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TIFFIN -- Passing cars honked. Residents snapped pictures. And a handful of courthouse supporters braved the cold Tuesday to show their displeasure with the Seneca County commissioners for destroying a key piece of the county's history.
Standing in front of the towering statues of Civil War Gen. William Harvey Gibson outside the 1884 courthouse, 10 women dressed mostly in black locked arms singing "We Shall Overcome" and holding signs that read "Save Our Courthouse," "What are we teaching our children?" and, simply, "Why?"
"This is just beyond sad," said Jackie Fletcher, a member of the Tiffin Historic Trust. "A lot of people think it's over. My husband is at home in bed because he thinks it's over."
While no exterior demolition work was done Tuesday, workers with B&B Wrecking and Excavating positioned equipment around the building and continued to work inside.
Stacy Wilson, Seneca County administrator, said workers still are removing electrical ballasts that cannot be taken to a landfill. She said a crane is to be delivered to the site Wednesday with major demolition work likely to begin on Thursday.
In a 2-1 vote in November, county commissioners hired the Cleveland wrecking firm for $373,000 to tear down the courthouse and create a green space in the center of downtown Tiffin. They said the county can't afford to renovate the courthouse, which has been vacant since 2004.
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Commissioner Dave Sauber voted against the razing, citing the cost of the demolition in difficult economic times.
"Who will visit the hole?" read a sign carried by Lin Talbot-Koehl of Tiffin outside the courthouse. "Whether we can stop it or not, I want people to know how they got lied to by their commissioners," she said, adding that she would come back to protest the demolition "as long as I need to."
Commissioner Ben Nutter, who was signing papers at the commissioner's office a block away, showed no sign of changing his mind about the courthouse.
He has proposed saving half of the county's annual carryover every year for the next five years and using the money -- an estimated $3 million -- to build a 16,080-square-foot courthouse on the soon-to-be vacant lot. His plan, he said, would not require loans, grants, or fund-raising.
Mr. Nutter previously supported a nearly $8 million plan put together by the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group to renovate the historic courthouse, using a $5 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, grants from the state and common pleas courts, and private fund-raising efforts.
He changed his mind last summer after the state legislature drastically reduced local government funding, saying the county could not afford to take on a 30-year loan.
On Tuesday, Mr. Nutter said that for him the renovation plan began falling apart in October, 2010, when the redevelopment group missed a "self-imposed deadline" to have all the funding in place. The problems intensified, he said, when the group would not commit to paying the initial costs of design work.
"The opportunity to save the courthouse was squandered," he said. "We would've went to bid if they would've given us the money."
Live video of the Seneca County courthouse from senecacountyradio.com.
Franklin Conaway, president of the redevelopment group, sent an email to commissioners Monday that said the group would have no further involvement "in any plan to preserve or renovate" the courthouse and has no expectation of being paid for the work it has done over the last several years.
Mr. Conaway, who was in Tiffin on Tuesday, said he hoped that by stepping out of the picture, the group could encourage a delay in demolition and a dialogue over alternatives.
He said the statement came in part as a response to a comment by one commissioner who said he preferred not to have "outsiders" involved in courthouse planning.
Mr. Nutter, the commissioner he was referring to, said his comments were misconstrued. He has said repeatedly that because the county can no longer rely on revenue sources such as local government funds from the state, he no longer intends to rely on the state or any private group to pay for county projects.
"I have no ill feelings for the development group," he said. "They're good people -- hardworking. Unfortunately, it did not work out."
Suzanne Smith, one of the first preservationists to show up at the courthouse Tuesday morning to snap pictures, said she believes it was "shortsighted" of commissioners to say that saving the courthouse is not economically feasible.
"It just seems like there's no justice for the justice system," she said. "To reuse, recycle, restore -- we've just let it go for so long."
While it was unclear how far the preservationists would go to save the building, some joked that they would chain themselves to the building.
When three B&B workers came within view of the protesters, Susan Ramser of Mount Vernon, Ohio, ran toward the construction fence, yelling, "Don't tear down this courthouse. Don't do it! Don't do it!"
Ms. Ramser, who has been involved with preservation efforts in her town, said she came to Tiffin after hearing about the courthouse's plight.
"I'm not an expert, but I know enough about buildings to know if a building is falling down or restorable," she said. "This is restorable."
Mr. Conaway called the situation "a tragedy beyond words."
"It's a high-profile example of something that is very wrong in this country right now," he said. "Many of our small towns are losing their architectural heritage either by demolition or insensitive remodeling, and the tragedy is that we are not teaching our young people the importance of the tangible part of our American heritage."
Destroying a building like the courthouse, which was designed in the Beaux Arts style by noted American architect Elijah Myers, destroys the quality of life for the community, he said.
"The Seneca County courthouse is the most architecturally significant building in Seneca County by far, and as such it is not only architecture but a very high form of art," Mr. Conaway said. "Destroying the courthouse is no different than walking into one of the world's great museums and destroying a painting that is a masterpiece. We view that as a crime, and this is a crime."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-724-6129.