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Published: Monday, 4/14/2008

Historians draw up salvage wish list of artifacts from Seneca County courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - As the keeper of many of Seneca County's historical treasures, Tonia Hoffert came to the old courthouse one day this month armed with a camera and a notebook.

She wanted to tell - and show - the county commissioners exactly what she would like to see salvaged from the 1884 courthouse and preserved in the local history museum she oversees.

"Because once it's tore down, if we don't save any of it, it's gone," said Ms. Hoffert, director of the Seneca County Museum. "Nobody's going to remember it in the next generation or the generations after that."

Her list included bookcases and display cases the museum can use as well as pieces and parts of the landmark she hopes to display at the museum: an ornate, rounded carving above a window in the original courtroom, a large brass door pull and hinge, a piece of the floor, a pair of newel posts from the bottom of a staircase, a transom window painted with the words "Ladies Waiting Room," the front of the cornerstone, and more importantly, the time capsule place inside that cornerstone when it was dedicated on June 24, 1884.

The county commissioners, who are edging closer to having demolition firms bid on razing the massive sandstone courthouse, are scheduled to talk today about what could and should be saved before the landmark comes down.

The board last week agreed to hold a one-day public auction to sell the furnishings and other "unattached items" not wanted by the museum or other county offices.

It's the things that are attached - the hand-carved cherry doors, glass skylight panels, white marble and black fossilized limestone tiles, cast iron newel posts and balustrades, and the 6,000 pound cornerstone, to name a few - that are in question.

The commissioners say they intend to save only what is important for history's sake and what can be used in the new courthouse.

They do not want to bear what they have been told is a huge expense for salvaging and storing anything more than that.

John Huss, a member of the Tiffin Historic Trust who also submitted a what-to-save list to the commissioners, said so much of what he finds significant in the old courthouse "is monumental-sized stuff" and might be out of context sitting in a museum. Still, he said he would like to see some parts of the old building incorporated into the foyer or a courtroom in the new courthouse.

"I just feel any architect that would look at that building would want to save something from it - just kind of as a gesture to the past," he said.

Architects interviewed last week by the commissioners for the new courthouse project said afterward that reusing parts of an old building in a new one takes more time and money, but can have impressive results.

Robert Bostwick, president of Bostwick Design Group, said buildings like the 1884 courthouse were constructed of high-quality materials that were made to last, and recycling them in a new building gains points toward certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

"One way to look at it is you get quality at a bargain price," he said.

Mr. Huss, a history buff who owns a residential design business, said the county could use a set of double doors with etched glass from the old courthouse at the entrance to a courtroom in the new building.

He has suggested the commissioners save a sample of the four styles of door assemblies, a pair of exterior double doors, all of the plaques and other historical signage in the building, a section of cast iron balustrade, and samples of the black and white tile floor.

Theresa Sullivan, a member of the Save Our Courthouse committee, who walked through the courthouse, said she would love to see some of the beautiful features of the old courthouse incorporated into the new one, but she knows that will be difficult to do if the commissioners tear the old courthouse down before the new one is designed.

"They're putting the cart before the horse in a way because there are no plans so how can we say we'd like to use that?" she said, adding, "They have enormous treasure there, they do. From the skylights to the doors to the wainscoting, it's a total treasure."

Following the March 4 defeat of an $8.5 million bond issue that would have supported renovation of the courthouse, the commissioners began simultaneously preparing to hire a demolition contractor and an architectural firm.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger agreed it will be difficult to identify what should be saved without a plan for a new building on the drawing board.

Tonia Hoffert, director of the Seneca County Museum, is documenting items for salvage from the courthouse.
Tonia Hoffert, director of the Seneca County Museum, is documenting items for salvage from the courthouse.
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

"We could save anything. It just depends upon the design," he said.

"I agree there should be a plan because once it's gone, it's gone. I don't want to look back and say, 'Well, why didn't we do this? Why didn't we do that?'•"

Commissioner Ben Nutter said he's not in favor of saving anything unless there is a specific plan for where and how it will be used.

"If [artifacts] are going to sit in someone's barn somewhere, I'm not in favor of that. If there's a logical use for it, I'm all for it," Mr. Nutter said.

"To save it just to save it I'm not for because it costs taxpayers money."

Mr. Nutter said he would rather have an architect reproduce the look of the 1884 courthouse than try to salvage, store, and reuse the old features in a new building because the former would be "excruciatingly expensive."

Commissioner Dave Sauber said he would like to create a "walk through history" in the new courthouse - a hallway where items from the 1884 courthouse could be displayed, including doors or window frames mounted to the wall, even some of the building's signature black and white tiles on the floor.

"There's a cost associated with all of this but I think we need to do something," Mr. Sauber said.

Mr. Bridinger said he likes Mr. Sauber's idea.

"We can't save everything, but we can do justice to the grand old lady by saving a lot of her cosmetic jewelry," he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.



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