Is a courthouse historic because it’s a courthouse?

It’s natural for a community to want to preserve its heritage. Often, this is done by restoring and preserving buildings where history took place or when the architecture embodies an era of time.

There are 88 county seats in Ohio. Each one became the county seat when the county courthouse was located there. Are courthouses automatically historic because they are courthouses? After all, the entire judicial history of the county takes place in county courthouses. Vital records have often been housed there, too. Should every courthouse be preserved? What if a new courthouse is built because the old is obsolete? Should the old be kept, anyway, even if no one wishes to occupy it when everything’s moved into the new court house? What if the cost of preservation is too costly for county taxpayers, and it’s cheaper to raze the old courthouse and build an new one rather than try to bring the old one up to code?

That debate has been raging in Tiffin, Ohio, for some time now. Tiffin is the county seat of Seneca County. The old courthouse is not only inadequate, but it’s also structurally defective. Even if not torn down, it would eventually fall into ruin. The cost for making it structurally sound and renovating it to make it adequate is cost prohibitive. A small number of Tiffin residents have been crusading to save the old courthouse anyway. The Seneca County Commissioners voted to raze the old courthouse and build anew. Then elections came, and one County Commissioner was replaced with a new County Commissioner. Even with the change, the Seneca County Commissioners still voted to raze the old and build a replacement. The Tiffin residents concerned with conservation have tried raising funds to save the old courthouse, but coming up with the huge amount of money needed just isn’t in the cards. So with the money they raised, they mounted a petition drive to put the preservation of the courthouse on the countywide ballot during the past primary election. County residents sided with the Seneca County Commissioners by an overwhelming margin. The Tiffin preservationists really took a thumping. The preservationists also used their funds for legal fees, and took the matter to court.

So far, the Tiffin preservationists haven’t found anyone to rule in their favor, . . . not the commissioners, not the courts, and not the voters. Now they’re petitioning the Ohio Supreme Court (story from the Tiffin Advertiser-Tribune) in hopes of getting a ruling in their favor.

Does the historical value of a courthouse trump cost/benefit analysis? If so, does it also trump democracy itself?


Loraine Ritchey has something to say about preservation.

And another thing.

6 Responses to “Is a courthouse historic because it’s a courthouse?”

  1. Loraine Ritchey Says:

    I have been wrestling with “what makes something historic” in this land for awhile now and what makes it just old. Does George Washington have to have slept there stopped over sat down in a place ….is the architecture significant…..I have (as you so kindly linked to) part one of a razing of a little home and tomorrow the rest of the story.
    As an outsider to American history , I have difficulty in understanding the lack of regard people ( at least in this community) have. But do they really KNOW what went before.. do they care????…… will they find out after they have torn down a building or razed another home that George did indeed sleep there ???? and would it matter?
    Someone once said that the difference between Americans ( non Native Americans) and Europeans was that for generations upon generation Europeans had fought for hundreds if not thousands of years to protect their “land” they have fought for every inch so therefore the “land” and what it contains is of greater importance and patriotism is tied to the phsical “land” .. and as this person) sorry didn’t get his name he was on C-span) pointed out
    Americans fought for an “ideal” not the land …”democracy” it is the ideal and not the land that is paramount in their thinking……. but to the Native American they too fought for their “land” .
    Not sure if I am making any sense but maybe when the land that is America becomes as important as the ideal that is America the “history” of the “physical” will become as important as the history of the ideal….. jm2c

  2. buckeyerino Says:

    I’ve been wrestling with this, too, and I’m looking forward to reading your second installment.

    Tiffin has been able to preserve many historical buildings, and many buildings with architecture that defined a past era. The Ritz Theater and Heidelberg College have buildings that are in relatively good shape, but that’s not all. Of course, there are some churches, too. There are many buildings of a residential nature that are also preserved well, some of which are now in use as something other than a residence. I’d say Tiffin has been more successful than many towns in preserving it’s history.

    My own view on this particular matter is that if engineering studies had shown the building to be structurally sound, I think a case could be made for preserving the courthouse. Many old buildings are structurally sound, as building materials today are often flimsier that what was used in bygone eras. An effort to preserve this courthouse, though, would require taxpayer dollars to be shoveled down a money pit. No business or non-profit wants to buy the building and preserve it because they also realize it’s a money pit.

    But if the voice of the voters had said, “OK, let’s use our tax dollars to pay whatever it takes to preserve this courthouse,” I’d have been okay with that, but the truth of the matter is, the county-wide bond issue to accomplish that very purpose suffered a massive defeat this spring. I don’t advocate a position that flies in the face of democracy. The only potential source of funding the preservation has dried up.

  3. buckeyerino Says:

    By the way, the article I had conceived that’s tangential to your blog entries hasn’t been written yet. I see that this story is tangential to yours, also. I’ll post an additional link to your article.

  4. thatwoman Says:

    Thanks DJW there are so many layers to this question and in some respects because it isn’t ‘MY” history I have difficulty in voicing an opinion.. as I don’t believe I have the right to criticize….. .but it is the “land” of my children and I haven’t brought them up to be a “hyphenated American” but “American” they aren’t for instance German -American … Enlgish – American or Polish- American….they are American …. but I believe that thinking is in the minority as even 2nd third and 4 th generations who have been born here still cling to their hyphenated -America…just an observation.but until the melting pot melts- American history and her “land pioneers” as opposed to her “ideal” pioneers seem to take a back seat to the “old home”land “history” …….just an ex pats perception ..Loraine

  5. muley Says:

    ……I, for one, fully understand, Loraine. You have shown more passion for “our” home town than 95% of Lorain’s population. You have earned the right to call it “your” home town if you like. We would be “blessed” to call you, “one of our own”.

  6. thatwoman Says:

    well Muley I am not sure 95% would agree with you 🙂 but I am on a rant today have sent out emails to the state and anyone else who “may” care that Lorain is literally tossing away a valuable asset in the garbage of decaying infrastructure …..Oh well I can but try but I have a cynical feeling I will be deleted 🙂 I found it ironic that cleveland dot com had Great Lakes shipwrecks as a lead story yet the captain that sailed from this port are unknown and disgarded
    after all they spent one part of their life on the inland seas (their stories are one of struggle and romance) and another in Charleston Village ( now Lorain) … I think their stories are crying out to be told but I believe I am in the minority along with my fellow tree huggers and “history boneheads” or the “village idiots” as some have called us…….

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