Lorain County Courthouse's future uncertain

  • The-seven-story-38-million-justice-center

    The seven-story, $38 million justice center that opened across the street in 2004 prompted the move of courts out of the old courthouse that year.

    The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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  • The 1881 Lorain County Courthouse is a prominent landmark in Elyria and is in dire need of renovation.
    The 1881 Lorain County Courthouse is a prominent landmark in Elyria and is in dire need of renovation.

    ELYRIA, Ohio -- Of the two county courthouses in Ohio designed by Elijah E. Myers -- architect of the state capitols in Michigan, Texas, and Colorado -- just one remains and its future is tenuous.

    Seneca County's 1884 courthouse was demolished over the winter after a hard-fought but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to restore it as a house of justice.

    Lorain County's 1881 courthouse is only partially inhabited and is in dire need of renovation. It is, perhaps, the most endangered of Ohio's historic county courthouses.

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    "It's deteriorating. The grounds are in bad condition," said first-term Lorain County Commissioner Tom Williams. "The building itself has mold in it. It's just an old building now. I wouldn't say it's historic anymore. It's more of a liability for the county."

    Although two of Lorain County's three commissioners insist they have no interest in razing the old courthouse, Mr. Williams says something needs to be done to halt the building's decline, and demolition may be more "cost-effective" than renovation.

    "I've asked our director of maintenance to go through and compile a list of what needs to be done," he said. "We're waiting to hear back from them, and I hope to have a report [later this year] and the decision will be made if we're going to go through and put more money into it or if we're going to try to remove it from the historic list and just demolish it."

    The courts moved out of the old courthouse in 2004 when a seven-story, $38 million justice center opened across the street. Since then, the county's adult probation department has occupied part of the basement and first floor. A crime laboratory and drug testing center for probationers also are in the basement. The second-floor courtrooms are empty, although dusty furnishings remain.

    "It's a sad old building that's just kind of deteriorating away," Court Administrator Tim Lubbe said during a tour this summer.

    The seven-story, $38 million justice center that opened across the street in 2004 prompted the move of courts out of the old courthouse that year.
    The seven-story, $38 million justice center that opened across the street in 2004 prompted the move of courts out of the old courthouse that year.

    Still, some believe there is far more support and appreciation for the Lorain County Courthouse than there was in Tiffin for the Seneca County Courthouse, in part because the building's exterior is largely unaltered.

    "Nobody's complaining that it looks bad. It's aesthetically pleasing from the outside," said Commissioner Lori Cocoski, who said she favors letting the courthouse sit until the county has the money to renovate its interior. "It's just a beautiful building. Structurally, it has so much character. I would hate to see it torn down."

    Mature trees surround the old courthouse, which faces an inviting, shaded park called Ely Square. The courthouse's clock tower was removed in the 1940s, but, unlike Seneca County's, it was not replaced with an architecturally incompatible tower. The only obvious unsightly additions are fire escapes and an air-conditioning unit jutting from what originally was a side door.

    Critics of the Seneca County landmark hated the mismatched tower that replaced the original in the 1940s. They found the replacement windows ugly. They pointed to the crumbling steps.

    Even Mr. Williams gets that Lorain County's old courthouse looks good to passers-by.

    The historical groups "don't want me to demolish it, and I understand that for the city of Elyria as well, you come down to the park and you see this beautiful building on the outside," Mr. Williams said. "You don't know what it's like on the inside."

    The inside leaves much to be desired. The front staircase is among the only remaining features that hark back to the building's original grandeur. The archways that line the halls of the first floor are chopped off by false walls that have been installed to create offices for the county's adult probation department. The once-grand courtroom was long ago divided to make two courtrooms with dropped ceilings that hide the original cornice molding.

    Mr. Williams -- a Republican in a largely Democratic county -- has been on a quest to reduce spending. Although he referred to himself as "a history person," he said the courthouse has ceased to be a historic building.

    Bill Bird, executive director of the Lorain County Historical Society, disagrees 100 percent. He said the interior of the building is not as important as the exterior, which has kept its historic features.

    "I would contend when you think of Lorain County -- in my lifetime and in my parents' lifetime -- there are two landmarks: the lighthouse in Lorain and the courthouse building which is no longer a courthouse in Elyria," he said. "That's why I think it's worth looking real hard at. Would it cost a lot of money to save? Would it take a serious use plan? Sure."

    Mr. Bird said the courthouse seems safe from the wrecking ball "in the short term," but its long-term outlook is far less clear. "I would say it's definitely in danger," Mr. Bird said. "I would say local preservationists are concerned. There is not a plan in place, and we need that."

    Although Mr. Williams said he offered the courthouse to the historical society "for a dollar," Mr. Bird said the building is far too large for the historical society to tackle. The group recently moved into the former Horace Starr mansion -- an Italianate-style house built in 1857 that had been threatened with demolition. Restoring it took the historical society nearly a decade.

    Steve McQuillin, a historic preservation consultant based in Westlake, Ohio, is a native of Elyria. He was dismayed at the destruction of the Seneca County courthouse and would hate to see the Elijah Myers courthouse in his hometown suffer the same fate.

    "It was designed as sort of like the centerpiece for the county -- the grandest landmark there -- and for Elyria, the courthouse is a little more prominently sited than the one in Seneca County in that it's in its own square on all four sides. It's a real centerpiece there in the community," he said. "It's hard to rationalize how people feel that that's not important."

    Mr. McQuillin pointed to two recent projects in Elyria that he hopes will set an example for commissioners considering the fate of the historic courthouse -- the construction of new city offices in and around the historic 1867 town hall and an adjacent century-old commercial building, and the construction of a new high school that incorporated the original 1894 school into the design.

    Former three-term Elyria Mayor Bill Grace said he proposed renovating the old county courthouse for municipal court, but commissioners turned him down, and the city ultimately built a new municipal court on land it owned. He said he's still convinced there could be appropriate public or private uses for the building.

    "Its arguably one of the most significant landmarks in our entire county," Mr. Grace said. "It's an exceptional building."

    "It's just a beautiful building that speaks to our history," he added. "It's a spectacular background to gatherings. The Cleveland Pops Orchestra performs there every year in front of the steps of courthouse."

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