FINDLAY — A 20-foot tall courtroom ceiling inside the Hancock County Courthouse features ornate plaster work and is surrounded by stained glass windows that fill the room with a warm glow.
But until a few months ago, these stately details were hidden by a drop ceiling installed in the early 1960s when air conditioning was added to the 1888 courthouse.
PHOTO GALLERY: Hancock County courthouse restoration
At the time, the lower ceiling was a practical consideration. The number of cases had grown, requiring more frequent use of the courtroom in the summer months.
When windows were opened to combat the stifling heat, traffic noise proved distracting.
The solution: Air conditioning and a drop ceiling, which for the next 50 years obscured the original ceiling and stained glass windows.
Now, a courthouse project aims to restore the ceiling and install four chandeliers similar to the those that once hung inside the courtroom.
The county is seeking donations for the estimated $94,000 cost and has received about $15,000 so far.
“The room is a community treasure. It came with the original courthouse obviously in the 1880s. Counties back then were trying to outdo one another and build the next great courthouse,” said Common Pleas Judge Joseph Niemeyer.
The historic ceiling was revealed this spring amid a $900,000 third-floor renovation project, funded largely by court-user fees.
Workers were ready to replace a water-damaged ceiling in Judge Niemeyer’s courtroom when the original ceiling was exposed.
“I was overjoyed because whenever we can do something to preserve and restore this building it just adds to the history to it. Now, kids that are not even born will get to see that ceiling some day,” said Tom Davis, director of risk management for the Hancock County commissioners and a courthouse historian who gives tours of the Richardsonian Romanesque building.
Akron architects Frank Weary and George Washington Kramer designed the courthouse, built by W.H. Campfield of Findlay at a cost of $305,250.
The third-floor renovation includes moving a wall with panels of stained glass to create a secured area and a separate public entrance to Judge Reginald Routson’s courtroom.
His courtroom will be updated to make the jury and witness boxes accessible by wheelchair and to upgrade technology.
The renovation also will transform a conference room into space for the clerk of courts and offices. With the revelation of the original ceiling, the project expanded to preserve history and also provide “what modern courts need,” said Kim Switzer, director of court services.
Not all of the original third-floor ceilings will be restored because of budget constraints, but bringing the ceiling in the courtroom back to its original glory was deemed a smart place to put energy and money, she said.
Hans Klinck of Findlay, a plaster craftsman from Heidelberg, Germany, who moved to the United States in 1980, made new plaster sections to replace damaged parts of the ceiling.
“Can you see how bright it is now?” Ms. Switzer asked.
Preserving the building’s architecture and history is important to Mr. Davis, who contrasted the restoration work under way in Hancock County with last year’s demolition of a courthouse of the same era in Tiffin.
“It’s so important to keep an old building up to par,” he said. “If you don’t do all this sort of thing they can go the other way in a hurry as we saw in Seneca County unfortunately.”
Courthouse officials hope to finish the entire project by late November.