Franklin County, Ohio- Columbus (2011-)

The 1887 Franklin County Courthouse, demolished in 1974.

You’ve just GOTTA see the 1877 Franklin County Courthouse in Columbus, Ohio! Unfortunately,  though, you can’t since it was demolished forty-six years ago. Today we’ll be talking about its successors, a group of buildings known as the Franklin County Government Center, but here’s a postcard of the old building -equal parts Second Empire marvel and Victorian monstrosity- I picked up on Ebay. They sure don’t make them like they used to!

So far, I’ve devoted the majority of my Ohio writings to the counties up and down the state’s westernmost regions. Today, we’ll plow right into its biggest city, which also happens to be the state capital though it wasn’t always that way. After Ohio became a state in 1803, arguments between the area’s political leaders forced the capital to move from Chillicothe to Zanesville, before winding up back in Chillicothe a second time. Keen to establish a city closer to the geographical center of the new state and near major waterways, officials settled on naming a site near Franklinton as the state government’s permanent home. Eventually, that became Columbus, but if you’re interested in early Ohio history, you can go to Chillicothe and see a 1940 replica of the original statehouse at 50 West Main Street that uses a couple of stones from the original building. Be sure to check out the Ross County Courthouse while you’re there- it’s really unique.

The buildings that make up the Franklin County Government Center- from left to right, the Municipal Court Building, the Hall of Justice, the Franklin County Office Tower, and the 1971 Franklin County Jail.

The first courthouse in Columbus was built in 1840. For $40,000, officials got a Greek Revival building with columns and a simple clock tower, along with a basement jail underneath a sheriff’s residence1. A common pleas courtroom was added to the south side of the building in 18522. The big courthouse came in 1887, nine years after its predecessor was ravaged by a fire that destroyed many of the county’s records. In 1951, the county added a $2.5 million annex to the big guy but, unfortunately, the courthouse itself was nearly finished. With structural faults too costly to repair3 (a phrase I’ve encountered several times without any elaboration) the building was demolished in 1974. The addition still stands, though, now housing offices related to law enforcement and known as the James A. Karnes Building. Next to the that building is a hole in the ground called Dorrian Commons Park that was the site of the 1840 and 1887 courthouses. The entire area was cordoned off when I was in town, so I didn’t get to take any pictures.

The 1973 Franklin County Hall of Justice

The first of the Franklin County Government Center buildings to be completed on the new site was a jail at the southwest corner of West Mound and South Front streets in 1971, followed soon after by the adjacent Franklin County Hall of Justice, which was finished in 19734. Though its name conjures up images of Superman and Wonder Woman, the ten-story building was purely functional, constructed to take over the Franklin County Common Pleas Court from the old courthouse. Originally built mostly of concrete and brick, the building is what you’d expect of the 1970s. At around 130 feet tall, it eclipses the cupolas of only Ohio’s most basic historic courthouses, though it’s still obviously a large building.

The 1979 Franklin County Municipal Court Building

Behind the Hall of Justice is the 18-story Columbus Municipal Court Building, which stands at the northwest corner of South High and Fulton streets. In 1916, the Ohio General Assembly created the Columbus Municipal Court, which was given countywide jurisdiction in 1955. In 1968, the court’s name was changed to the Franklin County Municipal Court, and eleven years later it moved from city hall to this concrete, 245-foot-tall high-rise5. It’s connected to the Karnes Building by a skyway that crosses High Street. Today, the structure is still home to the city courts.

The 27-story Franklin County Office Tower behind the county’s juvenile detention facility.

The landmark at the Franklin County Government Center is what’s frequently called the Franklin County Courthouse but is known to the county as the Franklin County Office Tower. At twenty-seven stories and 464 feet tall, it’s the seventh-tallest building in Columbus. It’s huge! It took about a year to top the building out after work started in 1989, but the courthouse was completed by June of 1991. At 644,000 square feet, the building contains a ridiculous 25,000 cubic yards of concrete, 6,170 tons of steel, 194,000 square feet of granite chipped precast, and 47,350 more square feet of conventional granite6. A two-story atrium facing High Street connects the tower to the Hall of Justice and the Municipal Court Building. Today, it’s home to most of Franklin County’s government offices.

The government center buildings are connected by this atrium and entrance.

So which of those buildings is the current courthouse? Well, they all sort of are, but let me add a write-in to the ballot. Over the years, the county’s kept growing- from 961,000 people in 1990 to nearly 1.2 million in 2010 per the census. The Hall of Justice was running out of room! To allow for more growth, Franklin County built a new Common Pleas Courthouse in 2011 for the princely sum of $105 million! Seven stories contain 325,000 square feet of space that accommodates twenty common pleas courtrooms, ten magistrate courtrooms, two special proceedings courtrooms, and other offices. Though modern, it is a total stunner. Though the only monumental features to my eye are the larger-than-life enclosed porch and the huge Franklin County seal on the building’s east wall, the new courthouse’s placement on a lawn of its own gives a distinctly different feel than the cluster of towers to its south- it really seems to embrace its role as a successful, contemporary update of the concept of a courthouse. As part of the project, a $16 million entrance pavilion that compliments the new courthouse was added to the older Hall of Justice, along with a tunnel to connect the two buildings. 

The 2011 Franklin County Common Pleas Courthouse

The construction of the new Common Pleas Courthouse actually meant more for the Hall of Justice than a spit-shine and tunnel- it caused the building to be abandoned. The Hall of Justice sat empty from 2011 through 2014, when it was extensively renovated via a $48.3 million project to strip it of its asbestos insulation (a 90,000-man-hour job8), add new fireproofing and a replacement roof, upgrade the elevators, and give it a facelift via new curtain wall glass and clean concrete and brick. You’ll have to take my word for it, but the old building looks nearly brand new. Its first four stories have become home to the Franklin County Common Pleas Court’s adult probation unit, along with with Franklin County Law Library. The remainder of the building’s floors are currently empty pending anticipated future needs.

Here’s another shot of the 2011 courthouse that includes its massive seal. Behind it to the left is the government complex.

The Municipal Court Building will likely be the next structure in the complex to come under the gun. If plans go through, it’ll be renovated for use of the county sheriff when a new structure takes the place of Dorrian Commons (that hole in the ground I mentioned) and the Karnes Building. Under the scheme, the former Hall of Justice will be renamed in honor of Michael Dorrian (a former county commissioner) and a jail at the west side of the county will take a new name from James A. Karnes, Franklin County’s longest-served sheriff) while the 1971 jail will, too, be abandoned9. Who knows what the future will bring?

For now, though, we’ve got the current mix of building to consider when it comes to the Franklin County Courthouse in Columbus. I hate that George Maetzel’s courthouse was destroyed, but Isaac Hodgson’s Marion County Courthouse closer to home in Indianapolis suffered the same fate. Unfortunately for us Hoosiers, only four of Hodgson’s courthouses still remain, and none of them resemble his courthouse in Indianapolis. It’s hard to get a vibe of the old Marion County Courthouse off of any of them.

Maetzel’s Madison County Courthouse in London is a smaller ringer for his building in Columbus.

Maetzel’s other courthouses, however, tell a different story- three of them still stand mostly unadulterated, and I’ve been to all of them. The Madison County Courthouse in London, in particular, resembles the old courthouse in Columbus. Add a second window bay to either flank along with some wings, and you’re almost there. Go a step further and mentally blow it up with a big air compressor like you’re in a cartoon and you’ve got yourself a dead ringer! I’ll be very interested to write about it.

Here’s one last shot of the 2011 courthouse, with the renovated Hall of Justice to the left and Dorrian Commons Park just off camera to the right.

Although I lament the loss of any historic courthouse, I can take solace in two things: the first is that examples of three other Maetzel courthouses remain across the state for all to see, and the second is that although Columbus no longer has theirs, Ohio’s other largest cities -Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Toledo, and Akron- all retain historic courthouses of their own. As excited as I am to examine the Madison County Courthouse in writing, I’ll be more excited to see those grand, old beauties in person. But, as far as modern courthouses are concerned, Franklin County officials could have done much worse than their new Common Pleas building. It’s a stunner!

Franklin County Common Pleas Courthouse
Franklin County (pop. 1,317,000, 1/88)
Columbus (pop. 892,533).
Built: 2011
Cost: $105,000,000
Architect: Design Group and Arguitectonica
Style: Modern
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 7 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 11/2/2019

Franklin County Office Tower
Built: 1991
Cost: $75,000,000
Architect: URS Consultants, Inc.
Style: Modern
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 464 feet
Current Use: County offices and some courts
Photographed: 11/2/2019

Franklin County Municipal Courts Building
Built: 1979
Cost: ?
Architect: Prindle & Patrick
Style: Modern
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 245 feet
Current Use: Municipal Courts
Photographed: 11/2/2019

Franklin County Hall of Justice
Built: 1973
Cost: ?
Architect: Prindle & Patrick
Style: Modern
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 10 stories
Current Use: County offices
Photographed: 11/2/2019

1 “Old Franklin County Courthouse illustration” Columbus Metropolitan Library [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 12/6/20.
2 Lee, Alfred Emory. History of the City of Columbus, Capital of Ohio, Volume 2
3 “Franklin County Courthouse” The Supreme Court of Ohio & The Ohio Judicial System. The Supreme Court of Ohio [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 12/6/20.
4 Brown, Don L. “Administering a Successful Courthouse Project” Ohio Courthouse Symposium. Franklin County Administration. May 16, 2014. Web. Retrieved 12/7/20.
5 “History” Franklin County Municipal Court [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 12/6/20.
6 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print. 
7 “Franklin County Courthouse” Gilbane Building Company [Providence]. Web. Retrieved 12/7/20.
8 “County seeking bids for Hall of Justice renovations” Columbus Business First [Columbus]. February 1, 2013. Web. Retrieved 12/7/20.
9 “New Municipal Courthouse to replace Downtown park at South High and Mound streets” The Columbus Dispatch [Columbus]. 1/23/20. Web. Retrieved 12/6/20.

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