I came into Hamilton from the northwest and soon found myself deposited right in the thick of the Main Street Business District, a haven of locally-owned stores in well-kept old buildings that once made up the downtown of Rossville, a city across the Great Miami River from Hamilton proper that was annexed in 18541. Starting from Eaton Avenue or so, the district’s colorful buildings -home to places like the Chubby Bunny Bakery, Clark’s Sporting Goods, Main Street Vinyl, and Fretboard Brewing & Public House- frame the courthouse perfectly in the distance.
How to get to my favorite courthouse in Ohio (that’s Hamilton’s, you simpleton) is easy: Main Street changes into High Street midway across a five-span bridge, a 2004 structure that replaced an earlier, closed-spandrel arch crossing erected in 19152. Though the old bridge is no longer with us, the new one is where things start to get really fun since the western abutments are anchored by two great buildings, the neoclassical Butler County Soldiers, Sailors, and Pioneers Monument built in 1903 at the north and the Art Deco Hamilton Muncipal Building -now home to a museum and brewery- to the south. Though disparate design and materials, they make a strong impression heading into downtown Hamilton proper. Though I didn’t take a photo from this vantage point, here’s one thanks to S&Mj Adventures provided via the CC BY-SA-2.0 license.
See that big, hulking mass in the middle? That’s the courthouse. But we’re going to go backwards today, so shift your gaze two buildings to the left. The building with the shallow, green dome sandwiched between the old Municipal Center and the eight-story, rectangular Rentschler Building is the current Butler County Courthouse, officially named the Butler County Government Services Center. Further west and out of sight in the photo is a similar, shorter wing with an identical dome known as the Hamilton Municipal Building. Designed by architects Lorenz and Williams Associates and built between 1997 and 19993, the courthouse is eleven stories tall. The buildings, combined, are sort of elbow-shaped and connected by a glass atrium, while the primary entrance to the courthouse side is accessed from within a semicircular, glass lobby.
Facing High Street, the building’s first two stories are largely glass separated by concrete partitions all below a third-floor water table. The two buildings’ octagonal domes house HVAC and other technological equipment rather than something cool like a skylight or clock, but they’re a direct call-back to the historic courthouse that is the purpose of today’s discussion, which is located two blocks East.
In fact, several buildings in downtown Hamilton ape the colors or shape of the courthouse dome, and I think that’s just great since they all seem to contribute to a greater identity. The top of the 19304 First National Bank and Trust Company just south of the modern courthouse has a green, copper cap to it, and the aforementioned Rentschler Building, built by the founder of aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney in 19045, has a copper parapet. Coincidence? Maybe for those two, but definitely not for the Government Services Center. The old courthouse dome is iconic, after all.
Let’s go back in time again. The current configuration of the courthouse tower dates to 1926, when a taller, more traditional dome was struck by lightning and removed6. But even that cap wasn’t original to the 1889 courthouse; it was added in 1912 after a fire caused the building’s original tower, which was four-tiered with a statue of Justice at the top, to collapse.
I don’t have a postcard of the pre-1912 clock tower, but I do have some intermediate Photoshop skills. David W. Gibbs was the architect responsible for the 1889 Butler County Courthouse, but its original tower bears little in common with his other works around the area, namely those in Fayette, Union, and Henry counties in Ohio and Michigan’s Eaton County Courthouse. To my eye, the original tower had a lot more in common with Claire Allen’s courthouses in Hillsdale and Paw-Paw. It’s not perfect or exact, but here’s my approximation of what the structure looked like as built, with current surroundings, obviously. The stone probably matched better on the actual building, and you can see an old postcard of it here to come to your own conclusions.
Here’s another approximation of the courthouse, this time with its 1912 tower. I grabbed a donor dome from a photo I took of the Kosckiusco County Courthouse in Indiana. It doesn’t line up perfectly; oh well. Keith Vincent, a man I’ve never met nor corresponded with, has an old postcard of that tower here too, but the eBay well was dry as I wrote this post.
I don’t like either of the towers. I like the current one- as I said, it’s my favorite in Ohio since it manages to look intentional, albeit a little weird. The tower is unique, and its what the rest of downtown based their own designs on, after all!. But below it is a lot to take in.
The main entrance is reached by a staircase that enters into a covered porch, above which is a high arch supported by Ionic columbs. Above the arch is a pediment capped by an urn. The interior of the building changed dramatically after the lightning strike, but in an interesting twist uncommon to most of its peers it changed for the better! 1976 brought an amazingly boring County Administration building across the street that, despite its drab nature enabled the courthouse to be restored to its early splendor. The historic courthouse’s second floor was opened up to emphasize its skylight, and original walnut woodwork was uncovered. Today, the building’s lobby not only serves as a meeting place, but also as a museum. It features the hand of the original statue of justice, which was rescued by an onlooker of the 1912 fire.
Continuing our backwards trajectory, though, we come to Butler County’s second courthouse, built in 1817. Twenty years later, a four-sided clock was added to the building’s 110-foot tall courthouse, its bell intended to announce the start of court and warn the town of emergencies7. That courthouse was preceded by a two-story stone building built on the square that contained a jail on the first floor and a courtroom above it.
Going even further back, Butler County was formed in 1803, and Hamilton is where the first fort was built on the banks of the Great Miami River8. That’s about as far back as we’ll go, since it’s time to wrap this post up. So hop in the Delorean, Time-Turner, Supreme Being’s Map, the hot tub, or whatever your favorite time machine is, because it’s time to come back to the present day to take a second and reflect.
Decapitated courthouses are nothing new. Regardless of where you travel, it seems like keeping up the ornamental rooflines and towers of century-old buildings is a demanding and expensive endeavor. In my experience unless a tower’s been completely restored, a stripped old courthouse just looks wrong, like Moe would if he had Shemp’s haircut. That is not the case in Hamilton, where officials embraced their compromised courthouse tower by giving its replacement prominent, undeniable nods towards the 1926 version. That private developers did so as well confirms the building’s stature as a great courthouse, whether or not it stands as originally intended.
It seems like every community within ten thousand people or so of my hometown’s size has a better skyline than Muncie’s. Anchored by its historic, 1889 courthouse, Hamilton is no different. Like I said, there’s lots to like in this enclave of Cincinnati.
Butler County (pop. 383,134, 7/88)
Hamilton (pop. 62,182).
Cost: $259,481 ($7.4 million today)
Architect: D.W. Gibbs
Style: Beaux Arts
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 115 feet
Current use: County offices and courts
1 “17 Strong Neighborhoods” ESRI Community Maps. City of Hamilton. 2014. Web. Retrieved 5/27/21.
2 “High Street Bridge (1915)” BridgeHunter.com. Historic Bridge Foundation. 2021. Web. Retrieved 5/27/21.
3 Deacon, J. “Butler County”. American Courthouses. 2008. Web. Retrieved 5/23/21.
4 “First Financial Bank Building” Emporis. Emporis GMBH. 2020. Web. Retrieved 5/23/21.
5 “Rentschler’s Legacy Begins in Hamilton, Ohio” Raytheon Technologies Corporation. 2021. Web. Retrieved 5/23/21.
6 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
7 “Butler County Courthouse” Remarkable Ohio. Ohio History Connection. Web. Retrieved 5/27/21.
8 “Butler County Courthouse” Clio. Clio Foundation. 2019. Web. Retrieved 5/27/21.