-ground archaeology! That’s what I call your architectural detective work on the walls. But I’ve seen nothing in the few photos to indicate that the 1820-1905 brick Courthouse and its additions (and nearby buildings: jail, firestation, first county library) had dressed limestone walls or a lower tier below brick walls. So yours is a good working hypothesis, needing more data for evaluation. This should send people off to check historic photos. A compilation of photos for the Courthouse and surrounding square would be another benefit of the local historic designation now in progress for the Courthouse Square.

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    1. Dear Cheryl, thanks for reading, and commenting! I’m operating off of the assumption that the old brick courthouse was constructed as per the specifications in the Commissioners’ records, which indeed called for limestone “footers” (they used another word) at the base of the brick walls. Because the building was approximately 40 x 40 (not a square but a squarish rectangle) that would have meant a lot of limestone pieces to remove afterwards! And the 1860s brick additions presumably had limestone sills or footers beneath them as well, because one doesn’t lay brick directly into topsoil but on top of something else. I’m not clear, however, whether mechanical quarrying machinery was already in use by the Civil War era.

      Thanks for your input! all best, Carrol

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