Welp, I guess it’s time to start Ohio.
Want to hear a terrible metaphor? I was thinking about pickles the other day, which is somewhat unusual for me but certainly not unheard of after spending nearly four years as an expert in home canning through the Ball brand. The Defiance County Courthouse in Defiance, Ohio is definitely the Vlasic of courthouses. That’s quite the accusation. I’ll explain.
A tomato extracted from a glass quart jar, whether canned in water or its own juice, will still taste like a tomato when eaten. So will peaches. Low-acid foods done in a pressure canner, like green beans or chili, will still taste like green beans and chili when you pull them out. Cucumbers, though? Nope! Now they taste like pickles. And that’s a completely different taste.
Think of the original iteration of the current Defiance County Courthouse as a prize-winning cucumber, fresh off the vine. It spent eighty-five years this way, before wasting another fifty-eight being rotten. As of this writing, the courthouse has spent four years as a pickle. I know that vegetables don’t stay fresh for that long unless they’re pumped full of Monsanto steroids, but anyway, the comparison works. Understand?
The gherkin, today’s subject, was originally built in 1873 to replace a 28-year-old Greek Revival courthouse. Self-taught architect J.C. Johnson designed the current one in the Second Empire style, completing three other similar buildings in Indiana over the course of that decade. For the most part, all of those buildings feature remarkably similar contrasting brick and Berea sandstone construction, as well as ornamental, vermiculated quoins and keystones1. Unfortunately, they all shared another similarity- one that wasn’t so great. J.C. Johnson (how do I put this lightly) couldn’t design a clock tower to save his life. Really!
It’s not like that’s anything to be ashamed of. I can’t ride a unicycle while spinning plates on a pool cue and he couldn’t design clock towers. These are just the facts- hell, I can draw a good clock tower on a sheet of graph paper, but that’s about it! Then again, I also don’t do that for a living. It makes me feel better to credit him as a good enough architect to win second place in the competition to design the current Indiana State House, though.
Nonetheless, the dome at the State House has never come close to toppling over, which is more than be said for Johnson’s 1870s quadruplets3. As early as 1900, commissioners in Adams County, Indiana realized that Johnson’s design provided inadequate support for the 1872 courthouse’s central tower, which had been moved from the front of the building at the last minute to fit in with an emergent trend known as “county capitol.” The tower was promptly removed and replaced two years later with a more sound design supplied by a competitor.
Johnson’s courthouse tower in Noblesville, Indiana lasted the longest by far, until a $4 million renovation in the mid 1990s committed funds to replacing the rotten, wooden landmark4 perched atop the 1879 structure. Elsewhere in Indiana, it took the abnormally-narrow tower (100 feet tall and 18 feet long and wide) at Johnson’s 1875 Randolph County Courthouse more than eighty years to come down once the state Fire Marshall noted that it had shifted from its original supports and that its exposed wooden beams made it extremely susceptible to immolation5. The building looked okay without the tower and corresponding mansard roof, but thankfully both were restored in 2011.
Those elements at the courthouse in Defiance lasted slightly longer than Winchester’s by holding out until 19586. However, commissioners didn’t even try to make the building’s decapitation look harmonious. Instead, it looked awful- like a rotten cucumber.
Above is Indiana’s Porter County Courthouse in Valparaiso. As you can see, the third floor doesn’t match the rest of it. That’s the result of a 1934 fire that destroyed the clock tower, hipped roof, and several significant elements and pieces of statuary. Due to several issues, officials there were forced to wait three years before completing the building’s renovation, spending much of that intervening time meeting in the burned-out building’s basement. At least the renovation matched its color, preserved some ornamentation, and alluded to features on the bottom levels of the courthouse. Defiance County’s decapitated design made no attempt to do any of that; it was alarmingly ugly. Think the top floor of the Porter County Courthouse, rendered in brick, then run through a Mosaic filter set to 18 square in Photoshop. Terrible! Here’s a pair of postcards from before and after the initial renovation from about the same angle:
After nearly fifty years of spoiling, the old pickle became subject of political debate after the turn of the century, just as its sibling in Winchester did around the same time. In 2006, voters rejected an increased sales tax aimed at raising $13 million to tear it down and provide room for other government offices7. Whether the building was worth saving due to its historic value was still up for grabs, though, since the 1958 remodel did more than just change the exterior of the courthouse- it also seriously compromised the integrity of the interior. Even a county commissioner, Otto Nicely, noted that, saying “they tore out the woodwork and the marble and the facade in the 1950s and added a third floor,” arguing that the vote against demolition prioritized a desire against new taxes at the expense of saving the courthouse8. I can see that; It’s a legitimate argument.
Nevertheless, the courthouse was granted a stay and renovated courtesy of DLZ, an architectural firm that has worked on several other historic courthouses. The $1.5 million project included the demolition and replacement of the building’s roof, a tuck-point and cleansing of its bricks and stone, the removal of the third-floor parapet in exchange for a new mansard roof, and the addition of a cupola over the west entry of the courthouse9. The resultant building is a remarkably-vast step up from its predecessor, particularly given its smallish budget and the inventive reuse of its current third-story floorplan. It’s great as a pickle, yet tastes and appears totally different than it did as a cucumber. If anything, I think the current structure fits a modern interpretation of the American exuberance we found during the great courthouse boom of 1870-1910, where architects were content to mash up different styles into new structures.
The restored courthouse rises eighty feet into the Defiance County sky, much shorter than the original’s 125-foot height. But the courthouse’s new cupola certainly made its gleaming presence known when I came into town crossing the Maumee River on Clinton Street compared to before, when the lopped-off, ugly tower sort of got lost next to the fire escape of the low-rise Masonic Temple a block north.
Fresh cucumbers may not be a dime a dozen, but they are fifty-nine cents each, at least at Meijer, so they’re quite common. Brick, Second Empire courthouses with clock towers are just about equally-prevalent across Indiana and Ohio, though there are some rotten stinkers here and there. One of the best parts about canning pickles is the wide variety of tastes, spices, textures, and methods to choose from to create a really unique treat once you’ve selected the right cucumber. Starting with J.C. Johnson’s recipe and some ineffectual tweaks from 1958, DLZ and the Defiance County Commissioners engineered a truly unparalleled recipe in the current form of the county courthouse. Hopefully it remains shelf-stable for years to come.
Defiance County (pop. 38,087, 65/88)
Defiance (pop. 16,663).
Built: 1873, renovated 2016
Cost: $72,000 ($1.44 million in 2016), $1.5 million
Architect: J.C. Johnson/DLZ
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 80 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 National Register of Historic Places, Adams County Courthouse, Decatur, Adams County, Indiana, National Register # 8000914.
2 Enyart, David. “Architects” Indiana County Courthouse Histories. ACPL Genealogy Center, 2010-2018. Web. 8/9/20.
3 Dilts, Jon. The Magnificent 92 Indiana Courthouses. Bloomington. Indiana University Press. 1999. Print.
4 “Envisioning a new look for our courthouse” The Noblesville Ledger [Noblesville]. February 13, 1993: 2. Print.
5 “Randolph County Officials Study Bids For Work on Historical Courthouse” The Palladium-Item [Richmond] April 15, 1954: 11. Print.
6 Vincent, Keith. Courthouse History. Web. Retrieved 10/21/20.
7 “Defiance Co. courthouse likely facing renovation” The Toledo Blade [Toledo]. February 1, 2016. Web. Retrieved 10/20/20.
8 “Defiance County voted no on courthouse demolition” The Toledo Blade [Toledo]. July 8, 2007. Web. Retrieved 10/20/20.
9 “Defiance County Courthouse Remodeling Project” County Commissioners Association of Ohio. Web. Retrieved 10/20/20.