The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

May 12, 2014

Gathering focuses on preserving courthouses

COLUMBUS —  A small, sad crowd stood in a cold rain two years ago as heavy machinery demolished the Seneca County Courthouse in the northern Ohio town of Tiffin, a once-grand structure that dated back to 1884 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

County leaders decided to spend around $400,000 to remove the crumbling structure from the city streetscape rather than continue efforts to fundraise the $8 million or so needed to make it usable again.

This week, county officials from around the state are gathering in Columbus with historic preservationists, judges, architects and others to try to keep that from happening again. Participants in the Ohio Courthouses Symposium will share ideas for preserving the state’s many historically significant county-seat edifices — mainly how to find the money to rehabilitate and maintain the old government buildings.

“Historically, courthouses have been the focal point for all county residents, with bad experiences and with good experiences,” says Doug Spencer, an Auglaize County commissioner who helped oversee a recent $9 million renovation of the 1894 courthouse in Wapakoneta, paid for with sales tax revenue and federal stimulus money. “It’s something that people in our county identify with, and it’s something people in our county relate to.”

Ohio has 69 county courthouses on the National Register of Historic Places, many of them built between the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, according to the Ohio Historical Society. Few states have more courthouses recognized as historic treasures.

Courthouses were such a symbol of identity and progress at the time that counties often competed to build the biggest and most ornate buildings, says Richard Guy Wilson, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia.  

“That was a big deal because it said quite a bit about the aspirations of the town or county,” Wilson says.

To be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, they need to be at least 50 years old and have historical significance because of period architecture or other factors.

Many of the aging buildings require expensive roof and masonry work and need interiors updated to fit the security and technological needs of modern government. Every Ohio county with a courthouse on the National Register is still using it for some aspect of county government.

“There are some counties that have great success stories — and we ought to be shouting those from the rooftops,” says Todd Kleismit of the Historical Society. “But there are a number of counties in Ohio that are really wrestling with these issues, from funding to maintenance and technology.”

Financing courthouse projects can require some creative thinking, officials say. Texas and Arkansas, for example, have programs to help counties maintain their courthouses. Ohio doesn’t.

In northern Ohio’s Wyandot County, voters last fall passed a bond issue that will generate some $2.25 million to repair and restore the roof, gutters and domes of the 1899 sandstone courthouse, whose stately courtroom was used for the 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption.” Leaders in Crawford County are pondering a $3.6 million price tag to fix the roof and clock tower of their Greek Revival courthouse in northern Ohio, built in the 1850s.

A judge in Coshocton County in central Ohio hiked the court user fees to raise money to repair and maintain the 1875 red brick courthouse. In Auglaize County, in western Ohio, the courthouse project involved restoring stained glass and uncovering a 12-by-12-foot mural of a Civil War battle scene in one courtroom.

Fortunately for preservationists, it’s rare for Ohio counties to tear down historically significant courthouses. Near as anyone can tell, it’s only happened a few times. Spencer, the Auglaize County commissioner, says there was no taxpayer pushback on the decision to rehab the courthouse when a courts building could have been built for much less.

“It was just something worth preserving,” he says.

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