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Published: Wednesday, 11/28/2007

Seneca County may bolster renovation with tours

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Drive by the old Seneca County courthouse in downtown Tiffin and it's hard to overlook the mismatched clock tower and the crumbling steps.

What proponents of saving the building want to do is get people inside the courthouse so they can see up close the ornate woodwork, the original etched glass, and the intricate hardware that graces the solid wood doors. They also want to educate residents about the building's famous architect, Elijah E. Myers, the history of the landmark, and the value the building holds in the community.

"We want to show people what a beautiful courthouse they have," said Jackie Fletcher, a board member of the Tiffin Historic Trust. "I think we just have a pig in a poke. People have not had an opportunity to appreciate the inside of the courthouse."

Seneca County Commissioner Mike Bridinger announced yesterday the courthouse would be open for public tours from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 29 and Dec. 30. Plans are being made for similar open houses in January and February in advance of the March 4 election when county residents likely will be asked to approve a bond issue to support renovation of the courthouse.

Commission President Dave Sauber distributed copies of proposed ballot language for the bond issue, which seeks to raise $8.5 million over 20 years for "renovating, remodeling, rehabilitating, adding to, furnishing, equipping, and otherwise improving the County's 1884 Courthouse building and improving and equipping its site."

The millage amount was not specified, although the commissioners have said they do not intend to collect the tax if it is approved but would pay off the bonds for the project with revenue from the county's sales tax.

The board is expected to vote on putting the bond issue on the ballot when it meets Dec. 6.

While preservationists fear voters will reject the bond issue because it appears to be a new tax, Mr. Bridinger - who supports renovation - said it's important to let each resident see the courthouse inside and out so an informed decision can be made. The building has been closed since 2004.

"We are asking people to come and visit our courthouse, to have them come and develop a feeling of their own if it should be torn down or if it should be saved," Mr. Bridinger said. "I would like to see people come and confirm to themselves the condition of the courthouse."

Those who want to save the courthouse contend the public has been told the building is falling down, but at least two specialists in courthouse architecture have testified otherwise. Stan Graves, an architect who directs the Texas Historic County Courthouse Preservation Program, visited Tiffin in September and said he found the courthouse to be in better condition than many of the courthouses that have been preserved in Texas. He said that some of its features were of higher quality than what's contained in the Texas State Capitol, which was designed by the same architect.

Valerie Marvin, a guide and historian with the Michigan State Capitol Tour Service, went through the courthouse last year to photograph and document it when she learned it was slated for demolition. She and colleague Barb Thumudo have been researching the work of Mr. Myers, who designed the Michigan Capitol building.

Ms. Marvin said that if visitors to the Seneca County courthouse overlook the alterations that have been made over the years - the elevator shaft that was plunked into the middle of what was an open rotunda, the addition of a fourth-floor law library that dropped by half the ceiling in the main courtroom, and the paneling on the courtroom walls - they will find the original architecture very much intact.

"Quite frankly, it's in much better shape than our capitol was when it was restored," Ms. Marvin said.

She and Ms. Thumudo are working on a script for the volunteer tour guides to use during the open houses at the Seneca County courthouse. They plan to be in Tiffin Dec. 9 and 10 to conduct a "crash course" with the volunteers and map out a tour route.

Ms. Marvin said ever since she heard about the courthouse debate in Tiffin, she has wanted to find a way to convey to residents the significance of county courthouses, which "were celebrations in many ways. Many were post-Civil War victory gifts to the community, if you will."

She said courthouses were built in a grand fashion "to inspire people to think of the future of their county and of their state and to reach for something better."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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