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Published: Tuesday, 7/21/2009

Restoration group maps overhaul plan for 1884 Seneca County Courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN They made their pitch. Now they re waiting for Seneca County commissioners to get on board.

The Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group spent more than three hours Monday outlining its plan to redesign and restore the county s 1884 courthouse at a cost of just under $8 million.

With grants and other sources available only for historic preservation projects, restoration would cost the county less than demolishing the landmark and building a new courthouse.

I m excited about it and I want to get at it, group member James Seney told commissioners. I think this is a fascinating project. It s a valuable project to the county, and there s no question in my mind we can get it done. Let us do it.

County commissioners, who previously voted to raze the downtown landmark and replace it, repeatedly have said cost will be the determining factor in whether they could consider a renovation plan for the courthouse.

Mr. Seney, a former mayor of Sylvania who has worked for the Ohio Department of Development and as the governor s representative for economic development in northwest Ohio, detailed the group s $7,995,000 price tag for commissioners.

Grants and private fund-raising efforts would be employed to raise at least $1.45 million to restore the clock tower and other architectural elements that don t necessarily contribute directly to the function of the courthouse, he said.

With $500,000 from the Ohio Department of Development, $500,000 from Seneca County, $500,000 from the county s court system, and a $45,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the county would need to borrow $5 million to make up the balance of the project.

If commissioners took out a loan from the USDA Rural Development at the current 4.375 percent interest rate, the county s annual payment on a 35-year loan would be $280,500, Mr. Seney said.

Ben Nutter, president of the board of commissioners, admitted that payment is considerably less than commissioners were projecting for a new construction loan. If they were to demolish the courthouse and build a new one, they hoped to have annual payments under $500,000, he said.

Mr. Nutter conceded he was pleasantly surprised by the presentation.

Restoration plans for the Seneca County Courthouse, depicted in an artist s rendering, were presented to the county commissioners, who want to review the proposal before making a decision. Restoration plans for the Seneca County Courthouse, depicted in an artist s rendering, were presented to the county commissioners, who want to review the proposal before making a decision.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

If you believe their numbers it certainly has potential, and I was impressed by the detail of the proposal, Mr. Nutter said afterward. We ll evaluate it.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger, a longtime proponent of restoration, was ready to vote to go ahead with the project immediately, but Mr. Nutter and Commissioner Dave Sauber said they want to study the proposal before they make a decision.

I asked to turn over every rock and, boy, I think today was a multitude of phenomenal knowledge of that building and how to restore it, Mr. Bridinger said afterward.

Robert Loversidge, who was the lead architect on the Ohio Statehouse renovation, showed commissioners and a full room of spectators in pictures and drawings how the group proposes to put the now-vacant courthouse back into use.

A new entrance

The plans featured a new main entrance on Market Street that would rebuild the exterior steps and use the space underneath for a lobby and security entrance.

All visitors to the courthouse and to the annex next door would enter there and then head either to the clerk of courts and title office on the first floor, continue on to the common pleas courtrooms and offices on the upper floors, or walk down the hall to enter the annex, which would house the probate and juvenile courts.

Unlike previous design plans, Mr. Loversidge s proposed creating a layout on the second floor almost identical to the third floor with a courtroom, judge s office, conference rooms, jury room, and even a secret passageway from the courtroom to the jury room like the one that exists on the third floor.

Crucial to the new design is the removal of the elevator that was installed in the rotunda in the center of the courthouse, effectively closing off the view from floor to floor.

You ll be able to see all the way up into the tower, he said. ... It s an elegant space that goes up all three floors of the building and then up into the tower itself. A lot of these elements are still intact and ready for us to recover.

Glass skylight

The glass skylight now hidden by a dropped ceiling would be unveiled, and the unpopular Art Deco clock tower that was installed in the 1940s also would be restored to its original grandeur, he said.

Much of the classic good looks of the building, which was designed by noted American architect Elijah Myers, would be uncovered and let back out into the light, Mr. Loversidge said.

Our job this morning is to convince you, to get you on board with the passion we have for this building and its ability to perform its duty for another 100 years, he said.

Among those at the meeting were state preservation officials as well as a representative of the Ohio Department of Development and of Gov. Ted Strickland.

Alan Bannister, project manager for the governor s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, read a letter from Mr. Strickland in which the governor pledged his continued support for the courthouse project.

I believe that protecting and restoring this fine building will serve as a significant stimulus to your city, and also inspire other projects in your downtown area, Mr. Strickland said in his letter.

I am hopeful that the commissioners will see the value in restoration of the courthouse.

Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, said after the meeting that the courthouse development group made a compelling case for restoration.

I think the facts and figures are there, Mr. Ruffini said.

An honest decision

Joyce Barrett, executive director of Heritage Ohio, said the group provided more than enough information for commissioners to base their decision on.

It s all the detail they ever asked for, she said. It isn t speculation. They can make an honest decision.

Mr. Sauber, who has expressed concerns about cost overruns that tend to occur with renovation, said he was impressed with the detail of the proposal.

I don t think there has ever been this in-depth research into this 1884 courthouse where you re utilizing grants, you re going out and getting contributions for the clock tower and the amenities for historic value, Mr. Sauber said. It s broken down in real detail. You re not just putting a project out for bid.

Common Pleas Judges Michael Kelbley and Steve Shuff were not able to attend the meeting and both declined to comment afterward on the restoration plan.

Clerk of Courts Mary Ward was at the meeting and said she was impressed, although she wondered how the county would pay for the project with the current financial situation.

It s up to the commissioners where I run this office, she said, adding, Everything I saw today looked good and everything they said made sense.

Seneca County resident Rayella Engle, who has fought for restoration for years, was pleased.

I was very impressed, she said. This is a great opportunity for this community.

Franklin Conaway, who leads the courthouse development group, left the meeting smiling.

I think they listened today, he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:jfeehan@theblade.comor 419-724-6129.



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