VAN WERT, Ohio -- Above a plain white dropped ceiling, a stunning stained-glass dome surrounded by pressed tin panels sat hidden for 61 years in the main courtroom of the Van Wert County Courthouse.
This summer, that ceiling was removed. The glass dome, into which holes had been crudely punched for duct work and wiring to hold the suspended ceiling in place, is being restored to its original 1874 condition.
"Everyone who sees this says, 'How could they have covered it up?' " said Judge Charles Steele of Van Wert County Common Pleas Court.
He knows how.
In a huge file of newspaper clippings and records about the courthouse, Judge Steele points to a 1951 article about "improvements" planned at the courthouse that included installation of the "fibre glass acoustical ceiling. Elimination of the dome will greatly increase acoustics and heat facilities will be improved," the local newspaper reported, failing to mention what would be lost by the "improvement."
It makes the judge shake his head, but he and the county commissioners are smiling now.
"It's going to be gorgeous," said Commissioner Gary Adams
"It's a treasure," Judge Steele said. "An artistic and architectural treasure."
The project is a good example of a courthouse restoration effort prompted largely by the will of local judges who saw the value of preserving the county's crown jewel.
Retired Judge Sumner Walters was the first to propose the project, in the early 1990s. Judge Walters, whose father and grandfather preceded him on the bench, recalled seeing the dome when he was a young boy. He knew it was there, waiting to be uncovered.
"I tried to get this job done, but I had no money," said Judge Walters, who retired in 1998. "We didn't have a special-projects fund at the time."
In 2001, Ohio adopted legislation that permitted common pleas courts to charge an additional filing fee for special projects, including "the acquisition of additional facilities or the rehabilitation of existing facilities."
Since then, Judge Steele has been setting aside filing fees in the court's special-projects fund, finally amassing more than $350,000 for the project. At the same time, commissioners are updating the heating and air-conditioning at the courthouse for a total cost of more than $675,000.
The stained glass is being painstakingly restored east of Van Wert at Window Creations LLC, near Ottoville, Ohio. Owner Reggie Buehrer estimated that 10 percent of the glass in the 30-foot dome had to be replaced although the new glass will be indiscernable from the old.
"There was a lot of damage," he said. "It was unfathomable to me, but this was done 40 or 50 years ago and they just took hammers and knocked out sections of glass."
Although covering the dome seemed like an ill-conceived idea, there were others over the years.
"How would you like to see the present courthouse torn down, the courthouse site turned into a park, and a new large building constructed to serve as a courthouse, a city hall, and a civic center?" read a 1944 newspaper story in which a Van Wert business leader proposed razing and replacing the courthouse to show servicemen returning from the war "that we are thinking about the future."
Another proposal in 1953 -- to remove the three towers atop the courthouse and give its classic brick and iron facade a "modern" makeover -- went to county voters and was defeated, Judge Steele said. He's glad it failed.
Judge Steele hopes to be back in his courtroom before the end of the year. He said the expenditure is long overdue.
"To me, when they built this courthouse, they spent their time and their money and their talent to do all this and I think we sort of have a duty to take care of it," he said. "The courthouse in Van Wert is the centerpiece of downtown Van Wert. There aren't very many like it anywhere. ... Here, luckily, we've had commissioners for the past 30 years that have been interested in preserving it."