If Ohio’s courthouses tend to dance forward and slap me with a pair of sardines, Miami County’s walloped me right in the head with a trout. Good God, the building is incredible! See for yourself while I climb out of the water.
As of this writing (New Years’ Eve), I’ve been to 160 counties across five states to take photos of 193 courthouses. The bulk of those have been around my Indiana home, so it’s not often that I’m gobsmacked by one. As I branched out to other states, I decided that I didn’t want to research or look for photos of the courthouses in advance. It’d be more fun that way, hopefully reminiscent of when I started me down the path of appreciating our courthouses back when I was a kid. I’d make it to or through a county seat, and find the courthouse. That’s what happened in Troy, and then some.
I was already familiar with the town since it once a featured a Marsh Supermarket that became the first grocery store in the world to use a barcode scanner. A 10-pack of Juicy Fruit1 was the inaugural product to be tallied up that way, and Marsh ended up creating a pair of plaques to commemorate the occasion. The first is on display at the Smithsonian Institute, but I’ve actually held the second and examined it up close since it’s in the collection of the Historical Alliance of Yorktown, Indiana, the town in which Marsh was founded and the place where I live.
That’s about all I knew about barcodes, aside from Mad Magazine replacing Alfred E. Neuman’s missing tooth with one early on as a joke. I’m embarrassed to admit that’s entirely all I knew about Troy, Ohio, too! It turns out that Miami County -named after the Miami Indians, of course- was authorized by the Ohio state legislature in 18072, way before they scanned a pack of gum. Troy became the county seat the following year, replacing the town of Staunton. Today Staunton’s essentially part of Troy, located at the corner of Old Staunton Road and OH-202 east of town at the Miami Shores Golf Course. Troy was simply better-positioned, sitting not only on the Great Miami River, but on the Miami and Erie Canal and several important early roads, to boot3.
The courthouse I’m enraptured with is Miami County’s fourth, though they’re on their fifth now and it stands nearby. What of its predecessors? Apparently, the county’s first courts were held at the home of Peter Felix in Staunton in 1807 before moving to a Mr. Overfield’s house in Troy the following year. A succession of other homes followed through May of 1811. The first real courthouse was built that August, a “double house of hewed logs4” with one end for prisoners and the other for a jailer, with the courtroom occupying the building’s second story. William Barbee and Fielding Young built a brick courthouse in Troy in 1816 for $2,475, and A.E. Turnbull built a third in 1841 for nearly ten times that amount. That takes us up to the early 1880s, when Turnbull’s building was no longer capable of suiting the county’s needs. I feel like a broken record repeating this course of events! The 1880s led many counties to replace their antiquated court buildings- there are only so many ways to describe it.
At any rate, Joseph Yost was called to design the next Miami County Courthouse. Here in Indiana, we have our Tolans, our Buntings, our Elmer Dunlaps, and our Edwin Mays. Yost was basically all of those architects combined in Ohio, designing nine courthouses there alone or with his partner Frank Packard of last week’s Putnam County Courthouse. For the building in Troy, Yost worked alone, piecing together a rapturous structure that was completed in 1885 with a central, 185-foot-tall clock tower, raised pediments, complimentary corner domes, and statues all around the roofline. On the inside, he created a floor that used the encaustic process of heating wax to burn color into its tiles, gold-painted cast-iron stairways, a stained glass dome above the courtroom, and ornamental ceilings and arches around the building’s rotunda. The rotunda even features life-sized sculptures of the heads of the races of mankind5. I feel compelled to point out that the scope and scale of the place is downright insane for a county that only had around 36,000 people when the building was planned. That’s about how many people are treated for a chainsaw emergency in the hospital every year6. I do stupid crap like that all the time -as do many- and I’m still fine, which is to say that 36,000 people isn’t a whole lot. They really took pride in their courthouse, as do Miami County’s 107,000 residents today.
Of course there’s probably some misanthropic reprobate who hates it, but that sentiment isn’t conjecture; it’s the truth. Even though the county erected a fifth courthouse -the three-story “Miami County Safety Building” designed by Hart-Ruetschle-Hart in 19727– they’ve done a wonderful job of preserving the Yost’s 1885 masterpiece: it got extensive renovations in 1982 and 1998 that stripped its domes of their cast iron veneer for repair, replaced the windows with efficient copies, and cleaned the building’s limestone walls8. The result is a courthouse that incongruously manages to look both old and new. The safety building, though modern, is no slouch either- facing west with a recessed entryway supported by six concrete pillars.
What ties the complex together is an extraordinarily well-done plaza built around two pentagonal fountains. In fact, the commons was rededicated last October to the tune of $3.6 million after ancient tunnels connecting the courthouse to its power plant across the street caved in and its fountains began leaking. The plaza’s south fountain actually uses stones from the 1850 county jail as its focal point9, which is really neat!
And what about that power plant? I could be wrong, but I never noticed one of these still standing in Indiana, though I’ve stumbled across at least three or four in western Ohio. The plant in Troy, marked on an 1892 Sanborn fire insurance map as the “County Building,” is a one-story brick structure with a 60-foot chimney that housed boilers used to create steam to heat the courthouse. Presumably, it was placed across the street to minimize damage to the courthouse in case of an accident. Today, the building houses the Miami County Operations and Facilities Department.
While the courthouse it served now only holds county officers and a municipal court, it’s still the top dog of Troy. Heck- even though the town features a Lancaster square (a courthouse square similar to a large traffic circle), the courthouse flat-out disregards it by standing three blocks to the northwest. I love it!
Though it first occurred in Troy, it wasn’t long before the novel concept of scanning a barcode to ring up an item began to propagate through the world of retail. Nor did it take Joseph Yost’s design for the Miami County Courthouse much time to make its way across the state to the city of St. Clairsville, where he essentially reused it for the Belmont County Courthouse. That courthouse is majestic, but it doesn’t benefit from the open staging and sense of place Troy’s does. Nor does it use a historically-minded plaza to bridge the generations that separate it from its modern-designed counterpart.
Sometimes I feel like these posts start off well-intentioned but end up devolving into a repeat of Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses. At the risk of oversimplifying, let me just say this about the Miami County Courthouse: The building itself is as great an example of a historic courthouse as you’re likely to find anywhere in Ohio, and the entire arrangement -two courthouses, a historic power plant, and a plaza that ties it all together- is truly unique and nearly floored me when I got to see it in person. Go take a look at it for yourself!
Miami County (pop. 106,987, 25/88)
Van Wert (pop. 26,132).
Cost: $400,000 ($10.73 million today)
Architect: Joseph Yost
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 185 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Fox, Margalit. ”Alan Haberman, Who Ushered In the Bar Code, Dies at 81” The New York Times [New York]. June 15, 2011. Web. Retrieved 12/31/20.
2 “Miami County” Ohio History Central. The Ohio History Connection. Web. Retrieved 12/31/20.
3 “Troy, Ohio” Ohio History Central. The Ohio History Connection. Web. Retrieved 12/31/20.
4 “The History of Miami County, Ohio” W.H. Beers & Co. [Chicago]. 1881. Print.
5 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
6 “Preventing Chain Saw Injuries During Tree Removal After a Disaster” Natural Disasters and Severe Weather. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Washington, D.C.]. Web. Retrieved 12/31/20.
7 Deacon, J. “Miami County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved 1/1/21.
8 “Miami County Courthouse” The Supreme Court of Ohio & The Ohio Judicial System. The Supreme Court of Ohio [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 1/1/21.
9 Bowman, Nancy. “Miami County shows off new courthouse plaza” Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. October 2, 2020. Web. Retrieved 1/1/21.