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TIFFIN — Hope was replaced with a gaping hole Monday as a wrecking ball destroyed the upper-front corner of Seneca County's 1884 courthouse.
It was destruction too awful for some local residents who had held out hope right into the midday that the downtown landmark could be saved.
"I do not want to watch the rape of the courthouse. … That's how I feel. It feels like a rape," said Marietta Estep, as she packed up her things and left the scene. "I cannot stop it. I am not going to watch it."
While a local antique dealer managed to salvage the clock mechanism from the courthouse tower, as well as some cherry wainscoting and wood trim Monday morning, many of the building's gems — colored glass windows and irreplaceable black-and-white carbonated limestone tile flooring — were lost to the wrecking ball and will be hauled to an area landfill.
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Suzanne Smith said it was hard to watch, harder still to hear the thunking sound of the wrecking ball hitting the brick and sandstone building quickly followed by the crumble of debris, falling into a cloud of dust.
"Every time that thing swings, a part of me dies," Ms. Smith said, adding, "We have to heal. We have to go on, but this is extremely difficult."
She said it was "small-town short-sightedness" that resulted in the demolition of the Beaux Arts-style courthouse, which was designed by noted American architect Elijah Myers.
Amazingly, many courthouse supporters worked right up until the moment the wrecking equipment went into action to save the building. Circulating a plan by new Tiffin Mayor Aaron Montz and 4th Ward Councilman Rich Cline to renovate the courthouse as a city-county justice center, supporters asked for financial pledges right into the noon hour.
It soon became apparent it was too late.
"Time ran out," Mr. Montz said. "We put every effort we could into it."
Seneca County Commissioner Jeff Wagner, who was one of two commissioners who pushed for demolition, watched from the sidelines. He said a city-county partnership for a courthouse might still be possible "in the future" — in a new courthouse, not the old one.
‘A sad feeling'
"This is a bittersweet moment," Mr. Wagner said, while watching the wrecking crew work. "I'm glad that the project is moving forward. I know it's the best thing for the community, but I know it hurts a lot of people. That makes for a sad feeling."
Commissioners Ben Nutter and Mr. Wagner both had said the county could not afford to renovate the courthouse and would be better off saving money to build a new one.
Historic preservationists said county commissioners just don't get it.
Mrs. Estep, a retired real estate agent and wife of former County Commissioner Ken Estep, recalled taking a field trip to the Peristyle at the Toledo Museum of Art when she was in the sixth grade. There she first experienced The Nutcracker in a majestic old building.
"I wish our commissioners would have had some experiences like that so they could've understood there was great value in this structure," she said. "… They don't see it. They just don't see it, and it's a shame because they won't ever have the opportunity of seeing it after it's gone."
Commissioners for their part did not even mention the demolition project during their first board meeting of the year Monday morning. They elected Mr. Nutter as president and Mr. Wagner as vice president before asking if the public had any comments.
Brenda Stultz, a long-time courthouse supporter, questioned how they could not even broach the topic of what was happening a block from their office — what she called the destruction of her capital building.
"Destroying a capital should not be within your power," she told the commissioners. "That's a lot to rest on any of your shoulders. As I stated before, I don't hate any of you as men. I do hate this decision. We must do better as citizens."
Mrs. Stultz later read the names of the men who designed, engineered, and built the courthouse — a sobering list of craftsmen both local and nonlocal.
"This building was made in America, by America, for our corner of America in Tiffin, Ohio, named after our first governor, in our county of Seneca named after our first inhabitants," Mrs. Stultz said. "This is why I have value in that edifice."
Not everyone was critical of commissioners. Delmar Goshe, a regular at board meetings, said that when the county put the Art Deco style clock tower on the courthouse in 1944, the plan was to redo the building's façade to match, but the money never materialized. He said it was unlikely it would materialize now to get it renovated.
"Now you're going to tear it down, and you don't have to worry about funding that sucker now," he said. "You got it down. You got it out of the way — good job."
At the demolition site, the number of spectators lining Washington and Market streets grew as the wrecking ball began punching holes through the roof just after 1:30 p.m., then pushed debris through the floor and out the shattered windows.
B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland, which has a $373,000 contract to raze the building, sprayed water on the building to keep the dust down as the wrecking ball — suspended from a huge red crane — worked, sending debris flying as it struck the building. Workers moved back the chain-link fence surrounding the courthouse and later cordoned off the entire block in front of the courthouse as it became clear the debris was going to fly beyond its boundaries.
‘I hate to see it'
"I hate to see it come down, but they didn't take care of it," said Lisa O'Millian, who said she had come downtown to go to the pharmacy and decided to check out the courthouse demolition.
Dave Kirby remembered being in the courthouse in 1965 when he was 16 and facing a charge in juvenile court. He said he and his father stood in standing water from a leaky roof. When he returned in 1970 to get his marriage license, the paint on every wall was peeling.
"It's not something that happened overnight," Mr. Kirby said.
Paul Elchert, Tiffin City Council president, said he didn't think the removal of the courthouse would hurt his city.
"There are so many people fed up with hearing about the courthouse and the money spent fighting lawsuits that people are just sick of it," he said. "Once it's down and cleared and there's green space, things can quiet down, and maybe we can move forward."
Michael Strong, director of the restored Ritz Theatre just up the street, said the courthouse as it stood neither helped nor hurt the downtown.
"If rehabilitation would've taken place, it certainly would've helped — just to have another attraction downtown," he said.
Franklin Conaway, a preservationist from Chillicothe, Ohio, who led an effort to save the building, was not in Tiffin Monday. Contacted at home, he said he wasn't watching the live camera trained on the courthouse either.
"I do not watch executions, and there's nothing worse than watching the execution of an innocent party, and the Seneca County Courthouse does not deserve to be executed," he said.
"It is a tragedy beyond belief that elected officials would take such extreme action in complete disregard of all reason and of what is right. It is absolutely unbelievable."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6129.