Gathering Focuses on Preserving Ohio’s Courthouses

COLUMBUS (AP) – 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.