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WAPAKONETA, Ohio -- Step inside the Auglaize County Courthouse and it's easy to see why county commissioners make no apology for spending $9 million during tough economic times to restore the 1894 beauty.
The rich blues and greens of the stained-glass windows are gleaming. Its three spacious courtrooms are resplendent with their original high ceilings uncovered, the latest technology tucked within the historic grandeur.
A 13-foot copper statue of Lady Justice that once stood atop the sandstone clock tower watches over those passing through the tiled first-floor entrance hall.
"It's been over a decade in the making. It's so exciting to see it finally come to fruition," a proud Auglaize County Commissioner Doug Spencer said. "It's exceeded our expectations -- what we planned for, what we envisioned, and what we actually have."
Across Ohio, the county courthouse is typically the finest building in town. Many were constructed in the decades after the Civil War as the developing counties sought to show their neighbors the fruits of their growing success, to demonstrate the importance of the law in a democratic society.
Auglaize County plans to rededicate its courthouse at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 16 with an open house to follow. Commissioners are convinced the naysayers will be impressed. The project was completed on schedule and on budget, using both savings and federal stimulus money.
"We heard in the coffee shops, 'Oh you guys are going to run out of money. You're going to bankrupt the county.' It was just a well-managed program," Commissioner Don Regula said. "We heard we should've brought bulldozers in, pushed it in a pile, and built a new one. After they see it, we're sure they're going to change their minds, not everyone, but we're very proud of it."
In recent years, the vast majority of Ohio's counties have spent considerable money to restore and maintain their halls of justice.
Some say they can't afford to but vow they would never abandon theirs. And out of 88 counties, just four -- Portage, Richland, Franklin, and Seneca -- have deliberately demolished their courthouses in the last century.
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The first three were torn down in the 1960s and '70s before the historic preservation movement really took off. Citing a cut in state funding to local governments, Seneca County brought in the bulldozers this year to raze its 1884 courthouse, one of two in Ohio that were designed by noted American architect Elijah E. Myers.
"What a tragedy," said retired Delaware County Common Pleas Judge Henry E. Shaw, Jr., who followed the debate from a few counties south.
Across the state, county officials are keenly aware of what happened in Seneca County.
Joyce Barrett, director of Heritage Ohio, said she sees more counties that take care of their courthouses than not.
"When you're in a county where they're putting money into their courthouse, they'll say, 'We're not like them.' You get that everywhere," she said.
"To use a bad example for good, to hold that up -- that kind of solidifies a lot of people's opinions in a propreservation way more effectively than if they had won. Because they lost that battle, I think it's galvanized some communities to think about what they really want, about doing the right thing."
Judge Shaw spent 27 years on the bench in Delaware County's Italianate brick courthouse, and although talk has surfaced in recent years about building a new justice center, there are no plans to demolish the 1870 landmark.
"The board of county commissioners has a history going back to the time of Moses of taking care of that building," Judge Shaw said, adding that the courthouse is well preserved historically but also state of the art in terms of technology.
"I think the present board would surround the building with armed guards to protect it. They're pretty fussy about that building," he said.
Possessiveness and pride can be good things when it comes to maintaining a county's hall of justice.
Most were built in just that vein.
Retired Van Wert County Common Pleas Judge Sumner Walters said he sees that as he travels to different Ohio courthouses on assignment as a visiting judge. He said he believes maintaining the state's historic courthouses is vital to maintaining public confidence in the judicial system.
"I think they need to see something that is permanent and impressive -- a temple of justice where they know they can walk in and be safe just like they can walk into a church or a cathedral and know they are safe," Judge Walters said. "When we move the courts into an office building, we lose some of that."
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Hancock County Commissioner Ed Ingold said residents are proud of the county's 1888 courthouse, a centerpiece of downtown Findlay with its stained-glass windows and skylights, carved walnut doors and woodwork, and commanding statues atop its clock tower.
It requires consistent and continual maintenance, though, top to bottom.
"I think in Seneca's case they just let things go too far and too long without remediation, and that could happen to any old building," Mr. Ingold said.
"It doesn't take long unless you're maintaining it and maintaining it properly and have the craftspeople that know how to do it. If we just let that building go and didn't do anything to it, didn't repair the half-dozen slates that come loose on the roof every year and allow moisture to seep in, then it wouldn't take long."
A watchful eye
Six years ago, Preservation Ohio was keeping its eye on courthouses in three counties: Seneca, Defiance, and Marion.
All three were discussing the "d" word -- a subject preservationists hoped would not rear its head again after the loss of the Franklin County courthouse in Columbus in 1974, the Richland County courthouse in Mansfield in 1969, and the Portage County courthouse in Ravenna in 1961.
No courthouses had been purposely demolished in the state since.
In the end, only Seneca fell.
Defiance County took the matter to voters, asking in 2006 for a sales tax increase to tear down its 1872 courthouse and build a new office building for the courts and other county departments. The measure was overwhelmingly rejected.
Commissioner Tom Kime said that whether voters didn't want to pay higher taxes or whether they wanted to keep the county's much-altered old courthouse didn't matter.
The board decided that whatever it was going to do with the courthouse, it would do it with the money available in a phased-in approach.
"I think the public was pretty adamant about the first vote," Mr. Kime said. "We decided we'll just take care of it ourselves the best we can with the money we've got."
Defiance County purchased and retrofitted a former medical office building on the east side of Defiance, where it now houses a number of county agencies.
It converted its former sheriff's residence and jail, which sits behind the courthouse, into attractive, accessible office space for the auditor, treasurer, and recorder.
The courthouse -- its final challenge -- still houses the courts in 1950s-era style, its first floor largely vacant.
"We're committed to doing something," Mr. Kime said during a walk through the courthouse. "We're studying all the options on the courthouse that we can."
The options range from cosmetic improvements to a complete historic restoration, although that seems unlikely given the financial constraints.
He said the board probably will make a decision after the first of the year when commissioners have a clearer picture of the county's finances. Currently, it has about $2.5 million in a capital improvement fund.
"We've spent 12 years saving for this purpose," he said. "The reason we're not in a big hurry is we're waiting to see what the state does. We have not been able to put money into the capital improvement account for the last three years" because of reduced investment income and reduced local government funds.
Marion County also chose to keep its aging courthouse despite serious conversations about razing it.
"We're doing what we can with what we have," said 12-year Marion County Commissioner Andy Appelfeller.
He was one of two commissioners who favored renovation rather than demolition. The county now has restored the clock tower and replaced the building's roof and windows. Mr. Appelfeller said he would love to see the interior restored -- it was largely gutted in a 1970s renovation -- but for now he will be happy to see its sandstone exterior maintained.
"I've always been for saving courthouses simply because they're the center point of your community. The first thing you see when you come downtown is the courthouse," he said.
Financial constraints often play a part in whether a county preserves its courthouse, but there are other factors, among them public opinion and input from the judges.
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In Portage County in northeast Ohio, parts of the 1881 courthouse "began to dry rot, and in 1957 a jury was deliberating and the floor began to cave in," said Wayne Enders, president of the Portage County Historical Society.
"The common pleas judge said he would not hold court there anymore so he sort of forced the hands of the county commissioners, so to speak, and plans were put in place and money set aside to build a new one."
The new courthouse, which resembled a plain brick high school, was remodeled and given a more classic facade in 2000 -- a $5.6 million project.
Franklin Conaway, president of the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group, which fought unsuccessfully to save Seneca County's 1884 courthouse, likes to point to another key reason some courthouses are not preserved: the county commissioners' lack of understanding of history.
"We have lost our reverence, understanding, and respect for the importance of the rule of the law as it is represented in our historic courthouses," Mr. Conaway said. "We have to re-establish that reverence and respect as being fundamental to the preservation of our American system of justice and our American way of life."
He said he believes education is the key to preservation efforts.
"If the Seneca County commissioners in their school days had learned what the Seneca County Courthouse represented and why it was so important to the American way of life and how special it was just to the city of Tiffin and Seneca County, if they had that awareness taught to them at a young age, then we would not be looking at this disaster," he said.
Mr. Conaway pointed to Ohio's neighbors in Indiana as an example of state leadership on the issue.
The Indiana Courthouse Preservation Advisory Commission was established in 2008 to advise county officials on the preservation of the more than 80 county courthouses in the state. It released a lengthy report last year about the condition of Indiana courthouses with detailed recommendations on how the state can help counties preserve them.
"Courthouse preservation is a matter of expertise and civic will and respect for the high ideals of our forebears," Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, chairman of the commission, wrote in a forward to the report. "These beautiful structures reflect our better selves, and they should be saved, renewed, and honored."
Thomas Palmer, executive director of Preservation Ohio, said he would not expect to see Ohio's state legislature getting involved with the issue unless and until the public demands it.
"It's the tail-that-wags-the-dog thing," he said. "There has to be public support for this first."
He said time is of the essence.
"These are remarkably aging buildings, and as a building gets older the rate of deterioration gets quicker, not slower, so Band-Aiding has decreasing returns over time."
On the local front
Lucas County Clerk of Courts Bernie Quilter sees that aging process as he looks out his office window in the 1897 courthouse in downtown Toledo. The sandstone is spalling -- the outer layer literally scaling off.
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He and Common Pleas Judge James Jensen are among the biggest cheerleaders for the courthouse, which Judge Jensen likes to call "the jewel of Lucas County." He is known for giving jurors short history lessons on the building during breaks.
"I think this is the most beautiful section of the courthouse," Judge Jensen said while walking toward the entrance where a frog mosaic is set in the tile floor. "My guess is we're the only courthouse in Ohio with a frog at its front door."
While there are no plans to abandon the massive courthouse, Judge Jensen and Mr. Quilter would like to see the county address the exterior spalling and then focus on the inside -- replacing unattractive fluorescent lighting, painting walls in colors other than off-white, and restoring its finer architectural features such as the imitation-marble columns in some of the courtrooms that are now covered by plaster.
"There ought to be in my view a 'wow' factor the minute you walk into this building not only because of what it represents but because of its historical nature," Judge Jensen said.
Mr. Quilter is more direct.
"It's going to be too late before people realize it, and we're going to be into another Seneca County situation," he said.
Sometimes it takes a force outside the commissioners' office to bring attention to a courthouse.
When there was talk of moving one of the Medina County courts out of that northeastern Ohio city's 1841 courthouse and out of the downtown historic district, Medina City Council stepped in to make sure that didn't happen.
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The city agreed to build a parking garage next to the courthouse to alleviate the downtown parking issues with the agreement that the courts would stay put and the county would renovate and expand the courthouse when more space was needed.
"It's a main asset," said Medina City Council President John Coyne. "We are a city of 25,000 residents and we have a historic square. We know that's a valuable asset so we have to make decisions to keep building upon that. If you have a viable square, then surrounding streets and businesses are viable. If the square dies, surrounding businesses die."
Medina County's courthouse -- although altered and added on to over the years -- is one of the oldest continuously operating courthouses in Ohio.
County Administrator Christopher Jakab said commissioners are committed to keeping it that way. The county recently replaced the roof and windows, upgraded electrical and heating and air-conditioning systems, and is working on a clock tower stabilization project.
An architect created plans for an expansion of the building, but when the economy went sour, the plans were shelved, he said.
Preservation Ohio's Mr. Palmer encouraged communities who want to keep their courthouses to get involved -- residents, businesses, local governments, local media.
"Tell the story," he said. "Make sure the stories get out there. Create an environment where demolition is not at the top of the list."
He said what happened in Seneca County ought to be a cautionary tale.
"I've talked to several of the people who were most involved in it, and the philosophy I have heard that has come out of it has been one of regret that there weren't more local people involved," Mr. Palmer said. "For some reason the community did not rally to the extent they may have. … One of the saddest parts is this kind of decision will play itself out tens and hundreds of times over the next years in business decisions."
Mr. Conaway agreed.
While promoting a courthouse renovation plan to Seneca County commissioners, Mr. Conaway stressed repeatedly that the project would spur other investment in downtown Tiffin and in the county as a whole. Demolition, he contends, will negatively affect the local business climate.
To him, it's easy to see why some counties place great value on their courthouses, while others, such as Seneca County, do not.
"It's the difference in the people in power in different communities at any given time," Mr. Conaway said. "I can use the example of communities around the country that have based their resurgence on renovation and restoration of their architectural heritage as compared to the ones that have completely wiped out their architectural heritage.
"The ones that have succeeded have started with a battle of some kind -- usually a grass-roots effort by people who feel these buildings are too important to be lost -- and they stand up and develop a reasonable strategy to succeed.
"Those are the most successful towns in America. I don't care if it's a large city or a small town. The ones that really work -- meaning people are happy living there, they have a quality of life respected by the people who live there as well as visitors, business and industry wants to move there -- those are the ones who respect their architectural heritage while building new. The ones that have just become names and spots on maps are the ones who destroy that heritage."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-724-6129.