I used to hate additions to historic buildings. I couldn’t believe the crass ways architects added onto those local treasures! Of course, it eventually occurred to me that the people who most often frequent an old building for business, work, or whatever are probably the least likely to appreciate its historic details but are likely the first to notice its antiquated shortcomings. I’d even gone to a historic, Collegiate Gothic high school built in 1929 without noticing most of its interesting minutiae. “Crap,” I said when I thought about it- I was a hypocrite! I became ambivalent towards additions, renovations, and expansions. But the historic Union County Courthouse in Marysville, Ohio has an enormous conjoined annex. Crap!
Naturally, I have some information to accompany my opinionated bluster. First things first: Commissioners of Union County, Ohio -named so due to its formation from segments of Franklin, Delaware, Logan, and Madison counties- chose Toledo architect David W. Gibbs to design the original iteration of the current courthouse there. Gibbs was one of Ohio’s most prolific courthouse architects, completing five there along with two more in Michigan. His crowning architectural achievement, though, is the 146-foot-tall1 Wyoming State Capitol completed in 1917, twenty-eight years after his final courthouse. That’s quite a delay for a practicing architect. What was that about?
Well, Gibbs was a busy man. In 1889, he moved to an unsettled part of Indian territory to stake his claim during what’s now called the Oklahoma Land Run2. One of 10,000 homesteaders to settle in present-day Oklahoma City, he established a popular ice cream parlor that featured the area’s only piano. While Gibbs was out in the boondocks, Congress passed an act that enabled the recently-established Oklahoma Territory to legally authorize cities and counties. Gibbs was appointed chairman of a board of trustees that organized Oklahoma City’s first election on August 9, 1890 and today officials there recognize him as the town’s fourth mayor, after he served a perfunctory term of not quite two full months3.
David Gibbs was born in Massachusetts, then he moved to Ohio to be an architect. Then he moved to Oklahoma to be a mayor and ice cream man, and near the end of his days he came back to Ohio where he died right after finishing the Wyoming State Capitol. Like I said, the man was busy! So much so, in fact, that he tended to economize his architectural practice by reusing his designs. Seen from its south and east sides, the Union County, Ohio Courthouse in Marysville is shockingly similar to Henry County, Ohio’s courthouse in Napoleon. Aside from the materials and finish, they’re practically twins! Take a quick walk around the square, though, and you’ll see that the comparison ends at the courthouse’s northwest front. There, Meacham & Apel’s three-story, 2001 Justice Center addition4 branches off at a weird angle. I hate it! I think. Well, maybe I don’t care. Chalk me up to being apathetic.
The building Gibbs designed for Union County features an exterior largely composed of brick, but with cut stone accents and a galvanized iron tower and trim. Both of his courthouses in Napoleon and Marysville feature mansard roofs with pyramidal corners, along with stone porticos on squat pilasters that feature central sculptures of a flag5.
The most prominent feature of both courthouses is their clock towers, which rise 168 feet skyward. Union County’s is capped by a ten-foot tall Lady Justice statue6. The original Howard & Co. clock from Boston was wound by the courthouse’s janitor until 1942, when a rusty cable snapped and a weight broke through the skylight of the building’s rotunda, nearly beaning a court reporter. It’s since been upgraded to run on electricity7.
Inside, the courtrooms feature twenty-four images of locations unique and important to the community. Before the building was added onto in 2000, it was renovated and rededicated six years earlier during a project that added ADA access, conference rooms, a bulletproof judge’s bench, and a new holding cell for juvenile miscreants8.
The four-story, 25,600-square-foot Justice Center, completed in 2000 for $4 million houses probation, sheriff, and prosecutor’s offices. As a cool callback to an earlier time, the center was designed to contain a single iron door with a gold, embossed, lion’s head= from the 1873 county jail demolished to make way for it9.
In 2013, work began to repair the courthouse after it suffered significant damage from a windstorm; $400,000 brought fixes to the statue of Lady Justice, a new roof, replacements for some leaky windows, and patches for holes in the iron tower. The sword that Lady Justice once carried had been been blown off when the remnants of Hurricane Ike hit the region in 2008 and after it’d been left in the office of the county facilities manager, it was restored during the same project10.
I’m glad that work has been done to protect this building, but it seems like even more might be coming for the area, which has seen its needs increase. In 2017, county officials purchased an old bank nearby and floated plans to add a four-story addition to the courthouse’s existing four-story addition, increasing their campus by 32,000 square feet at a cost of up to $20 million11. We’ll see what happens- work was being done at the courthouse while I was onsite, but it seemed minor and I can’t find much information as to what was going on.
I like that the addition juts off of the building at that crazy angle, but it’s still new. I vacillate back and forth about modern additions to historic buildings- remember? But wait! I often repeat this, but I’m a tourist. I don’t conduct business in any of the courthouses I visit, so who am I to judge the utility of one? Like I said, the only historic building I’ve spent significant time in was my ninety-one-year-old high school, which, if we’re being honest, had only been preserved by the installation of new drywall, drop ceilings, and, yes, additions over the years, the earliest occurring during 1939. The place was changed just ten years after it was built! Surely those early alterations are now, themselves, historic. An old building’s history is a real Ship of Theseus slippery slope. Just how long does it take for more recent additions to become canon?
With regards to prominent structures, I guess I’m finally inclined to say immediately and break my indifferent streak. If the Union County Courthouse in Marysville had to receive its addition to continue to serve its constituents and remain viable, then I can truly say that I understand and appreciate ‘em: Practical matters aside, I think expansions and annexes add to the midwest’s portfolio of historic courthouse by serving as points of differentiation between otherwise similar buildings. The courthouses in Napoleon and Marysville -with and without expansions- are a perfect example of this dichotomy. The more, the merrier, I always say!
Actually, I like to be alone, so I never say that. But when it comes to the Union County Courthouse in Marysville, the justice center has provided a stark contrast to some of Gibbs’ other, confusingly-similar works. While I’ll always veer towards an original building first, I’ll take one with a modern expansion over a slew of copies any day! That goes for this courthouse, Burris Laboratory School, and all the rest.
All this to say that I like our county courthouses.
Union County (pop. 58,988, 46/88)
Van Wert (pop. 24,267).
Cost: $135,015 ($3.42 million today)
Architect: David W. Gibbs
Style: Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 168 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 “David W. Gibbs & Company” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2020. Web. Retrieved 1/1/21.
2 Wilson, Linda D. “Oklahoma City” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Oklahoma Historical Society. Web. Retrieved 1/1/20.
3 “Office of the Mayor” The City of Oklahoma City [Oklahoma City]. Web. Retrieved 1/1/21.
4 Deacon, J. “Union County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved 1/1/21.
5 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
6 “Union County Courthouse -Marysville” Waymarking.com. Groundspeak, Inc. 2021. Web. Retrieved 1/9/21.
7 “Union County Courthouse in Marysville, Ohio” Ohio Guide Collection. Ohio History Connection. Web. Retrieved 1/9/21.
8 “Union County Courthouse” The Supreme Court of Ohio & The Ohio Judicial System. The Supreme Court of Ohio [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 12/27/20.
9 Brake, Cindy. “Justice Center about to spring from drawing board” The Marysville Journal-Tribune [Marysville]. September 2, 1999. 1. Print.
10 Zachariah, Holly. “Repairing two courthouses a tall order” The Columbus Dispatch [Columbus]. January 28, 2013. Web. Retrieved 1/1/21.
11”Population growth, increased caseload leads to Union County Justice Center addition” The Columbus Dispatch [Columbus]. December 9, 2017. Web. Retrieved 1/10/21.