Historic Ohio courthouse draws blueprint for future

$8M Auglaize Co. project works around funding cuts

The side of the courthouse on Pearl St.  in the Auglaize County  courthouse which was built in 1894 during a $8 million renovation on Sept. 22.
The side of the courthouse on Pearl St. in the Auglaize County courthouse which was built in 1894 during a $8 million renovation on Sept. 22.

WAPAKONETA, Ohio — From the judge’s office where an ornate tiled fireplace graced one wall, Auglaize County Commissioner Doug Spencer strolled out to an elegant balcony that provided a picturesque view of the churches and trees dotting downtown Wapakoneta.

The Auglaize County Courthouse, built in 1894 for a then-exorbitant $259,481, is undergoing an $8 million renovation that will return its three courtrooms to their full sizes, create new office space for the prosecutor, public defender, and law library, and bring the 117-year-old landmark into the 21st century.

“In my eyes and eyes throughout the county, it’s a beautiful, majestic, and iconic building that the residents wanted preserved,” Mr. Spencer said. “This is something everyone identifies with in Auglaize County.”

Longtime Commissioner John Bergman said the courthouse has been well-maintained over the years. More than a regular scrub and polish, major projects were done as needed — new windows, a new copper dome roof.

“The only way this building would ever be replaced is if we lost it in a tornado,” he said.

And, as Mr. Spencer pointed out more than once, the only way it was going to be renovated was if the county had the cash.

“Our philosophy in Auglaize County,” he said, “is, before you do a capital project, you have the money first.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Auglaize County Courthouse past and present

Working around cuts

Unlike their colleagues in Seneca County, who shelved an $8 million renovation plan for their 1884 courthouse when the state legislature slashed local government funding earlier this year, Auglaize County has proceeded with its plans, which call for a completion date next summer.

County Administrator Joe Lenhart said the board knew late last year that state funding cuts were inevitable so Auglaize County planned accordingly.

“We knew we were going to receive close to $400,000 from January to July 1 because the state’s year doesn’t change until July 1 so that’s where we stopped,” Mr. Lenhart said. “We projected a zero for the rest of year so when July came around ... we were sitting here feeling like we were getting a gift because we did not plan on one dime from July 1 to Dec. 31.”

In the final biennium budget, local government funds were cut roughly in half.

Seneca County’s plans

The news was enough for Seneca County commissioners to back off the project and once again look at demolishing their courthouse. The board said the county could not afford to take on a $5 million loan to renovate its shuttered courthouse — even at a low fixed interest rate of 3.75 percent over 30 years offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The balance of the project was to be paid for with $1,645,000 in private funds, $500,000 from the Ohio Department of Development, $500,000 from the Seneca County Common Pleas Court, and $350,000 from the county.

In Wapakoneta — a city off I-75 just south of Lima that’s perhaps best known as the birthplace of astronaut Neil Armstrong — county commissioners said their project was not hurt by the change in state funding, in part because they didn’t plan to take out a loan for it.

Last year, they were awarded $1.3 million in federal stimulus money to replace the building’s 1903 coal-burning boilers with a new heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation system. The remainder of the project is to be paid for with money from its permanent improvement fund — money set aside each year from sales tax revenues.

Improvement fund

For decades, Auglaize County commissioners have designated a portion of the county’s sales tax revenue into a permanent improvement fund, adjusting according to needs and revenues. During the best of times, Mr. Lenhart said, the county stashed away as much as 40 percent of sales tax receipts for building and maintenance projects.

This year, the county expects to collect approximately $6.1 million from its 1.5 percent local sales tax. It currently puts $40,000 a month into the building fund.

Mr. Bergman said that practice has made all the difference.

“The credit goes back to the commissioners before us. There’s a permanent improvement fund set aside,” he said. “I think that’s where some counties get into problems. You need to set aside money for improvements and not just improvements but maintenance.

“There are some people in the general population or elected officials who don’t believe you need to take in any more money than you absolutely need and I understand the thought process,” Mr. Bergman added. “But I also understand you’ve got to be able to save some money for that unexpected expense that crops up, and they do happen.”

Plans to overhaul the courthouse began in 2004 soon after a number of county offices moved out of the courthouse and into a new county administration building, which was built a block away on the site of the county’s old jail. The administration building, which cost close to $8 million, also was paid for with permanent improvement money.

The federal stimulus grant gave the project a boost, and in February the courts moved to temporary quarters in the administration building so that work could begin at the courthouse.

Common Pleas Judge Frederick Pepple, who has worked in the courthouse either as prosecutor or judge since 1981, said he looks forward to getting back into the historic courthouse.

“I feel blessed that we have this building,” he said. “Our forefathers sacrificed a lot to provide such a huge building. You would never build this kind of structure in this day and age. It has such historical significance, and it also just is a beautiful building.”

Rachel Barber, administrator of the Auglaize County Historical Society, imagines there would be a great outcry if commissioners today were to choose such high-end materials and designs for a courthouse, but she’s glad they did back in 1894, glad too that the courthouse will keep its place in the local landscape.

“Those commissioners back in the 1890s had the foresight to want to make the seat of government a place that would allow us to aspire to great things,” she said.

Ornate construction

Like so many of the century-old county courthouses in Ohio, Auglaize County’s was built of sandstone on an entire city block. Inside, it features a dramatic two-story view of a stained-glass skylight, faux marble pillars and stairway spindles, ornate woodwork, multicolored porcelain tile floors, and a top-story attic so large it is being converted into space for the prosecutor’s office and the law library.

Dropped ceilings in the courtrooms have been removed, revealing the original tin ceilings and elaborately painted cornices. Walls that once divided the county’s municipal courtroom and former law library also have been torn out to create a full-size courtroom and reveal a fresco of a Civil War battle scene.

Karen Dietz, a past president of the Auglaize County Historical Society, recalled viewing the covered-over mural behind the law library wall years ago.

“We found them several years ago when there were problems with the heating and air-conditioning ducts,” she said. “I climbed a ladder to get up there and take pictures, not knowing at that time they were going to remodel the courthouse. It’s great. They really have taken into consideration a number of things.”

Minster, Ohio architect Bruce Miller, who is overseeing the renovation, has nothing but respect for the old building.

“The quality of this building is phenomenal,” he said. “We added a third and fourth floor to this, and we didn’t have to do anything to the foundation. It’s amazing. Structurally, it’s very sound.”

Mr. Miller said the courthouse was built to last, and he expects it will.

“I think it will be here another 200 years,” he said. “The courtrooms are the right size for today’s courtrooms. We just added modern technology, better acoustics, and better ventilation and lighting.”

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