I took an online rhetoric class at a community college last year that involved writing a persuasive paper. I focused on the value that historic courthouses provide their communities and how they tend to serve as commercial anchors to their downtowns. Any courthouse does that, but old ones demonstrated that courthouses with history contributed far above the baseline and actually abetted new development.
There are a few times my theory hasn’t held true, though they’re usually cases from previous decades. The County-City Building that South Bend built in the late 1960s inspired two new bank skyscrapers in ensuing years1 that gave the city a respectable skyline. In New Albany, the 1961 City-County Building took the place of several historic structures but ushered in an era of new construction- two banks, a federal courthouse, and a post office came downtown shortly after it was built2. Finally, it was out with the old and in with the new in Muncie during the years after the 1887 Beaux Arts courthouse was torn down and its brutalist replacement erected in 1969. There, the Old Little Block and Delaware Hotel relics made way for the new concrete headquarters of First Merchants Bank and the Delaware Gas Company3.
That was the 1960s and 70s, though, and today is now. It’s not so common to see a historic courthouse be demolished, and it’s less common to see a downtown flourish in its wake. But that’s what happened in Tiffin, the seat of Seneca County, Ohio.
Tiffin’s a city of just under 20,000 people situated on the Sandusky River about an hour southeast of Toledo. It was founded in 1821 and named county seat three years later. The gas boom found the place in the 1880s and related industries came to town. So assured was Seneca County’s promise that no less than E.E. Myers -designer of the Michigan, Texas, and Colorado state capitols by that point- submitted plans for a new courthouse to properly serve the growing area. When completed in 1886, Myers’ 148-foot-tall, Beaux Arts structure featuring was the crown jewel of downtown Tiffin. It stayed that way for nearly sixty years.
We all know the story of the gas boom. Don’t we? The Trenton gas field was practically used up in less than twenty years since people thought it was infinite. People used to light gas pipes and exhibit the flames as tourist attractions! Wasted.
Despite it all, Seneca County continued to grow. By 1940 it was clear that the area’s evolving needs didn’t square with the state of the courthouse. Subsequently, a number of changes occurred. First, a fourth story was carved out from the high ceilings of the courtroom in order to provide badly-needed room for a law library. An elevator was installed in the building’s rotunda, blocking off its stained glass skylight.
To me, the most apparent alteration came in 19444, when the county decided to modernize the building’s exterior in a manner similar to what the commissioners of Erie County had done with their old Beaux Arts courthouse five years prior5. The clock tower was stripped down to a blocky, streamlined mass forty-one feet shorter than its original configuration6. Unfortunately, the project stalled before stopping entirely when the funds dried up.
In 2002, the county built a modern Italianate courthouse annex next to the building. They entirely abandoned Myers’ structure two years later, taking up shop in offices spread around town. The courthouse was labeled Ohio’s “Most Endangered Historic Site” in 2007 after commissioners seemed fully invested in demolishing it after years of neglect. Preservation Ohio, that state’s version of Indiana Landmarks, which had listed the building two years earlier, said that “It would be impossible to overestimate the loss of this iconic building would have on the revitalization of historic downtown Tiffin, with resulting negative impact to the entire community7.” I agreed, rhetoric project in the rear-view, which is why I was surprised to see the town rebound after the building was contentiously demolished in 2012, the first example of a historic Ohio Courthouse to be knocked down in a generation.
That brings us to the new courthouse, officially the Seneca County Justice Center. It’s construction was antagonistic. I was amused to find a Toledo Blade editorial from 2017 that described its topping-out ceremony as “an orgy of self-congratulation,” called the commissioners who led the project “bullying and unimaginative…lost in their own derangement,” and referred to the building as both an “ugly, new white elephant” and a “soulless architectural nonentity,” while its decapitated, feral predecessor was nothing short of “lovely” and “a particular work of beauty8.” Oof!
When I rolled into Tiffin I expected the worst but was surprised at how well the new courthouse fit with downtown. Despite an almost clinical execution of the main tropes of the Second Empire style, the courthouse works, and that’s largely due to its scale. Other than sky-scraping office towers, when in the past sixty years have we seen a new courthouse that’s actually taller than its predecessor? This one rises to 135 feet, including a statue of Lady Justice that resembles one once found on the demolished building. You can even see it from across the river!
What you can’t do, though, is compare the aesthetics of this courthouse to its predecessor. Maybe that’s why it was executed in a totally different style. When I think of Second Empire, I think of brick, a mansard roof, and dormer windows. This new courthouse has all of that. The ground floor resembles the raised, stone basements often found in older courthouses, though it rises to full height and is topped with a projecting water table. Throughout the first three stories, window bays are recessed and separated by stone and brick pilasters that provide subtle depth and texture.
The fourth floor -within the mansard roof- is separated from the lower stories by way of a prominent cornice and decorative corbels that come straight from the Second Empire cookbook, as do its arched dormers. This is all good, even if the sum of it lacks the eclectic exuberance of actual Second Empire courthouses found around these parts. So many modern courthouses really miss the mark on achieving the status of a landmark, but Tiffin’s really nailed it. I’m glad the community didn’t end up with some bland, low-rise justice center like many do. I suppose my only point of contention is that the new building wound up costing $15 million- nearly double what it would have cost to renovate the old building, and half again above the original estimate to build anew9. I don’t live there, though, so I don’t really care!
Anyway, even without a historic courthouse to anchor the place, Tiffin’s downtown has managed to grow and thrive since the current one was built. Its demolition caused citizens to rally around the city’s remaining buildings from the Victorian era, an effort that convinced local officials to invest in them before it was too late. Starting in 2015, the local government set aside $100,000 a year for facade enhancement grants of up to $10,000 per owner. In 2017, cosmetic renovations were performed on twenty buildings, while ten new businesses opened downtown that created 41 new jobs10. That’s more than many small county seats in the rust belt can boast!
If an old courthouse must be demolished, we can only hope that doing so spurs its community to act to repair its other old buildings before it’s too late. Seneca County stakeholders acted to preserve the rest of Tiffin’s historic downtown, and they deserve all the props for doing so.
Seneca County (pop. 55,718, 47/88)
Tiffin (pop. 17,546)
Architect: Silling Associates
Style: Modern Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 135 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “South Bend” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2020. Web. Retrieved 11/10/20.
2 “New Albany Builds Remedy for Decay” The Muncie Evening Press [Muncie] July 9, 1965: 1. Print
3 “Muncie” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2020. Web. Retrieved 11/10/20.
4 Genet, Craig L. “A new courthouse for Tiffin, Ohio” Cardinal Scholar. Ball State University [Muncie]. Web. Retrieved 11/10/20.
5 Vincent, Keith. Courthouse History. Web. Retrieved 11/10/20.
6 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
7 ”Preservation group will announce ‘most Endangered Historic Site’ The Telegraph-Forum [Bucyrus]. April 17, 2007. 7. Print.
8 “Seneca County’s derangement” The Toledo Blade [Toledo]. April 21, 2017. Web. Retrieved 11/11/20.
9 “Seneca County courthouse project progressing” The Toledo Blade [Toledo]. September 15, 2017. Web. Retrieved 11/11/20.
10 “Historic rebirth: Tiffin on upswing years after courthouse battle” The Toledo Blade [Toledo]. July 1, 2018. Web. Retrieved 11/11/20.