TIFFIN The day was hot, but the streets overflowed with people converging on Tiffin s flag-draped downtown. At the center of the sea of hats and women in their finest, Seneca County presented its new courthouse to the world in 1884.
Every village in the county had its representatives present, while every household in the county sent some of its members to the city to be present, the former Seneca Advertiser wrote on June 26, 1884, about the cornerstone being put in place. Thousands of people crowded the open space in front of the platform while from the windows and roofs of adjoining buildings happy faces smiled down upon the scene.
The grand master Mason of Ohio baptized a huge stone block with water, oil, and prayer before placing it in the massive sandstone structure already rising in the town square.
The small community could not be more proud. The farmers and merchants of the area then and now one of the most prosperous in Ohio had hired one of the pre-eminent architects of the day, Elijah E. Myers of Detroit, and spent the then-enormous sum of $214,000 $44.6 million in today s dollars to build a courthouse that would be an ornament of the city and an honor to every taxpayer in the county.
The three-story Renaissance Revival courthouse now stands empty, threatened with demolition before the end of the year. Instead of bringing the community together as it did with such pride 123 years ago, the courthouse s fate now divides Seneca County in a bitter dispute that some say will long endure.
The drama in Tiffin, about an hour s drive southeast of Toledo, has been acted out many times in many communities before, with the wrecking ball winning out more times than preservation, but the bitterness and vehemence of this fight sets it apart.
We are dealing with two individuals who are ignorant, who are arrogant, and who are intellectual midgets, said Dieter Schneppat about Seneca County Commissioners Ben Nutter and Dave Sauber, who voted in August, 2006 along with former Commissioner Joe Schock to demolish the courthouse and build a new courthouse building on the same site.
They are not men enough to stand up and say, We made a mistake, said Mr. Schneppat, a member of the Tiffin Historic Trust, which has lobbied for restoration of the courthouse.
Five members of the group, and the son of one of the members, have sued the commissioners to block the demolition, but a judge has ruled against them. The preservationists are gathering evidence and financial support in the community to carry their fight to Ohio s 3rd District Court of Appeals in Lima. Commissioners pleaded with them to drop their suit and embrace demolition as a cost-saving move for the county.
The county of 58,000 people faces mounting legal bills, paying the Columbus law firm of Isaac, Brant Ledman & Teetor $40,390 so far this year, with July s bill alone totaling $30,535.
Local preservationists say Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber are too focused on a quick fix at the courthouse after years of neglect. A third commissioner, Mike Bridinger, supports restoration of the courthouse and has argued against demolition. He has been consistently outvoted 2-1.
Courthouse backers say commissioners have not reached out to state officials as other Ohio counties have in seeking money to restore the courthouse that sits in the middle of Tiffin s downtown historic district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
They ignore the findings of their own experts as well as those of two blue-ribbon citizens committees. They refuse to go after grants, Rayella Engle, one of those suing the commissioners, wrote recently to The Blade. Demolition is a permanent solution to a temporary problem and is the worst use of taxpayer dollars.
Estimates: High and low
Soon after taking office in January, 2005 the first time either Mr. Nutter or Mr. Sauber had held public office they turned their attention to the courthouse, which has sat vacant since early 2004.
During an Aug. 31, 2006, commissioners meeting, Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber, along with former Commissioner Schock, voted unanimously and without any public discussion to demolish the courthouse.
They told residents after the meeting that they were driven to demolish the courthouse by renovation estimates of $13 million vs. demolition and replacement costs of $6 million.
To renovate that building, our estimates show in the area of $13 million, Mr. Nutter told a local reporter after voting for demolition.
My estimation is this $13 million figure is low, former Commissioner Schock said.
But a review of county records by The Blade shows commissioners consistently overestimated the cost of restoration in their comments to the public.
The actual 2006 estimated cost of restoring the courthouse by itself, according to Stilson & Associates Inc., a Cleveland engineering firm hired by the county, ranged from a low of $6.6 million to a high of $7.3 million.
A review of the Stilson report shows that Mr. Nutter chose to lump several other construction projects into the courthouse restoration estimate the building of an addition between the courthouse and county annex, interior changes to the annex, renovation of the Carnegie Library into a law library, and renovation of the interior of the county services building to inflate the projected cost to $13 million.
Stilson estimated the cost of demolishing the courthouse and building new on the same site at $6 million, as Mr. Nutter said publicly, but the commissioner did not tell the public that when the additional construction projects were added in, Stilson estimated the total cost of demolition and building new would rise to $10.6 million.
After Stilson submitted a detailed study of the courthouse and county space needs in June, 2006, complete with pages of cost estimates, Mr. Nutter took it upon himself to write his own report, the one commissioners eventually made public.
His 11-page report, titled Space Needs Master Plan, was approved unanimously by the commissioners at their Aug. 31, 2006, meeting. Not once in the entire Nutter report was a cost estimate included.
The commissioners always chose the lowest number when they talk about the cost of building new and chose the absolute highest number for restoration because they are bent on tearing down the courthouse, Ms. Engle said. They have spent tens of thousands on studies that show restoration is affordable, but they came into office with a plan to demolish the courthouse.
Since 2000, county records show commissioners have spent $224,253 on at least six consultants and engineering firms to study the courthouse and come up with recommendations.
The latest study submitted to the county in June by MKC Associate, Inc. of Mansfield pegged the cost of renovating the courthouse at $7.4 million, slightly higher than the 2006 Stilson study.
MKC s estimate of demolition and building a new courthouse the plan approved by Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber is now slightly lower than Stilson at $10.5 million.
In late June, after receiving the MKC study, Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber told The Blade that they hoped to erect a new courthouse for somewhere between $4 million and $5.6 million. Mr. Nutter said the county s bond counsel told them they could borrow up to $5,135,000, and he s not interested in sinking the county into more debt than it can afford.
When I bring these things up, my critics gloss right over those things and don t pay attention to those, Mr. Nutter said at the time. For me as a commissioner, the devil is in the details, and we absolutely have to understand our financial situation.
Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber refused a request for an interview with The Blade for this story, citing a lawsuit the newspaper has filed against them in the Ohio Supreme Court. The suit claims commissioners withheld and destroyed public records, some connected to their decision to demolish the courthouse.
The Supreme Court last week voted 5-1 to hear the case and set an expedited schedule for arguments from both sides. The high court rejected a request by The Blade that the commissioners be blocked from moving forward with demolition.
Mr. Bridinger said he would like to talk with The Blade, but the law firm hired to represent the county has told him not to.
Residents with resolve
To Lenora Livingston, restoring the historic courthouse she can see from the front porch of her 1894 Queen Anne home on Clay Street is not as difficult a task as county officials have told the public.
The building is not in that bad of shape. The county says there s a crack in the building, but old photos show the same crack when President Taft visited Tiffin a hundred years ago, said Ms. Livingston, president of the Tiffin Historic Trust and one of the preservationists suing commissioners to stop the demolition.
A 2001 study by a Cleveland engineering firm found Ms. Livingston s assessment to be accurate. Karoly Karpati, Jr., of Barber & Hoffman Inc., inspected the courthouse beginning with the 80 chambers in the crawl space under the building.
The observed portion of the exterior stone masonry walls has shown no signs of major deterioration, the engineer reported. In general, the interior brick masonry walls and arches appeared to be in acceptable condition. Brick units sounded solid by tapping with a hammer. Only a few brick units have shown minor surface scaling. Observed mortar joints have also appeared to be in acceptable condition.
An inspection of the public portions of the courthouse yielded a similar report.
Finished wall surfaces have shown no signs of cracking due to foundation problems exterior surfaces of the stone walls above grade level appeared to be solid, read the report, which did recommend repair and restoration of the sandstone facade encasing the building.
The commissioners say the courthouse is falling apart. It s not true, Ms. Livingston said. I ve restored houses that were in much worse shape.
She not only restored the house she lives in, but also the bed and breakfast she operates and the old Grey & White Creamery on Adams Street. She was also one of the driving forces behind the restoration of an architectural jewel in Tiffin the historic Ritz Theatre.
Ms. Livingston and other preservationists raised $3.6 million to restore the theater into a community performing arts center that will host the Toledo Symphony, live theater, dance, and nationally known musicians over the next few months.
Her longish white hair belies a younger face and a steely resolve to protect a community she says she fell in love with when she moved to Tiffin from Chicago in 1975. The fight she s in now with Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber is nothing new to her.
The men in this town never listened to me. I had to get my husband to tell them what I wanted to do when I restored 108 Adams. Nothing s changed, she said.
Jackie Fletcher, another Tiffin resident who has signed onto the preservationists lawsuit, said the commissioners constantly dismiss her when she tries to discuss alternatives to demolition because she is a woman.
It definitely has a role. I think if we were men, they d take us more serious, she said. They ve yelled at us, bullied us, and were rude to us. It s a shame. Every expert in the field has told them restoration is the way to go. For them to tear it down and start over has to be more expensive.
The retired elementary school teacher is an unlikely plaintiff.
If you would have told me a year ago that I d be suing anyone, I would have said that would be my worst nightmare, she said. But for the courthouse, I feel it is just so wrong to destroy it. That building belongs to everyone in the county.
A tough position
Richard Focht, Jr., is an optimist, and he s a man who gets things done in Tiffin. I always tell people we do the difficult. The impossible takes a little bit longer.
As president and CEO of the Seneca Industrial & Economic Development Corp., he spearheaded efforts to transform the burned-out former Shawhan Hotel a block from the courthouse into an assisted living center, cleaned up a former glass factory for reuse by another business, and is embarking on a plan to revitalize Tiffin s historic downtown.
But he has not been able to solve the courthouse problem.
This has gotten way out of hand. The commissioners are not stupid people. They are in a tough position, Mr. Focht said. The preservationists are good people and I know their hearts are in the right place. They ve raised awareness that we need to save the building, but I haven t seen anything from the group about how we re going to do it.
His agency formed a citizens committee in 2000 to come up with a plan for the courthouse. The recommendation from the group was 11-1 to renovate the courthouse and ask voters to approve a 10-year percent sales tax increase to fund the project.
The May, 2002, ballot measure failed by 627 votes out of more than 10,000 cast.
Preservationists attribute the defeat to post-9/11 concerns about the economy and the fact that three school districts in the county and the city of Fostoria all had tax measures on the same ballot.
If commissioners would have asked voters to raise taxes to spend $6 million on demolishing the courthouse and build a new one, voters would have voted that down too, Ms. Engle said.
She said Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber refuse to spend the $1 million to $2 million more for a courthouse restoration because they would rather spend money on a county road plan they are backing.
Mr. Focht confirmed that his agency and the county are pushing a $50 million transportation plan, which includes constructing highway bypasses around the west side of Tiffin and the east side of Fostoria, plus widening U.S. 223 and State Rts. 53, 4, and 12 to make room for turn lanes.
Seneca County has the highest per mile accident rate of any rural county in Ohio and we re in the top five in the state. Our highways are unsafe and they ve held us back in terms of our opportunity to grow business, Mr. Focht said. But the funding for the courthouse and the funding for highways are not connected.
Preservationists don t believe that.
All we hear about is highways, Ms. Engle said. All they want money for is highways, highways, highways.
That riles Mr. Focht.
We re a donor county. We re sending more money down to Columbus than we get in return, he said, his voice rising. That s what they ought to be focusing on don t tell me we can t do both. We can, we should, and we will, he said. I would make a promise to them. I will support a solution to the courthouse just as passionately as I support a solution to our highway system.
If Seneca County could convince the state to give it just half of the $3 million it gave to Wood County to renovate its historic courthouse and jail, Mr. Focht said, We d be well on our way to being able to raise the balance of funds to rehab the building.
Funds for restoration
Preservationists started a fund-raising drive last weekend, placing advertisements in the local paper, the Advertiser-Tribune, asking for pledges to help restore the courthouse.
They say they already have received a few thousand dollars in pledges, but until the commissioners back away from demolition and agree to attempt to find money to restore the historic courthouse, it will be difficult to convince people to give to the project.
To date, Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber have refused to seek state grants to fund restoration efforts.
State funding was an option mentioned in the last study the county commissioned on the courthouse.
The 2007 study, by MKC Associates, included a recommendation by the Ohio Historic Preservation Office: Get your state legislators attention. Public historical projects can be, and often are, sponsored by state dollars.
State Rep. Jeff Wagner (R., Tiffin) previously told The Blade he has not sought state grants to help restore the courthouse because commissioners have not asked him to.
Mr. Wagner was a Seneca County commissioner when he was elected to the Ohio House in 2002, the same year county voters defeated the tax issue that would have paid to restore the courthouse.
We have Jeff Wagner to thank for this, Ms. Livingston said. He was going for state office and he refused to enact a sales tax increase without a vote of the people. All he wanted to do was knock on doors and tell people he didn t raise their taxes, even though he knew the county needed the money.
Mr. Wagner did not return messages seeking comment at his statehouse office and his home.
Seneca County was in financial trouble the first part of the decade, with little money in reserve and expenses rising.
In the spring of 2003, voters defeated a percent sales tax to raise more money for the county. By July, with finances deteriorating, former Commissioners Tom Distel, Jimmie Young, and Joe Schock voted in a percent sales tax for a temporary, four-year period without seeking voter approval.
Within three years, all three were out of office. Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber won election in November, 2004, campaigning against the sales tax increase. Once in office, they changed course and chose, along with Mr. Bridinger, to make the percent sales tax permanent.
The total sales tax now stands at 7 percent, making Seneca County one of 39 counties in the state to enact a 7 percent sales tax. Only Cuyahoga County, with its 7.75 per cent sales tax, is higher.
County finances are now in better shape, with a $2.5 million cash balance at the end of August in the county general fund.
It s a very stable county. The local government money and sales taxes are constant, plus interest rates went up nicely so that s made a big difference, Larry Beidelschies, county auditor, said.
Mr. Beidelschies said property taxes and sales taxes are coming in above projections for the year, and the county s debt stands at $9.3 million, well below the county s legal debt limit of $21.5 million.
Holding on to history
A dispute over historic preservation is such an anomaly in Tiffin.
Every turn of a corner reveals historic homes and businesses lovingly preserved or in the process of renovation. Stately multi-story brick businesses from the 1880s and 1890s stand guard around the Courthouse Square, a row of smaller quaint Victorian structures lines an alley next to the courthouse.
Whole blocks have been restored and small businesses fill most of the storefronts downtown.
An inventory by Heidelberg College counted 873 historic homes and business buildings in the city. Both Heidelberg and Tiffin University, flanking the downtown east and west, are committed to historic preservation.
Tiffin University President Paul Marion proudly shows off the former Miami Street School, built the same year as the courthouse in 1884, which the university restored and uses for classes.
He then points down the street to a large brick building that now houses the university s administrative offices. It was originally McNeal s general store, the first business in Fort Ball, which was founded along the banks of the Sandusky River in July, 1813, by soldiers of the U.S. Army.
Tiffin was incorporated in 1835 across the river from Fort Ball. The two merged in 1850.
At Heidelberg, President Dominic Dottavio leads a tour through the Octagon House on East Market Street across from campus.
The college purchased the home of Jeremiah Good, the college s first faculty member, with plans to restore it along with the house next door, which was home to Heidelberg s first president, E.V. Gerhard.
We do this because it is part of our history, it is who we are, President Dottavio said.
Neither Mr. Dottavio nor Mr. Marion were willing to comment on whether the county s courthouse should be restored or demolished.
It s difficult, Heidelberg s president said.
Tiffin University has been careful not to get involved, its president said.
Such noncommittal responses from leaders of the community are common.
Tiffin Mayor Bernie Hohman and Tiffin City Council have not taken a stand on the courthouse s pending demolition, with the mayor saying it is an issue for the county to decide.
The only public official to speak up for the courthouse is City Engineer Curtice Eagle.
As the city engineer I don t have a position, but personally I don t understand why there isn t more interest in preserving the courthouse, Mr. Eagle said. I don t understand the vehement need for it to come down.
It seems like the courthouse is the cornerstone of downtown, he said. It seems particularly strange that it boils down to what s cheapest.
The city engineer is a member of the Tiffin Architectural Board of Review, established in 2000 by City Council to safeguard the architectural integrity of the downtown historic district and to maintain and enhance the distinctive character of the buildings, landmarks, and historic areas in downtown Tiffin.
Mr. Eagle said Commissioner Sauber has informed board members that the county does not intend to seek the board s permission before demolishing the courthouse.
Other than Mr. Eagle, too few people in Tiffin are willing to take a stand on the courthouse, said Mr. Schneppat, aTiffin Historic Trust member.
Tearing down this courthouse will absolutely devastate this community, Mr. Schne ppat said. We have two presidents of universities that do not speak up. If anyone would suggest tearing down the castle at Heidelberg, there would be outrage.
Do you hear anything from the mayor and City Council? Nothing, said the Canadian citizen who made the county his home and in 1983 purchased the Hermitage, a sprawling stone home just north of town.
The retired businessman, U.S. Army veteran, and world traveler said if Seneca County s 1884 historic courthouse were in Europe, there would be no question that it would be restored.
Why do you think people go to London? They go to see the Tower of London. They don t go to see the new Hilton.
Contact Dave Murray at:email@example.com or 419-724-6069.