Officials from many of Ohio’s 88 counties are talking about preservation of the state’s historic courthouses during a two-day Ohio Courthouse Symposium that begins in Columbus today.
The concern for courthouse preservation was at least partially generated after the Seneca County Courthouse, a crumbling building that was constructed in 1884, was demolished two years ago.
According to a recent Associated Press report, Seneca County officials decided to spend $400,000 to raze the structure instead of trying to raise more than $8 million to make it usable again.
“In Seneca County they tried to increase the income tax to pay for that project, but the ballot initiative failed and the county did not want to spend tons of money to restore an old building,” said Tom Strup, deputy director of operations for the County Commission Association of Ohio.
The CCAO is helping coordinate this week’s symposium.
There are 69 county courthouses in Ohio that are currently listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
“I would think that most courthouses in the state have some historical significance,” said Washington County Commissioner David White.
He noted Washington County’s courthouse, built in 1901 on the corner of Second and Putnam streets, is not listed on the National Register, although the facility is located within Marietta’s historical district.
“But we work very hard to keep this courthouse in good shape,” White said. “We had a recent energy audit that showed the building is well-maintained, although new windows are probably needed.”
That could be costly.
Tim Marty, the county’s director of facilities and grounds, said the current windows were installed around 1985.
“There are a total of 265 windows in the courthouse, annex, belltower and adjacent commissioner’s offices,” he said. “We had a recent rough estimate of $435,000 to replace those double-hung windows with fixed windows and frames.”
Marty added that it would cost more than $713,000 to replace the current windows with double-hung units.
No decision has been made on the window replacement, but the project is on a five-year maintenance budget plan, which Marty said is key to keeping the 113-year-old building in shape.
“You have to have a plan to look ahead, especially at bigger projects, whether it’s roofing, heating and air conditioning, or windows,” he said. “That seems to work well for us so there’s no ‘sticker shock’ as these projects come up.”
Routine maintenance figures were not available for the courthouse alone, but the county’s total 2014 buildings and grounds budget, which includes the courthouse, is more than $1.5 million.
The current Morgan County Courthouse was originally built in 1858, with a clock tower added in 1886, and another expansion in 1960. Initially constructed prior to the Civil War, it’s one of the region’s oldest courthouse facilities and is part of the McConnelsville historic district.
Morgan County Chief Deputy Auditor Katie Chapin said the building has some issues, but money is tight.
“It’s a beautiful building, but it takes money to keep it up,” she said. “The last time it was painted was 1997. And the attic is in pretty bad shape. We have bats, so there’s been some talk about trying to obtain a grant to help fix that.”
Chapin said approximately $48,000 has been expended on courthouse utilities and maintenance-related issues during the first four months of this year.
“We just try to keep things running, and haven’t had any major unexpected expenses so far this year,” she added.
Ruth Hayes, clerk for the Noble County Commissioners, said there has been some preservation work on the exterior of the current county courthouse that was built in Caldwell’s town square in 1934.
“The commissioners are having work done on the building’s exterior as extra maintenance money becomes available,” she said. “The contractor has cleaned and sealed three of the four exterior walls to prevent moisture from getting into the building. We hope to have the east side of the building completed sometime this year.”
Hayes said window replacement is also ongoing at the facility and more is expected to be done this summer.
“Our maintenance crew does a good job when we need repairs done inside the building, like painting the floors,” she said.
Joy Flood, who is a member of the Noble County Historical Society, said she thinks county courthouses should be preserved.
“We want to keep them, even if they’re not on the National Register,” she said. “And there should be some money set aside by the state to help maintain these buildings.”
Marietta resident Mike Lee said he would prefer preservation of existing court buildings.
“As long as it’s economically feasible to keep them,” he said. “If it’s cost effective to maintain a courthouse rather than build a new one, that should be done.”
Strup said the focus of the Ohio Courthouse Symposium is to allow commissioners, historic preservationists, judges, architects, and other parties to share ideas about preserving the courthouses.
“County budgets are extremely tight as they try to maintain services,” he said. “But we’re hoping this event will bring together people who will share how they’ve been able to successfully maintain and preserve their courthouse facilities.”
Strup said the idea is to kick off a dialogue about preservation of the historic buildings and encourage counties to consider the maintenance costs associated with keeping those facilities in shape.
“There are many issues to consider, and during the symposium we’ll have different presentations the participants can attend on everything from courthouse security to proper maintenance of heating and air conditioning,” he said.
Strup noted that Ohio currently does not set aside funding for preservation of the state’s courthouses, but other states do.
“Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and some other states provide state dollars for preservation,” he said, adding that representatives from some of those states will be making presentations during this week’s symposium.
Tim Meeks of Vienna, W.Va., said the Mountain State’s legislature does put funding aside to help maintain county courthouses and facilities there.
“The legislature created the West Virginia Courthouse Facilities Improvement Authority,” he said. “The state provides about $6 million each year to help counties with preservation and maintenance of their courthouses. The funding is used for things like new windows, roofing, or bringing areas of courthouses up to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards.”