Work on courthouse museum to house Dillinger collection uncovers bits of building's history

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CROWN POINT, Indiana — In the process of preparing the old Lake County Courthouse to house the historic John Dillinger collection, work crews uncovered a part of the building's own history.

While knocking down some of the interior walls Wednesday morning, a small elevator was discovered that apparently was used to carry judges, witnesses and others to the courtrooms on the upper floors.

Lake Court House Foundation Board President Martha Wheeler told The Times (http://bit.ly/1oQKUfI ) she had forgotten about the elevator's existence, but she remembered her father-in-law, Col. John W. Wheeler, riding up in it when he was called in to testify about the construction of Interstate 65 more than 50 years ago.

Most of the northeast quadrant of the courthouse is being remodeled to house the Dillinger artifacts now on display at the South Shore Convention and Visitor's Authority center in Hammond. SSCVA President and CEO Speros Batistatos said everything in the collection will be moved except the 1933 Essex Terraplane Straight 8 auto used in the Dillinger movie starring Johnny Depp.

Batistatos said the car, which still runs and is estimated to be worth between $18,500 and $24,500, is being offered for sale because it can't be put in the new location. The new museum will occupy a total of about 2,100 square feet, which he said is about the same as is now allotted at the SSCVA, but the new display will include items not currently seen at the visitor's center.

"I wish we could have moved out of the visitor's center 10 years ago," Batistatos said. "The collection always belonged in Crown Point, from the time former Mayor James Metros and I drove to Nashville, Indiana, to get it."

He said he was contacted earlier this year by Wheeler about bringing the collection to the courthouse, and, after a quick tour of the site, he agreed.

All the board approvals were obtained in August and September, and Batistatos said the SSCVA has budgeted $290,000 for the project, with the goal of having it open on the anniversary of Dillinger's famous March 3 escape from the Crown Point jail 81 years ago.

Demolition down to the original walls and floors of the space began Wednesday morning and was expected to be completed today. Then Group Delphi, which designed the Dillinger display at the visitor's center, will develop the design for the new museum displays at the courthouse.

"When we started (on the current display), we had 1997 technology with VCRs and tube TVs," Batistatos said. "This will have state of the art technology when it opens."

It will take visitors on an interactive, historical adventure through the life and times of John Dillinger and other gangsters of the 1930s. He said it will continue to tell the story of how crime doesn't pay as well as describing the changes in law enforcement and bank security that resulted from Dillinger's activities.

"Everybody is just waiting for this to happen," Wheeler said. "The merchants are excited about it because they think it will increase their traffic, and I think it will."


Information from: The Times, http://www.thetimesonline.com

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