Pickaway County, Ohio- Circleville (1847/1889-)

The 1847/1889 Pickaway County, Ohio Courthouse in Circleville.

This sucks: I was reading about Theodore Roosevelt the other day, a giant of a man who happens to not only be my namesake, but someone who also hated being called Teddy. One of his famous quotations came after his daughter Alice -known for her outspoken celebrity- crashed an Oval Office meeting one too many times. After threatening to throw her out the window, the president tiredly admitted to his confidante, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both1.” 

I have to say that I forlornly identify with that sentiment, especially as I review the photos I’ve taken of the courthouse in Pickaway County, Ohio. In my case, the thought goes, “I can either go to every county and take photos of every courthouse or I can take good photos. But I cannot possibly do both.” 

The building is capped with a 90-foot-tall stone tower with terra cotta roofing and louvers.

I think I’m adequately capable of performing the basics of point-and-shoot digital photography. When I fail, I can fix my error in Photoshop. Mostly, my failings have been with regards to circumstance: While many of Indiana’s courthouses can be reached from Muncie by way of a spontaneous day trip, many of those in other states need to be planned in advance. Rain or shine, if I’ve planned a trip, I hit the road- I get excited to add to my courthouse collection! But so far I’ve had rotten luck in Ohio. The camera I used for the majority of this project (a twelve-year-old Sony Cybershot) really struggles with focusing when it’s raining. I thought we were passed that, but I’m an idiot, and I noticed this in last week’s post, as well as in today’s. Eventually I’ll make it back to Circleville to retake better photos, but for now these will have to do. Oh well. When I say that these are the best of the bunch, believe me- they are. 

Anyway- Circleville. That’s an interesting name for a city, isn’t it? Though maybe not for one known far and wide for celebrating the roughly-circular gourd the pumpkin2. Pickaway County was established in 1810, and the state of Ohio sent three men to choose a spot for the county seat. Near the southeastern edge of the new county, the group came across an abandoned Lenape earthwork -an Indian mound- that measured 1,100 feet in diameter. Circleville was founded at the site3, and it took its name from the shape of the mound.

Unfortunately, all traces of the Lenape presence in Circleville were obliterated starting in 1837, when citizens petitioned the state government to re-jigger the town’s layout to a more conventional square. It took nineteen years, but eventually the city -via the state-established “Circleville Squaring Company4” took on the boring new layout that remains today. During my preliminary research I’d read that the last remaining part of the original mound was visible at the corner of Pickaway and Franklin5 streets, but it seems to have disappeared in the 114 years since that book was written. Boo! 

The courthouse features a barely-visible brick addition from 1938 at its southwestern side, at the extreme far left of this image.

Circleville’s first courts were held at the Williamson House, a two-story wooden structure that also housed the local Masonic Lodge6.  The first purpose-built courthouse, though, was located at the center of the circle, at the present-day intersection of Court and Main7. A two-story, octagonal building with a central cupola, the courthouse was constructed in 1814 and lasted through the initial process of squaring the town before being demolished in 1840. Seven years later, a second courthouse was built on the site of the present structure. The 1847 courthouse was a brick, Greek Revival building with a cylindrical, fifty-foot clock tower and basement jail that lasted into the 1880s when commissioners determined it was no longer suitable for the community’s needs. Unfortunately, the citizens of Pickaway County had grown attached to their old courthouse and didn’t want to see it demolished, so officials pulled a wily stunt.

Commissioners petitioned the state with gleaming eyes, asking them to pass a bill that appropriated funds to perform a simple remodel of the old courthouse. What they didn’t tell the state -or their constituents- is that their idea of a renovation was more than just a spit-shine and a new coat of paint. Much of the old building -aside from the jail in the basement- was totally demolished. Bulldozed! By 1890, Pickaway County had basically a brand new courthouse courtesy of architects Frank Weary and George Washington Kramer. The reason that the clock tower abruptly interjects with the building’s central pediment is that the old foundation was too weak to support its intended position in the middle of the roof8

The part of the building that extends to the left, though veneered in stone, is what remains of the 1847 structure.

I’ve actually noticed some discrepancies across various sources as to how much of the old courthouse, if any, remains behind the stone portion dedicated in 1890. Thankfully, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from 1884 and 1889 seem to clear the question up. It appears as though much of the 1847 courthouse -nearly all of it, in fact- was used in the construction of the new one. The side facing Court Street, including the north and south wings, appears to have been newly constructed, a fact which is confirmed in Aaron Van Cleaf’s 1906 book “History of Pickaway County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens,” which advises that “The Court House was enlarged by the addition of two wings, and was made a commodious, substantial structure with abundant light and excellent ventilation, convenient in every way for the business of the people.” Sounds good to me! A further addition in 1937 extending west from the southern wing further changed the building’s appearance, though not by much since it is difficult to see. 

The building visible at right is an 1885 jail completed the same year work started on the revised courthouse.

It makes sense to me that the second courthouse was just heavily altered to achieve it’s current form rather than completely demolished; there’d be no architectural reason to truncate the building’s prominent entry gable to make room for a clock tower aside from just putting it elsewhere. In Indiana, we’ve seen similar renovations that lead us to question the exact date that a courthouse can count as its birthday; namely in Connersville, but also in the former courthouse in Logansport. I guess I’ll say that Circleville’s dates from 1847, but was substantially altered in 1889. I was interested in finding a Civil War monument purportedly on the courthouse grounds that was made from one of the building’s original columns, but I couldn’t find it then. I now know that, at some point, it was relocated to Forest Cemetery. 

The unique placement of the building’s tower gives the Pickaway County Courthouse a look unlike any others I’ve been to.

From its original inception within the perimeter of a Lenape earthwork to the spurious remodel of its 1847 courthouse, Circleville is an intriguing place, pumpkin water tower notwithstanding. Even though a real, honest-to-God 1847 courthouse would have been of real interest to me, getting around the challenges that reusing the old building presented with regards to the tower makes the Pickaway County Courthouse a real, weird, outlier atypical to the rest of Ohio’s portfolio. I wish I’d been able to spend more time there exploring. Next time when the weather’s nicer and I have a little more time, I’ll bring a better camera to snag better photos of the courthouse, as well as the Civil War monument.

Pickaway County (pop. 58,457, 45/88)
Auburn (pop. 13,965).
Built: 1889
Cost: $104,420 ($2.94 million in 2016)
Architect: Frank Weary and George Washington Kramer
Style: Richardson Romanesque
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 90 feet 
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 11/2/2019

1 Ripper, J. American Stories: Living American History, Vol. II: From 1865. M. E. Sharpe, Inc. [Armonk]. 2008. Print. 
2 “History of the Pumpkin Show”. The Circleville Pumpkin Show. The Circleville Pumpkin Show, Inc. Web. Retrieved 10/20/20.
3 Hurt, R. Douglas. “The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720–1830”. Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. 1998. Print.
4 “History of Circleville”. City of Circleville. Web. Retrieved 10/20/20.
5 Van Cleaf, Aaron R. “History of Pickaway County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens”. Biographical Publishing Company [Chicago]. 1906. Print.
6 Courthouse History. Keith Vincent. 2018. Web. Retrieved 10/20/20.
7 “History” Pickaway County Sheriff’s Office. Web. Retrieved 10/20/20.
8 “Pickaway County Courthouse” Ohio History Connection Selections. Ohio Memory. Web. Retrieved 10/20/20. 

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