I have a clodhopper tendency to call any community with a building taller than 300 feet or so “big”. I generally use South Bend, Indiana, as my baseline. It has one tower that meets that requirement, but it still manages to eke out a substantial skyline. At least next to my hometown of Muncie.
For courthouses, I’ve only gone to a few places that qualify as big per my arbitrary standards. Indianapolis (12 above 300) certainly does, as do Fort Wayne (3) and South Bend. Last week we talked about the lack of a historic courthouse in Columbus, Ohio (17 buildings taller than 300 feet). Though I mourned the loss of George Maetzel’s Second Empire leviathan there, I was glad that the rest of Ohio’s largest cities still have old courthouses and mentioned that I’d be excited to go see them all in person. Of course, I forgot that I’ve been to the courthouse in Dayton already, a city with five buildings that tower above my 300-foot rule. I love when I can take a photo of an old courthouse surrounded by skyscrapers!
Even though it’s been there for 170 years, Dayton’s old courthouse wasn’t Montgomery County’s first. Initially, courts were held in a house and in a tavern. In 1806 -ten years after the city was founded- Benjamin Archer built a two-story, brick courthouse for the county at the corner of Main and Third streets. Measuring 42×38 feet, the structure’s peaked roof was altered to be hipped during construction to strengthen it for a cupola and bell to be added later. They arrived in 1815 and 1816, respectively1, but the courthouse only lasted about forty years before it was time for a replacement. And a man named Horace Pease had something to say about that.
Before we continue, I’ve just got to chime in (ugh…) and give Horace some props since self-advocacy has never been my strong suit. I grew up with a never-ending series of ear infections that led to a couple of debilitating speech impediments. My mom had to translate what was basically unintelligible babble to everyone but my closest family! It was terrible. I conquered the problem decades ago, but I’ll always find inspiration in people who fearlessly promote their passions. People like Good Ol’ Horace Pease.
The man was fascinated by antediluvian architecture. So much so, that he owned a book of sketches of the buildings in ancient Athens, which in the 1840s was a big deal. When it came time for a new courthouse, he showed it to local officials. They were so impressed with the Temple of Hephaestus that they decided to recreate it as the new county courthouse2! As if that wasn’t enough, they also committed to using archaic building techniques by directing stonecutters to prepare its locally-quarried limestone with saws, sand, and water, as had been done in ancient Egypt3. An American courthouse designed to replicate a Greek temple by way of Egyptian building techniques? I propose that we all go to the closest Waffle House to celebrate the exuberance.
Cincinnati architect Howard Daniels was hired to draw up a blueprint. In examining the building from the outside, you’d be forgiven for thinking that its floorpan is spartan due to its classical influence and hum-drum footprint. It’s neither. In fact, it took two reads and a video for me to figure out the layout of Daniels’ design. If I’d paid more attention to the courthouse while I was there and less attention to the disheveled man offering to sell me a plastic sack full of unwrapped cough drops, I could have figured it out mostly by myself.
The key to understanding the building is to go inside. If that’s not possible, wander around to the back of it, pictured above. Though the courthouse’s rear elevation is similar to its primary face, it features four squared-off pilasters instead of a portico. Freestanding Ionic columns at each corner suggest symmetry with its front side, but the interesting feature of the rear is what’s behind the columns; a set of curved walls. On the other side of these walls is one of building’s defining interior features, an elliptical courtroom with a second-floor gallery and sunlit dome that protrudes into the building’s attic forty-three feet above the courtroom floor. It’s a simple yet majestic space, but maybe not quite as awe-inspiring as the building’s rotunda. Yes, you heard me right- Daniels stuffed a rotunda into this Greek-inspired temple! It’s twenty feet in diameter and forty feet high with yet another sunlit dome. That’s not to mention the curving, cantilevered staircase that wraps around the walls of the rotunda without any visible means of support, apparently the work of an itinerant Swiss worker in the area to help build locks for the Miami & Erie Canal4. To access the inside of the old courthouse, you go through a pair of ornamented iron doors that each weigh more than a ton5.
The courthouse is surrounded by an L-shaped plaza called Courthouse Square that was dedicated as part of a major, contentious, urban renewal project in 1974. Despite it not actually being a square, the commons frames the building well, effectively offsetting it from its surroundings. “For the first time in 90 years the Old Court House stands free, no longer dwarfed by neighbors of gross proportion and inferior design6,” remarked local columnist Jean Kappel upon its completion. Surprisingly, she was undoubtedly referring to the deletion Montgomery County’s other historic courthouse, built in 1880 right next door to the old one and not the surrounding towers. Yep- Dayton had two old courthouses. Unfortunately, though, if the 1850 courthouse was Sally Field’s misquoted Oscars acceptance speech, its successor was Rodney Dangerfield’s weekly schtick. The building got no respect! Why? I have no idea.
Actually, Dayton had three courthouses for a seven-year period beginning in 1966. There was the 1850 Greek Revival courthouse (always called the “old” courthouse by locals), its 1880 replacement (the “new” courthouse), and the modern, 1966 building three blocks to the west often known as the “Courts building7”). Only the “new” courthouse no longer stands.
There’s precious little information online or in newspapers about it, but I did manage to snag this postcard that shows the “new” courthouse next to the predecessor. I found that a man named Leon Beaver designed the three-story tall building and that it, along with two annexes, a skyway, and the passage between the two courthouses were all demolished to make way for the new plaza. In looking at my postcard, I find nothing ribald or overly ostentatious about the structure, but maybe the reason there’s so little information about the second courthouse is because everyone seems to have hated it. Again, I have no idea why. “It was an insignificant example of out-of-control design8,” said John Kerwood, director of the Montgomery County Historical Society at the time of its destruction. Well then- that’s good enough for me! I guess.
The Courts Building -Montgomery County’s fourth courthouse- was designed by a combination of Lorenz & Williams and Pretzinger & Pretzinger. It was finished in 1966 at a cost of $2.8 million and received a substantial addition in 1987 courtesy of John Ruetshei Associates. It still houses trials, but county offices are housed within the 196-foot tall Montgomery County Administration Building built in 1972 across from Sinclair Community College. The 1850 courthouse underwent a major rehabilitation the year prior and has since served as an event space and asset for the county historical society Dayton History.
I believe that historic courthouses -whether they actually house the courts or not- serve as fantastic anchors to downtowns. Dayton’s certainly does, given its unique history and surrounding square. Though the project was mired in controversy that led to the stores of thirty merchants being destroyed and fears that the plaza would be overrun by hippies9, Horace Pease, the Montgomery County Officials, and their old Temple of Justice seem to have gotten the last laugh. Actually, Daniel C. Cooper did. He’s the pioneer who originally deeded the land to the burgeoning town to expressly serve as a park back on January 27, 1806. Today, it finally does, as Dayton’s Courthouse Square thrives as the home to a historic courthouse and as an active focal point of recreation for people downtown. I can’t think of any better fate.
Montgomery County (pop. 531,687, 5/88)
Dayton (pop. 140,640).
Cost: $100,000 ($3.3 million today)
Architect: Howard Daniels
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Non-governmental
1 Drury, Augustus Waldo. “History of the City of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio” S.J. Clarke Publishing Company [Dayton]. 1909. Print.
2 “The Old Montgomery County Courthouse” Montgomery County Common Pleas Court [Dayton]. Web. Retrieved 12/10/20.
3 “Montgomery County Courthouse” The Supreme Court of Ohio & The Ohio Judicial System. The Supreme Court of Ohio [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 12/10/20.
4 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
5 “ArtiFACT Friday” Dayton History [Dayton]. April 18, 2014. Web. Retrieved 12/10/20.
6 “New Life for an Old Lady” Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. June 24, 1973. 70. Print.
7 “Courthouses Are Her Bag” The Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. October 16, 1969. 18. Print.
8 “Who Was the Ghoul Who Snitched It?” The Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. June 7, 1973. 19. Print.
9 “The Square: from rumor to reality” The Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. July 1, 1989. 3. Print.