UPPER SANDUSKY, Ohio — Wyandot County Commissioner Steve Seitz flips off the light in the attic underneath one of the five domes on his county’s magnificent sandstone courthouse.
“Where you see light coming in, that’s where water comes in,” he says.
Lights back on, he points out the remains of a starling’s nest.
“If birds can get in, water can get in,” Mr. Seitz adds.
The county that proudly loaned its elegant and well-preserved courtroom for the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption wants to replace the leaking roof, repair the century-plus old copper gutters, and restore the obviously neglected domes on its 1899 courthouse.
Commissioners voted 3-0 last month to place a 1-mill, six-year bond issue on the November ballot that would raise $2,250,000 to repair and restore “the gutters and everything above that,” as Mr. Seitz put it.
It is expected to cost the owner of a $100,000 home $30 to $35 a year — an amount lifetime Upper Sandusky resident Roger Bowen said he’d be happy to pay.
“It’s one of a kind. It’s beautiful,” Mr. Bowen said after paying his taxes at the downtown courthouse.
He said he would not want his county to do what Wyandot County’s neighbors to the north in Seneca County did when commissioners had their 1884 courthouse demolished last year.
“You can’t tear down history because you’re never going to get it back,” Mr. Bowen said. “I will be for [the bond issue] because when you get to be 81 years old, you’re part of history too.”
Commissioners are counting on that sentiment to get the temporary tax passed, erect scaffolding around the courthouse next spring, and get the work finished over the next year.
First-year Commissioner Bill Clinger told him the biggest challenge will be educating voters that the money raised will be used strictly for structural improvements to the courthouse — not cosmetic ones. The main dome in the center, which has a 10-foot statue of Lady Justice perched on top of it, appears to be rusting; its paint peeling. The problems go much deeper.
“I wasn’t any different from the general public before I was elected,” Mr. Clinger said. “I would walk down the street and think this just needs a fresh coat of paint on it, but when you walk around the roof and see seams splitting.”
The board agreed that repairing the top section of the courthouse was vital before any more damage could be caused down below. On the third floor, some of the plaster ceilings and molding in the corridors have visible water damage.
Former Wyandot County Commissioner Mike Wheeler said the board had wanted to make the repairs for several years but didn’t feel the time was right because of the economy.
“Times being what they were, we were hesitant,” he said. “With us getting less money and less money from the state, it was hard to put scaffolding up and lay people off at the same time. We couldn’t do that.”
Now, Mr. Wheeler is chairing Wyandot Courthouse Restoration, a political action committee formed to promote the bond issue. A history buff, he is partial to the courthouse, which was built in 1899 for $199,740 and dedicated the next year by Ohio Gov. George Nash.
“We’ve got to give the old gal — the old courthouse — a little bit of a positive shake because it’s stood since 1900. It’s held together very well, and there’s a lot of beauty still there,” Mr. Wheeler said. “She’s been there through 20 presidents, and there’s been right at about 370 feet of water — and part of it this week — that’s fallen since she was put up.”
Neither Commissioners Seitz nor Ron Metzger said they’ve heard a single negative comment about the project. Mr. Clinger said Wyandot County is a rural, agricultural area, and the farmers there would bear a larger burden of the new tax.
“Common question we’ve had is why don’t you just do this one piece at a time and spread out the cost, but it’s like anything with the economy of scale,” Mr. Clinger said. “If you hire a painter to paint your house and you just have him do one wall at a time, and add those four pieces together, it would be a lot more than if you got a price for the whole house.”
“And this is a big house,” Mr. Seitz added.
Walking through the front doors of the courthouse, visitors are greeted by a grand, wide staircase that rises forward to the third floor. Stained glass, ornate woodwork, murals, and decorative plaster work adorn the interior.
The courtroom is largely untouched from its original design. County Prosecutor Jonathan Miller said it’s a pleasure to practice law there.
“It’s one of the most majestic courtrooms in the state,” he said.
While the county is small with just 22,800 people, the courthouse is home to nearly every county office, which makes it a busy place. Residents come there to pay taxes, buy dog licenses, get a marriage license, and register to vote.
Both the Republican and Democratic party chairmen have expressed support for the project.
“That’s our home,” said Sherm Stansbery, GOP chairman. “If you own a house and there’s something wrong with it, you fix it. We own the courthouse, so we fix it.”
Pride and ownership in the county courthouse got a boost nearly 20 years ago when Warner Brothers arrived in town to film some scenes for The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne, played by actor Tim Robbins, was wrongfully convicted in that courtroom of murdering his wife and her lover.
“It’s helped bring recognition to the courthouse. It’s gotten people in to see it,” said Bill Mullen, an organizer of the Shawshank Redemption Reunion held in 2008.
“I feel all the support we can get is important, whether it’s Hollywood or just locals, so they know what they’ve got.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-213-2134.