Monday, Apr 23, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Tom Walton

Resolve not to throw away the heart of a community

OCCASIONALLY, the best ideas are those that at first seem to some people as improbable, impractical, and illogical.

The notion of saving the Seneca County Courthouse in Tiffin from destruction must have been like that for a lot of folks.

Surely there were people who don't live in Tiffin or Seneca County who didn't grasp what all the fuss was about. It's just another old structure built more than a century ago that's no longer relevant, right? And certainly there were people who do live in Seneca County who wondered why it was so important that an outside news organization - The Blade - would devote so much attention to the fate of their courthouse.

That we are on the verge of a happy ending speaks to the virtue of patience and the determination to find a way. Seneca County commissioners voted conditionally on Aug. 25 to save and renovate the wonderful old structure for less money than its replacement.

I had not yet retired when the commissioners voted 2-1 in 2006 to tear down the courthouse and replace it with what would have amounted to a big glass and metal box for the conduct of county business.

It was an important story that needed to be reported, and it was vital as well that we speak out with The Blade's editorial voice to express our disappointment with the decision and urge the county to examine all options for keeping the courthouse.

I remember writing some of those early editorials, and it was a labor that came easily for us for two reasons.

First, historic preservation has been a key element of our editorial policy for many years. Our co-publisher, John Robinson Block, whose knowledge of history is encyclopedic and whose appreciation for it knows no bounds, has always lamented what we came to editorially refer to as a "tear-down mentality" regarding the protection and preservation of our heritage.

The best possible example: the Valentine Theatre in downtown Toledo. This wonderful old theater would be gone if not for Mr. Block's single-minded determination to prevent its demolition. Today the Valentine is a vibrant entertainment venue - a star-spangled gem in a downtown that is again an exciting place to work and live and visit.

Second, Tiffin is a special place for me. It's my hometown, the place where I was born and spent part of my childhood. Tear down the courthouse? You might as well take down the old mill, shutter the Ritz Theatre, bulldoze the potato chip plant, and turn Hedges-Boyer Park into a landfill.

The Ritz, by the way, which opened in 1928, is a success story like the Valentine. Like many small-town movie houses, the Ritz's days were numbered not too long ago. But the Ritz was saved and renovated in 1998 to nearly its original condition. Today it presents live entertainment by nationally known acts and - in keeping with its roots - Sunday afternoon movie matinees. Not bad for a town of 18,000.

But when I retired in the summer of 2007, few in Tiffin were swept up by nostalgia for the county courthouse. Restoration was just not affordable, the commission majority kept saying. Soon after, around Labor Day, I began writing this bi-weekly column for The Blade, and my second piece talked about the short-sightedness of the commissioners and their willingness to sacrifice such an important part of their community.

That piece ran Sept. 17, 2007, almost exactly two years ago. More frustrating 2-1 votes followed. An $8.5 million bond issue to pay for the courthouse restoration was rejected by the voters in March, 2008, a disappointment at the time.

Turns out the past was merely prologue. At last, there is good news in Tiffin: The community will keep its courthouse and at far less public expense.

Once renovated, the building will surely be around a lot longer than its replacement would have been. Bill Lantz, a design engineer in Columbus, writing in a midsummer report that helped the commissioners change their minds, offered this structural analysis of the courthouse: "The building is sound and ready to provide service for another 200 years."

Does anybody think the box that would have replaced it would have endured more than 50?

Also, the clock tower's original design will be restored and the four-story rotunda will be exposed to public view for the first time in six decades.

The euphoria is tempered somewhat because the $7.99 million restoration project comes with two remaining challenges: The state of Ohio must honor an earlier pledge of up to $2 million, and the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group must raise $1.45 million from private sources. Both Gov. Ted Strickland and Franklin Conaway, who leads the redevelopment group, need to make good on those commitments and help reduce what the county must borrow.

I'm betting they will. This is a project that has been kicking around too long. It needs to move forward. County courthouses are in the center of the business district for a reason: they are the heart of the community.

There's an ancillary benefit for Tiffin in all this. Other downtown redevelopment projects, which have been sitting on their planners' desks while the fate of the courthouse was determined, can begin to move ahead themselves. Perhaps Tiffin can now stand as a model for other small towns with an aging core.

Elijah E. Myers was a master of the Beaux Arts style, named for the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts architectural school in Paris. He also designed the state capitols in Michigan, Texas, Colorado, and Idaho, and many other public buildings nationwide.

In a sense, maybe Tiffin's delay was fitting. Mr. Myers died in 1909. Exactly 100 years later, one of his grandest structures gets new life.

What a symbolic affirmation of a noble idea: preserving the past in the service of the future.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

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