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Officials weigh future uses for Hamilton County courthouse

March 18, 2016

Hamilton County officials have started discussing the future of their historic courthouse as plans progress to expand the newer judicial center across the street—and the ideas range from a co-working space to a voting center.

The 39,000-square-foot courthouse on the square in Noblesville still includes offices for the auditor, treasurer, assessor and recorder, which could be moved to the adjacent judicial center as part of the expansion project. The offices occupy 14,000 square feet of space.

The county built the judicial center in 1992 along Eighth Street and the White River, and most government offices and the court system are housed there today. Elected leaders are now moving forward with a possible $22 million expansion of that building that could add three stories of 35,000 square feet each to the west side of the structure.

The addition could provide enough space for the remaining county offices that aren’t located there yet and more room for the court system, which officials say is already cramped.

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The Hamilton County Board of Commissioners has started considering a variety of options to reuse the courthouse, assuming the government offices in the historic courthouse will move.

Some suggestions include offering space for a co-working or entrepreneur program, a community center, reception hall, not-for-profit offices, training facility for the prosecutor’s office, election’s office and voting center or instructional space for the judicial system.

“The building is just difficult in current day business to be utilized,” Commissioner Christine Altman said. “It certainly served its purpose. Perhaps it’s time to modernize.”

Hamilton County courthouse windowThe structure was built in 1879, and county officials believe it is still in good shape so it shouldn’t be abandoned. But other than that, it’s tough to say what the future holds for the building.

“I don’t think I’m in favor of turning it into retail space or something like that,” Commissioner Steve Dillinger said.

Dillinger’s preference would be to keep using it for county government, whether that means keeping certain departments there or allowing other departments like the prosecutor’s office or probation to use it for special purposes.

Altman said she would like to see not-for-profits use it for office space and have the ability to host events inside, which would likely require updating the county’s restriction on alcohol use in the building.

Currently, any event has to obtain special permission to serve alcohol.

Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt also said not-for-profit offices could be a good solution, or possibly offices for law firms. 

"Anything's open for discussion," Heirbrandt said.

Altman also suggested the idea of using the old courtroom in the building as theater space.

While she’s confident the county would continue to own it and maintain it, she said any tenant would likely be responsible for utility costs. Most of what’s possible in the historic courthouse will depend on what can move to the judicial center addition, which has not been determined.

Dillinger said the commissioners are expecting to meet with a project designer, Indianapolis-based American Structurepoint, in the next few weeks to see floor plans for what’s feasible.

Hamilton County courthouse door knob“This is a long process,” Dillinger said. “We probably ought to take our time and get it right.”

If Hamilton County does remove its government offices, it would follow in the footsteps of several other courthouses in the state.

In Evansville, local government offices left the Vanderburgh County Courthouse in the 1970s, according to the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archeology, and the building is now used as a banquet facility.

Lake County also moved its government offices out of its courthouse in Lake Point in the 1970s. The 125-year-old building is now owned by not-for-profit Lake Court House Foundation and features a ballroom, professional offices, the local chamber of commerce, city court and the Lake County Historical Society Museum.

The St. Joseph County Courthouse housed a museum until about 1995, and the old Perry County Courthouse in Cannelton was converted to the headquarters for the local historical society when the county seat changed to Tell City in 2000.

Paul Diebold, assistant director of preservation services for the state’s preservation division, cautioned against county government abandoning the downtown area altogether because it has typically led to an overall decline in commerce.

"There’s something beyond the symbolism of courthouses that makes these areas stable—professional people that need services nearby, which attracts business,” Diebold said in an email. “Though I wouldn’t discount the symbolism, stability and pride that Indiana’s county courthouses exude.”

Diebold said the most successful adaptations of courthouses involved a strategic business plan.

“It’s always a good thing when a building is used for its original purpose,” Diebold said. “That being said, of course, it’s always heartening when public owners of a great historic building are looking for ways to keep the building in use.”

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