Tile reflects value of Seneca Co. court

Interest in floor conflicts with razing

The Seneca County Courthouse tile is made of the same rare material as the Michigan State Capitol floor.
The Seneca County Courthouse tile is made of the same rare material as the Michigan State Capitol floor.

TIFFIN -- Seneca County's endangered 1884 courthouse and the Michigan State Capitol are cousins of sorts: both were designed by noted American architect Elijah Myers and both are graced with identical black-and-white tile flooring.

The potential demolition of that tile -- not to mention the cherry doors, stained glass panels, beautifully carved woodwork, and the massive clockworks -- has added insult to injury for those who have worked for years to save the historic courthouse.

"I think it's artwork," said John Huss, a local historian and architectural designer. "Look at the list of people who supplied materials and worked on the building. That was their craft."

The tile is particularly valuable, said Barb Thumudo, a guide and historian at the Michigan State Capitol Tour Service who visited the courthouse in 2007.

"That black tile in the hallways, which is carbonated limestone from Vermont that has fossils in it, is no longer available," she said. "They've closed that quarry in Vermont."

While Ms. Thumudo said the Michigan State Capitol would like to acquire some of the tile if the courthouse is razed, Seneca County Administrator Stacy Wilson said that will be up to the commissioners, two of whom said Tuesday that they are not interested in extending salvage rights to the public.

As part of its demolition contract, B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland may salvage as much, or as little, from the courthouse as it chooses, she said.

Commissioner Ben Nutter, who along with Commissioner Jeff Wagner voted this week to award the $373,000 contract to B&B Wrecking, said the board had talked about salvaging some of the courthouse's architectural features before it is torn down.

Instead, he said, the board accepted the advice of MKC Associates, an architectural firm that oversaw the bidding, to include salvage rights in the demolition contract.

"We decided in conversations with MKC that it might be better to include it in the package to allow the professionals to bid, because as commissioners we're not salvage professionals," he said.

Including salvage rights was expected to yield a lower demolition bid, Mr. Nutter said, and that appears to have worked: MKC estimated the cost at $564,000, nearly $200,000 above B&B's winning bid.

Dave Sauber, the county board's president, asked his fellow commissioners Tuesday to reconsider letting the public bid on items from the courthouse but Mr. Nutter and Mr. Wagner were not interested.

"There's no sense sitting here debating and arguing over something that's not going to change," Mr. Sauber said after the meeting. "I'm not going to twist arms. They're both commissioners just like I am."

Mr. Sauber has voted "no" on all matters pertaining to the courthouse demolition, saying financially strapped Seneca County should not spend any money on the building right now -- for demolition or renovation.

Jackie Fletcher, president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, said she appreciated Mr. Sauber's gesture, but she isn't thinking about salvaging the treasures in her county's historic courthouse.

"The best place for those things to be used is where they are right now -- in the courthouse, as a courthouse," she said. "I'm not even thinking salvage, because I'm still thinking it's not coming down."

She and her husband, Bill Fletcher, purchased at a county auction in 2008 a set of cherry doors with etched glass panels that once graced the courthouse's Market Street side. The doors had been in storage for years.

"We paid $750 and we're just waiting to put them back," Ms. Fletcher said.

The Ohio Historic Preservation Office is among a long list of state and national groups that have lobbied for the courthouse's preservation. Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, said his agency does not advocate historic buildings' salvage because it creates a demand for more salvaged items and encourages stripping of historic buildings.

"I'm all for recycling and conservation, and I think the best way to recycle that building is to reuse it," he said, adding that if the courthouse is demolished, he would prefer to see architectural features salvaged from it remain in the public domain -- in places like the Michigan State Capitol.

If the courthouse is razed, it will be the first county courthouse lost in Ohio in more than 40 years, and the first Ohio courthouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places to be demolished.

"I think there would be an immeasurable loss for Seneca County and the state of Ohio, and it's ironic that a good number of people have come forward with plans and ways of addressing the county's fiscal situation. Yet demolition is being turned to as an answer," Mr. Ruffini said.

"Ultimately, it's just not a good decision. It's throwing away an important historical asset that's also an asset that can fulfill the needs of the court, and there's a means to achieve it. It's really beyond me as to why this is being demolished."

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