Indiana has a strong and lasting tradition of architecturally significant historic courthouses, surrounded by vibrant town squares. Of Indiana’s 92 counties, most county seats in our state retain an historic courthouse as a central feature of their downtown districts. My favorite is the Orange County Courthouse in Paoli. This courthouse is the third oldest in Indiana still standing and housing government offices, rests at the ceremonial marker of the Second Meridian Initial Point (see below), has a cave system immediately below the structure (along with an underground river), and has a spectacular view from a second floor balcony. The courthouse itself is worth the trip to Paoli, but the surrounding square has several restaurants and shops to visit, plus West Baden Springs Hotel and French Lick Springs Hotel are just down the road.
History The Orange County Courthouse was built in 1847 (completed in 1850), making it the third oldest courthouse still standing and serving as a county government center. The oldest is the Ohio County Courthouse in Rising Sun (completed in 1845) and the Fayette County in Connersville (completed in 1849). The Orange County Courthouse was built in the Greek Revival architectural style. Indiana Landmarks wrote that “plan used for the courthouse was probably borrowed from a pattern book, the building is specifically designed to fit the courthouse square’s topography. By incorporating the square’s incline, the southern facing entrance includes an exposed lower story and requires visitors to climb a whole set of stair to reach the main floor. The back, northern entrance, however, only has three steps leading up to the door.”
Views and Location The courthouse, therefore, sits in the middle of a sharp incline, giving the impression that the whole square slopes downhill to the south. Looking down from the balcony provides a visitor with a commanding view of the southern part of the square, but also of Paoli and the Hoosier National Forest beyond.
Most of Indiana’s historic courthouses sit at the center of a square commonly referred to as a ‘Shelbyville’ square (after Shelbyville, TN), with four streets forming a square around the courthouse with intersections at the corners. In Orange County, the courthouse square is referred to as a ‘Lancaster’ or ‘Philadelphia’ style because the roads coming into the square meet at the center of the streets surrounding the courthouse. In short, the Paoli town square is basically a giant roundabout with the courthouse in the center. The square sits at the middle of state roads 37 and 56 and U.S. Route 150.
The Square The square is quite active with several restaurants, including Pinky’s Court Street Pub, the El Compadre Mexican Restaurant, and China Wok. The square also has a barber shop, antique stores, and several other shops.
Second Meridian Initial Point The Orange County Courthouse is also the ceremonial center of the Second Meridian Initial Point. This point is the intersection of the 1805 Baseline (runs east-west) and the Second Principal Meridian, also known as the Paoli Meridian (runs north-south). These two lines were drawn to survey the entire state of Indiana and parts of the Old Northwest Territory. The actual point is in a woods near Paoli, but because of accessibility issues and vandalism, the marker was moved to the courthouse square.
The Cave The courthouse also sits on top of a cave, or rather a large cave complex that extends beneath part of Paoli. Like most southern Indiana caverns, the cave is made of limestone with a floor about 80 feet below the courthouse. The larger cave system has part of the Lost River (and its tributaries) flowing through it, although to what extent is not fully understood.
If your travel plans take you to Paoli, French Lick/West Baden, or just through the general area, make a trip to stop by the square...beautiful any time of year.