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Seneca County looks at courthouse options

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A grand staircase leads upstairs from the first-floor hallway inside the Seneca County Courthouse in Tiffin, Ohio.

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TIFFIN - A local preservationist group yesterday offered to pay for a foundation study of the Seneca County Courthouse to find out if the 120-year-old building is structurally sound.

Lenora Livingston, president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, made the offer to pay study costs "within reason" during a meeting with the Seneca County commissioners.

During the session, DLZ, a Columbus engineering firm, proposed a one-month, $15,000 study of the county's facilities and building needs, and a company official said the foundation and other structural areas could be evaluated for about the same price.

"I don't want [the commissioners] to say, 'We don't want to spend the money,' " Ms. Livingston said afterward.

The commissioners last fall authorized the historic trust to solicit state, federal, and private funds for a possible renovation of the courthouse, which has sat empty since March, 2004. But they also are seeking proposals to demolish the sandstone Beaux Arts landmark in downtown Tiffin.

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One of the old judges' chambers.

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Harvey Schwager, architectural department manger for DLZ, said his firm could evaluate the numerous buildings in Tiffin that house county offices, the space the county will need over the next 10 to 15 years, and the costs to replace, renovate, or add on to the courthouse.

Mr. Schwager said he and the firm have worked both on restoration and construction projects.

"What I'm telling you is, I'm not biased either way," he said. "We need to look long-range at the community's needs."

The commissioners did not act on Mr. Schwager's proposal yesterday but agreed on the need for such a study.

"I'm very confident that the direction we need to go is to do a study like this," said Ben Nutter, president of the commissioners.

"We don't want to tear down the courthouse and find out down the road we made a mistake," Commissioner Joseph Schock said.

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Tom Thacker, a county worker, walks into one of the now-abandoned second-floor offices. The building could be torn down because of neglect and lack of repair. It has not been used since March, 2004.

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The courthouse has suffered from decades of neglect and ill-fated modifications, including an Art Deco clock tower and elevator shaft in the middle of the building, both added in the 1940s.

In May, 2002, county voters rejected a $7 million renovation plan, which was to be funded by a 0.5 percent sales tax. Less than two years later, the county moved the Common Pleas Courts and the Clerk of Courts' office into an annex next door, which was built for $3.1 million.

Since then, the courthouse has been vacant, except for records storage and the Seneca County Law Library on the fourth floor.

Ms. Livingston and other preservationists at yesterday's meeting said they're hopeful the commissioners can be persuaded to restore the courthouse.

"I think maybe they've started to change their mind," she said.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.

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