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Published: Monday, 3/2/2009

Seneca court architect will be honored

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Myers Myers
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

The limestone and marble of Seneca County's new courthouse had barely settled in 1884 when county commissioners started squabbling with their hotshot architect.

A rising star of later 19th-century public buildings, Elijah E. Myers of Detroit was on pace to design 12 courthouses and more U.S. state capitols - five - than anyone. The latter mark remains unsurpassed as the 100th anniversary of his death arrives this week.

But as fast as acclaim grew for Mr. Myers' magisterial yet pragmatic designs, so did his reputa-tion for being querulous, litigious, and a bit of a dandy.

He had just seen the completion of the Seneca County's Beaux-Arts style courthouse in Tiffin, one of only two known Ohio commissions. Now, about a year after construction ended, Mr. Myers was sending his 25-year-old son to collect the balance of pay he believed he was due.

A Tiffin Tribune reporter described how the architect's son, George W. Myers, confronted the commissioners and proceeded to "lord it over them," asserting "that his and his father's time was worth a thousand dollars a day, and that they did not propose to fool any more of it away with consulting with common county commissioners serving on pauper pay."

The tough talk wrung from the county a $1,000 payment, from which young Mr. Myers proceeded that night to spend the eyebrow-raising sum of $75 renting out a local ice rink and hosting an impromptu dinner party with young men and ladies of society.

Elijah Myers, who worked under the name E.E. Myers, completed at least 80 buildings in his lifetime. Historians believe the true total may never be known.

Two days of events are scheduled in Michigan this week to commemorate the centennial of Mr. Myers' death and his architectural achievements. The itinerary includes two presentations in Lansing and a visit Thursday morning to his grave in Detroit's Woodlawn Cemetery, where a plaque will be added to his headstone.

"He has been forgotten for a good deal of American history," said Valerie Marvin, a Myers expert with the Michigan State Capitol Tour Service. "He did design more capitols than any American architect in history. And whether or not you liked dealing with him, people admired his buildings."

Mr. Myers' oeuvre included churches, city halls, schools, jails, opera houses, and private homes. He worked primarily in the midwestern and western states, with commissions as far afield as California and Texas.

Many of his earlier buildings reflected a Victorian Gothic style, and his later structures evolved to that of Renaissance revival and Beaux Arts.

"He basically worked in the styles that were popular in the era," Ms. Marvin said. "He liked to be called a practical architect; he wasn't a Frank Gehry necessarily."

Ms. Marvin said Mr. Myers' admirers believe his name lacks deserved recognition today because so many of his buildings no longer exist. More than half have met the wrecking ball, including Harper Hospital in Detroit, his city hall in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a courthouse in Stockton, Calif.

"We know of a dozen courthouses he built and six of those have already been demolished," Ms. Marvin said. "So once those buildings are gone, the memory of him fades with them."

Seneca County's courthouse is in danger of becoming one of the fallen.

Elijah Myers was born in Philadelphia in 1830. After early studies in law he left school to become a carpenter and joiner. He later may have studied architecture at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

His architecture career began in the 1860s when he settled in Springfield, Ill. He had built Illinois courthouses when he received his big break in 1871, with a winning entry in an architectural competition for Michigan's new statehouse in Lansing.

He moved permanently to Michigan while supervising the statehouse construction, which was finished in 1878.

During the 1870s he competed to design a new Indiana statehouse. When the initial competition proved a bust for all architects, the judges received a visit from Mr. Myers, as observed in the local newspaper.

"Myers began a boisterous tirade of abuse against the commissioners and experts. Myers said he would never again compete before the commissioner," the Indianapolis Journal reported.

A new competition was announced, and Mr. Myers competed again. After losing a second time, he unsuccessfully sued the commissioners, governor, and the winning architect, claiming elements of his design were stolen.

It was one of several lawsuits Mr. Myers filed during his career. A subsequent suit against his own attorney was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in Mr. Myers' favor in 1914, five years after his death.

Mr. Myers designed capitols for Michigan, Texas, Colorado, Idaho, and the Utah territory. The Utah capitol was never built, and the Idaho building was torn down.

Because of disagreements, the Michigan capitol is the only structure of the four built that Mr. Myers remained under contract or saw through completion.

"People liked him initially, but he got a little wearing over time because he thought very highly of himself," Ms. Marvin said.

The federal government hired Mr. Myers as a building examiner for the Columbia Buildings at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. He applied three times to be supervising architect of the Treasury, a post overseeing all federal building projects, but was never chosen.

He gained international recognition with his designs for a Brazilian parliament building in Rio de Janeiro and an insane asylum in Mexico City. However, it's unclear whether either structure was built, Ms. Marvin said.

While Mr. Myers was not credited with originating any new style, he was one of the first designers to add large domes to public buildings. His work was considered influential to other public architects of America's Gilded Age.

Still, architectural historians said aesthetics seemed secondary in Mr. Myers' career success.

"He was a talented designed but he was a wonderful speaker - very eloquent when he wanted to be, and was a great salesman," Ms. Marvin said. "He served as the frontman for his office, so he was the one who did the traveling, who did the promoting, and that was probably what he was best at."

Mr. Myers also drew admiration for his appearance. During a visit to Atlanta, a reporter observed how Mr. Myers' "head was covered with a suit of iron-gray hair. His dress was faultless black, and his shirt front showed the sparkle of superb diamonds, and his hat was what the southern man terms a black slouch, style militaire."

Following years of high living and cross-country travel, Mr. Myers was said to be nearly impecunious at the time of his death. Yet he did donate money and work to charities, and was known for his fondness for children.

During construction of Michigan's capitol, a Lansing resident observed how the architect "wore a long sort of frock coat and kept his pockets full of peppermint candies which he passed out liberally to children he met. The number grew as his qualities became known."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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