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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)