Courthouse Construction

Pictorial Timeline of the Construction of the Indianapolis Courthouse

Until 1860, there was no federal building in Indiana’s capital city. The offices of the
national government were scattered and transient as the rapid growth of the state and city
required more and more space to house increased governmental services. The Post Office
moved from private house in 1822 to tavern to storefront to office block. Since the
establishment of the federal District of Indiana in 1817, the federal judges borrowed the
courtroom of Indiana’s Supreme Court in the State House for trials and hearings and kept their
chambers in their private homes. Other federal agencies found offices in rented or purchased
quarters throughout the city. Finally, in 1856, Indiana’s congressional delegation was able to
secure an appropriation for the construction of the first federal building. In 1860, the
Old Courthouse and Post Office, a four-story stone structure at the southeast corner of Pennsylvania and
Market Streets opened for business in downtown Indianapolis, housing, for the first time, all
federal agencies in Indiana under one roof. Over the next four decades, as the federal workload
in Indiana continued to grow, government offices expanded further into buildings to the east and
south of the Government Building, more than doubling the original space. Toward the end of the
century, the need for a new and larger federal building was recognized in Washington, D. C. and
funds for construction were appropriated.

The entire block at the northeast corner of Meridian and Ohio Streets, one block north of
Monument Circle, was purchased and ground was broken for the new United States Court House
and Post Office in 1902. The cornerstone was laid on March 25, 1903 and the building opened
for business in September 1905. The building is one of only 35 federal buildings that were
constructed under the Tarsney Act of 1892 which opened the design of federal buildings to
competitive bidding by private architectural firms. John Hall Rankin and Thomas Kellogg,
noted Philadelphia architects, secured the design contract, and the Treasury Department accepted
the New York-based John Peirce Company’s low construction bid of $1,300,000 (the final cost,
however, reached nearly $2,000,000). The new U-shaped federal building was massive,
accommodating 925 federal employees and housing the main Post Office, executive offices, and
the federal courts. Each federal function had its own space. The Post Office’s sorting and
customer service facilities occupied the first floor. The second story housed two monumental
court rooms, judges’ chambers, the office of the Clerk of the Court, the United States Marshal’s
office, the United States Attorney’s office, and the Judges’ Library. The upper stories
accommodated various other federal offices, and the fourth floor included dormitories and club
rooms for railroad postal workers required to lay over in the city. The basement contained
additional postal space and storage and service rooms.

The Court House and Post Office is an excellent example of the Beaux-Arts style which
was made popular in the United States by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The style was widely used during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for residential,
commercial, and governmental structures alike. In the Court House and Post Office it also
provides an allusion to Rome, the origin of our civil law, and many Roman symbols of
government, justice, courts, transportation, communication, and commerce are incorporated in
the mosaics, stained glass, casings, and decorative painting and plasterwork in the building. The
building also inspired the use of the Beaux-Arts style for other public buildings in Indianapolis,
including the old City Hall (1910) at Ohio and Alabama Streets, the Indianapolis – Marion
County Public Library’s Central Branch (1917), at Meridian and St. Clair Streets, and the
building set the style for the World War Memorial Plaza (dedicated in 1927), which stretches
from the Court House and Post Office on the south to the Central Branch Library on the north.
After another four decades, more space was required for federal offices. Between 1936
and 1938, the Court House and Post Office was expanded by adding a northern addition, which
finished the original "U" floor plan into a square, filling out the city block. The addition, which
was designed by the local architectural firm of McGuire & Shook (now named Odle McGuire &
Shook), continued the Beaux Arts style of the original building along the east and west
elevations, but expressed a more Palladian style on the north face.

During the first half of the twentieth century, especially after the Great Depression, new
federal programs increased the number of agencies and employees occupying the building, and
increasing federal litigation required more and more space for the District Court, the United
States Attorney, United States Marshal, and associated agencies. By the early 1970s,
construction of the Minton-Capehart Federal Building, at Pennsylvania and Michigan Streets,
and a new main Post Office, at South and Capitol Streets, relieved the crowded conditions in the
original Court House and Post Office. The General Services Administration, the federal
government’s landholder and property manager, then remodeled vacated offices and began the
continuing process of restoring the splendid architectural details of the original building. Today,
the building known as the United States Court House is occupied primarily by offices and
agencies relating to the judiciary: the United States District Court and the United States
Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Indiana, the United States Probation Office, and
the United States Marshal.