Guess what? It’s President’s Day! I’ll be celebrating by ignoring competitive bidding processes and selling crude oil reserves up at Teapot Dome to the petroleum companies. The steel workers’ union at the plant negotiated a shutdown for today, so it’s a very happy occasion for me.
Rutherford B. Hayes was our nineteenth president, and aside from winning one of the most contentious elections in history (2020’s got nothing on that one!) he might be best known to the layperson as the husband of “Lemonade Lucy” Ware Hayes, the First Lady long said to have banned alcohol from the White House. President Hayes was born in Delaware County, Ohio. The courthouse there was completed in 18701, the same year he won his second term as Governor of Ohio2. It’s living history!
This building is only Delaware County’s second courthouse. That’s crazy to me, since Delaware County, Indiana (my home) opens its sixth tomorrow3! Though Delaware County, Ohio was founded in 1808 with an initial seat of Berkshire, its first actual courthouse was built closer to 1820, predating President Hayes by a couple of years. Early county documents described the structure as “Good, well-burnt brick forty feet by thirty-eight square,” though O.L. Baskin’s 1880 county history cautions that “we leave the reader to conjecture whether the bricks were to be of that size, or the building.” Courthouse humor!
Fifty years is a lot of time to wring out of an early courthouse, but officials in Delaware managed to keep it in usable condition long after Hayes left the area, first to open a law office in Cincinnati. As the years wore on, Hayes joined the 23rd Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry where he served over William McKinley4 (the twenty-fifth president), got elected as U.S. Representative from Ohio’s second district, and became Governor. For one of our more obscure presidents, he lived quite an interesting life- a statement which sounds stupid as I re-read it since, you know, he was still President after all.
As I said, the second Delaware County Courthouse was finished up in 1870. Described contemporaneously as “not magnificently extravagant,” but a “neat and tasty structure5,” the building is actually one of the most cut-and-dried examples of Italianate architecture I’ve seen in a courthouse. Doesn’t it look like it should be on a bottle of pasta sauce with some garlic and a vegetable? There are a few features that make it so: First is the roofline, which features a prominent, bracketed cornice. The paired, round-arched windows with hood molds are also hallmarks of the Italianate mode, as is the building’s use of red brick and iron cresting, which surmounts a strange, rectangular cupola that rises from the courthouse’s hipped roof. The cupola, six bays long by two wide, is capped by a second, more traditional one, which in turn is topped by a gilded, allegorical statue of justice. The courthouse isn’t very tall and actually sits a few blocks north of the center of downtown Delaware, so the statue serves as a nice advertisement for its location- like a set of pawnbroker’s spheres, to say nothing of the local political scene. Maybe a barber pole is a better comparison. Actually, a barber’s pole certainly is, since Delaware’s favorite son Rutherford B. Hayes was one of only ten presidents, all consecutive, to sport a beard or mustache while in office.
Almost exactly 176 years ago, on February 22, 1845, a young Rutherford B. Hayes (pre-whiskers) returned home after observing his city’s celebration of Washington’s birthday. “The filth and noise of the crowded streets,” he wrote, “soon destroy the elasticity of health which belongs to the country boy6.” I wonder what he would make of his hometown today, which has grown from 369 people recorded in the 1820 United States Census to about 41,000 today as part of the Columbus-Marion-Chillicothe Combined Statistical Area, where more than two-million people reside. I’m pleased to say that Hayes might still find himself home in downtown Delaware, since it retains much of its historic character, particularly along Sandusky Street -the main drag- which is just stuffed with old buildings.
The 1870 courthouse still sits at the southwestern corner of Sandusky and Central Avenue, surrounded by Victorian structures that once housed a confectionary, the county jail, and a grocery with a third-story fraternal hall7. As of my visit, the courthouse was also surrounded by caution tape and construction equipment- it was vacated several years ago and is undergoing a massive, $9.1 million renovation that will prepare it to house the county’s veterans service commission, county commissioners, and the county’s human resources department8. A new courthouse located just east of the old building opened up in 2017.
To me, the 2017 courthouse, which was designed by Silling Architects of Charleston, West Virginia, resembles a smallish, modern hospital or the new health sciences building at your local university. Facing east, the 166,000 square-foot building is three stories tall and made of red brick, glass, and concrete. Though the roofline of the modern courthouse is mostly flat, its west face does feature a peaked tower that projects slightly, along with a projecting window pavilion that measures four bays wide. Though thankfully not done up in the overwrought New Urbanist style, the side of the new courthouse that faces its predecessor is much less conspicuously-modern than its entrance. That was intentional, according to the architects, as the building was designed with input from Delaware’s local historic preservation committee and zoning commission to become “an elegantly meshed contextual nod to the Italianate fabric of historic Delaware while stepping into a modernized composition of progressive materials and forms on the exterior9.” Ok ay! I love inspired, modern architecture, but Silling made the right call here: a series of staggered curtain walls and mixed materials would look bizarre in this setting. Almost as bizarre as Trump or Biden would have been!
President William Howard Taft, erroneously known for getting stuck in the White House bathtub due to his corpulence, sported a mustache and was the last president to have had facial hair throughout his term in office, though Harry Truman grew a mustache and goatee that he called “The Jeff Davis” while on vacation after winning the 1948 election10. It might be a stretch, but to me the caution tape and heavy machinery surrounding the 1870 Delaware County Courthouse in Ohio mirror Truman’s holiday bristles. Like the president, the building is undertaking a rejuvenating leave of absence, well-deserved after a long period of service, before returning for daily duty. Though Truman only served one full term after his post-election sabbatical, I’ll be excited to return to Delaware once the project’s completed to see the courthouse restored for another hundred-and-fifty years of county business.
Happy Presidents’ Day!
Historic Delaware County Courthouse
Delaware County (pop. 209,177, 14/88)
Delaware (pop. 40,568)
Cost: $70,000 (1.39 million today)
Architect: Robert N. Jones
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2.5 stories
Current Use: County offices
Delaware County Courthouse
Cost: $39.3 million
Architect: Silling Architects
Courthouse Square: No square
Height: 3 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Vincent, Keith. Courthouse History. Web. Retrieved 2/12/21.
2 Hoogenboom, Ari “Rutherford Hayes: Warrior and President”. University Press of Kansas [Lawrence]. 1995. Print.
3 Ohlenkamp, Corey. “Delaware County Justice Center starts operations soon. Here’s when it will open” The Star Press [Muncie]. February 12, 2021. Web. Retrieved 2/13/21.
4 Armstrong, William H. “Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War.” The Kent State University Press. [Kent[. 2000. Print.
5 “History of Delaware County, Ohio” O.L. Baskin & Company [Chicago]. 1880. Print.
6 “Diary and Letters of Rutherford Birchard Hayes” Volume I. The Ohio State Archeological and Historical Society [Columbus]. 1922. Print.
7 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map- Delaware, Ohio. 1890. Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. Library of Congress. Web. Retrieved 2/13/21.
8 “Historic Courthouse Renovation” Delaware County, Ohio [Delaware]. Web. Retrieved 2/13/21.
9 “Delaware County Courthouse” Silling Architects [Charleston]. 2017. Web. Retrieved 2/13/21.
10 “President Relaxes and Grows Beard” LIFE Magazine [New York]. November 22, 1948. 44. Print.