Many of the state’s original courthouses were constructed in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Some of these architectural treasures have fallen into disrepair, and to endure, they often require steep investments. Ohio’s court officials have grappled with a dilemma — renovate or build new?
In Madison County, officials embraced both approaches — create a home for the municipal court in downtown London and preserve and renovate the nearby 125-year-old majestic courthouse. In a Columbus Dispatch article, Judge Eric Schooley said the century-old structure exhibits water dripping down the walls, mold clinging to the ceilings, and cracks damaging the floors. Privacy for attorneys and clients was hard to come by because space in the courtroom was so tight. Juries had varied locations for deliberations over the years. Most recently, they gathered in a small meeting area outside the judge’s office to decide cases.
Late last summer, the municipal court’s operations and employees moved to a newly constructed one-story brick building across the street. Tammy Terpening, the municipal court’s clerk and a longtime court employee, said the facility is modern, but displays formal touches — dark woodwork, archways, and pillars — that are common sights in traditional courthouses. The space includes a main courtroom and a separate space for a magistrate, plus a designated jury room. The full and well-lit basement has made it possible to centralize the court’s files, which used to be housed in three separate areas, including an attic, Terpening said. Not only was it difficult to get a good view of the records in the attic’s dim lighting, “you also had to deal with the birds flying around,” she noted.
Judge Schooley described the new space as “functional and efficient.” “This one serves its purpose — providing access to justice — and that’s as it should be,” he told the Dispatch.
Now the county’s commissioners plan to begin renovations of the older courthouse, which is included on the National Register of Historic Places and still home to the common pleas court and several other city offices. The Madison Press reported that county commissioners plan to tackle the project section by section, top to bottom.
Courthouses Held Prominent Place for Early Residents
According to the state’s County Commissioners Association, 69 Ohio courthouses have been listed on the national register, which identifies historic properties worthy of preservation. In a video presented at the Ohio County Courthouses Symposium in May 2014, then-Judge Charles Steele of Van Wert County explained that courthouses became community centers when built. He said that local residents relied on court clock towers to tell time because they didn’t own watches and they looked to courthouse weather vanes to gauge the wind.
Bob Parrott of Union County echoed that the “temples of justice” served as symbols of the county government established as pioneers settled in the area. The video points out that the monuments helped create a civic identity and tone, and supporters of restorations believe the buildings can foster a connection to that history for people today.
Courts Explore Varied Solutions
Like Madison County, Delaware County has also opted to start from scratch while preserving the old. County officials razed a building to construct a new common pleas court. According to ThisWeek newspapers, construction of the Delaware County Judicial Building is expected to begin in early 2016 with an anticipated completion in summer 2017. Envisioned is a three-story building spanning 82,000 square feet above two levels of parking. The Delaware Gazette reported the architects plan a design that reflects the surrounding buildings and storefronts and has a modern look with touches of Italianate architecture in certain features. Once the common pleas court relocates, the county expects to restore and expand the current 140-year-old facility for the juvenile and probate courts.
Seneca County chose to start fresh. The prior courthouse, built in 1884 and torn down in 2012, will be the site for a rebuilt common pleas court, the Toledo Blade reported. Tiffin’s municipal court may also be headquartered at the new location. The proposed joint justice center is slated at 36,000 square feet and four stories. The county commissioners think construction will begin sometime in the spring or summer.
In Lancaster, county and court officials decided to revive a historic building for the Fairfield County Municipal Court. In late February or early March, the court expects to leave its city hall offices for the renovated Columbian, which was a department store for many decades. In November, a turret designed to mirror an earlier version was set atop the 19th-century brick structure.
Last summer, Licking County’s commissioners announced plans to renovate its 139-year-old courthouse, the Dispatch reported. The two-year project set to start this year will replace windows, restore the exterior, and replace the roof, among other fixes.