Tag Archives: Bloomington Indiana

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.

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.


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.)

Lovely peonies!

peonyNo flower better personifies high spring and the approach of summer than the peony. Long-lived and highly fragrant, it’s my favorite late-spring blossom. A single peony flower, cut and placed in a vase in a still room, will perfume the air within ten feet around it.

IMG_5150When thinking of peonies, most people immediately envision the big doubles, or the “bombs,” which are not at all my favorites. These large and heavy flowers invariably collect rainwater in the convolutions of their petals until they bend double, touch the ground and begin to rot. But there are many other configurations to choose from, including single, semi-double, anenome and Japanese.

This one might be "Sarah Bernhardt," a double variety from the early years of the last century.
This one might be “Sarah Bernhardt,” a double variety from the early years of the last century.

I prefer the single and anenome forms because they clearly display the shape of the basic flower with its central rosette of stamens. The gold of the centers contrasts nicely with the crimson, white or pink  of the surrounding petals. Singles also have the tidy habit of folding up at nightfall and opening again the next morning.

IMG_5166Here in Bloomington, Indiana, the largest public planting of peonies is the magnificent display near the entrance to Rose Hill Cemetery, which is always at its peak for a week or two around Memorial Day. Hundreds of peonies are growing there, which according to local lore were supposedly divided from early specimens planted decades ago. (A healthy peony will last a century or more and can probably be divided countless times.)

IMG_5145The north-south lane leading from the main gate to Kirkwood is currently an impressive mass of flowering peony bushes. Most headstones in this part of the cemetery have one or even two peony bushes planted beside them. Because peonies are scarce in the remainder of the cemetery, with almost none in the oldest part of the grounds, I suspect that the bushes in that particular “peony zone” date back only to the age of the headstones there, which range from the 1960s to the ’80s. But even if they’re not as old as many believe, the plants they came from are still anywhere from 30 to 50 years old, not bad at all for a perennial flower.

IMG_5141I’ve previously published the photo that follows, but it’s my favorite all-time peony photo from my garden.

peony-2Because peonies live so long, many varieties are heirlooms. A good website offering a large variety of varieties is Hollingsworth Peonies.  Another useful site is The American Peony Society. Enjoy!

Turn out and vote!


Bloomington, Indiana, is a blue dot in a red state, as its citizens like to point out. As a university town, we’re enthusiastic about world cultures and cuisines, not to mention art, music, theater and sports. Many of us are well-educated and generally liberal in our world views. But why don’t more of us vote?

Our election last fall had a voter turnout of 26%, which was the third-lowest in the state. Many potential voters are planning to sit out the coming primary. Those who don’t vote in primaries generally say, with a chuckle, “Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to vote in November against the other party. You can count on me.”

But the primary is just as important as the “big” election in the fall. This is your golden opportunity to select the best of the candidates, the ones who will oversee the future of our city for years to come.

It’s not as if it’s difficult to find out what the candidates stand for. For example, the three mayoral candidates all have Facebook pages and/or web pages where they detail their stands on different issues. At this point, if you have no clue what the three candidates stand for, you haven’t been paying attention.

Some non-voters say: “Well, we don’t like the way this country is headed, and we don’t feel that our votes count in a meaningful way. The system is broken and we refuse to play ball when the game is rigged.”

Well, that could be true, after a fashion, in regard to the national scene in Washington, but it’s definitely not the case here in Monroe County. Bear in mind that a single vote always makes the biggest difference close to home. Unlike in Washington, the political system in Bloomington and Monroe County is fully functional and extremely responsive. A single vote can actually swing  an election here.

The mayoral race is particularly important since the mayor chooses the members of the plan commission, which determines the future of development. Look at Bloomington right now. Our mayor and plan commission have supported big development in the downtown area for many years. As a result we now have high-rises towering above the city core whose tenants are all students. Having thousands of young people living downtown has dramatically increased the number of bars and restaurants and pushed out other businesses. Parking is a fraught issue. The number of homeless people whose needs are not being met is also linked to official policies. These aren’t just things that happen at random; they are the direct results of our local government’s choices.

Do these things concern you? If so, you need to vote, and you particularly need to do it in the upcoming primary. “If you don’t vote, don’t complain,” as the old saying has it.