Susan Thrane kicks off Putnam County’s entry in her book County Courthouses of Ohio by noting that the courthouse commission’s intent was to create a structure “larger than necessary for present needs” way back in 1910. “We are not building for ourselves alone any more than the Revolutionary patriots fought for themselves 134 years ago,” officials explained. “Their blood gave us liberty today.”
“We want to give something to those who live after us. In the year A.D. 2000 may our posterity say that ‘they builded wiser than they knew1.’”
While I applaud the courthouse commission for erecting a building that for a century required no annex, addition, or extra space for local officials, I’m drawn to wonder whether that was more a function of their foresight or as a result of other factors. It’s unreasonable to expect a rural county like Putnam to keep up with Ohio’s overall increasing population trends over the past century, but how does it stack up to its neighbors? I’ve illustrated it in a graph.
This graph represents the 2019 population of the seven Ohio counties that surround Putnam as a percentage of their populations in 1910, when the commissioners planned the big courthouse in Ottawa. The baseline of 100% is represented by the thick, black, line. Among the six counties that got bigger during that timeframe, Putnam ranks in the bottom third- it’s about 15% larger than it was when the courthouse commission convened. There are a lot of factors related to population growth, of course -like I-75 going through Wood and Hancock Counties and US-24 going right through Allen and Defiance- but if commissioning a building that’s only fifteen percent bigger than it needs to be is enough to give it some fame and preserve it unadulterated a century into the future, well, that seems pretty simple. I wish more counties had done it.
The current courthouse is the county’s fourth. In 1829, the community of Kalida was named seat of what would become Putnam County five years later. In 1835, officials built a frame courthouse and replaced it in 1839 with a larger, brick building that ultimately suffered two fires. The first was in 1862 and it destroyed most of the county’s records. The second, during the winter of 1864, destroyed the courthouse itself. It’s said that the county treasurer was in bed when he heard the alarm and ran to the courthouse as quickly as he could. Once there, he determined that the conflagration was too intense to retrieve the safe that held the county’s funds and stood there, bamboozled. Then his wife showed up. “Gathering up the skirt of her dress around her waist2,” she scrambled into the burning building, threw the county’s cash into the pocket formed by her clothes, and dashed home.
Though an audit confirmed the recovered funds were complete and secure3, the same couldn’t be said for the courthouse. Without one, officials began to think about whether or not it would make sense to move the county seat to Ottawa, which had grown to nearly four times the size of Kalida due to the presence of a railroad line. In 1866, a resolution passed by the citizens of Ottawa set aside $15,000 for a new courthouse4 and, with some contention, the county’s government relocated.
The first courthouse in Ottawa was built in 1867 and looked a lot like a smaller version of the Henry County, Indiana, courthouse built two years later. Sitting on a rusticated stone base, the two-story, brick building featured windows with round arches, a hipped roof, and a projecting, central entrance tower with a mansard roof and dormers that rose beyond a heavy cornice. Thirty-two years later, it was old hat so commissioners set out to build a new one. This time, they intended to build a permanent structure- the one that future generations would thank them for.
Citizens must have shared the commissioners’ excitement, and the decision to build the new courthouse directly behind the old one demonstrated a great before-and-after image of Putnam County’s ascent towards greatness. A postcard -though purported to show the burned-out building in Kalida5– depicts the decrepit structure draped in black bunting with graffiti all over it proclaiming “I’M A THING OF THE PAST,” “SOLD AGAIN,” and “KALIDA FOR ME? NOT!” while a group of onlookers -perhaps the artists themselves- appear mighty pleased with themselves.
Commissioners uh, commissioned Frank Packard to helm the $200,000 project. Packard was a prolific architect who, with partner Joseph Yost, completed eight courthouses in Ohio and West Virginia, along with remodeling a ninth6 and designing a staggering amount of hospitals, fraternal halls, schools, jails, hotels, and just about other kind of structure. The Putnam County Courthouse, finished in 1912, was Packard’s second on his own, and its design is most often described as featuring a mix of Neoclassical7, Renaissance revival, Beaux-Arts, and Italian Renaissance architecture. Measuring 40 feet wide by 75 feet long, the courthouse’s first floor is composed of rusticated stone with round-arched windows set in arcaded panels. The second floor -separated by a belt course- is notable for its paired columns that separate rectangular windows crowned with alternating triangular and arched pediments. The roof is red tile, which to my eye is the only thing that screams Italian Renaissance. But I’m no expert.
Inside, the courthouse is designed around a pair of central hallways (one on each floor) that connect via imposing stairways at the building’s west side. The interior massing relies heavily on marble and stained glass for its sense of monumentality. Putnam County judge Randall Basinger, who wrote a book about the courthouse and probably knows it better than anyone else, says that over the years, the building’s layout and ornamentation has pretty much stayed in the same condition. “The county hasn’t grown dramatically in size from when it was built,” says Basinger, so [the courthouse] has been incredibly utilitarian and useful8.” Well, I guess his assessment answers my questions from the beginning of this post, at least partially.
It’s one thing for a community to outgrow the space that their old courthouse provides. Many do. But it’s something else entirely for the layout of any historic building to provide enough flexibility for more than a century of service without substantial change in the size of its constituency or the building itself. Just think- every successive innovation in infrastructure since 1910 has had to be crammed into this building to make it viable. Most county governments alter their courthouses to accommodate the necessary advances by dropping ceilings, removing monumental staircases, intruding on communal spaces with security checkpoints and elevator shafts, and carving additional floors out of tall courtrooms. Not in Ottawa! To me, the preserved condition of the building’s interior is as much of a triumph as was its enduring ability to hold all of Putnam County’s offices.
Several years after Susan Thrane wrote that the courthouse still served its community without an annex, commissioners moved two offices -the prosecutor and Putnam County’s IT department- into a fortresslike, structure down the street originally built as an armory9 during the aftermath of World War I. Hey- who’s to judge, if not those in the courthouse itself? All of Putnam County’s neighbors have courthouse annexes, whether in an old bank, a repurposed strip mall, the old jail, or some other arrangement. The county veteran’s services office moved in in 201610, but the annex has major defects like dated heating systems, crumbling brick, and flooding problems that make it ill-suited for the county’s needs. Those are all issues, I might add, that the old courthouse doesn’t have, despite being seven years older than the decampment. While officials are unsure about how best to proceed with the annex, what’s clear to me is that the actual courthouse will continue to serve Putnam County proudly, at least for another century.
Putnam County (pop. 33,911, 70/88)
Ottawa (pop. 4,333)
Cost: $200,000 ($5.26 million today)
Architect: Frank J. Packard
Style: Neoclassical/Renaissance Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: County offices and courts
1 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print.
2 “County Courthouse” Putnam County Recorder’s Office. Ottawa. Web. Retrieved 12/27/20.
3 “History of Putnam County, Ohio: Illustrated, Containing Outline Map, Fifteen Farm Maps” H. H. Hardest & Co. [Toledo]. Print.
4 “Teresa J. Lammers, Clerk” Putnam County Clerk of Courts. Wayback Machine. Archived August 11, 2009. Web. Retrieved 12/27/20.
5 Vincent, Keith. Courthouse History. Web. Retrieved 12/27/20.
6 “Classified List of Public and Private Structures, by Yost and Packard” Grandview Heights/Marble Cliff Historical Society. Columbus. Web. Retrieved 12/27/20.
7 “Putnam County Courthouse” The Supreme Court of Ohio & The Ohio Judicial System. The Supreme Court of Ohio [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 12/27/20.
8 Shriver, Sam. “Putnam County courthouse open Sunday for historical tour” LimaOhio.com. AIM Media Midwest Operating, LLC [Lima]. September 17, 2018. Web. Retrieved 12/27/20.
9 Peryam, Jennifer “Putnam considers options for annex” LimaOhio.com. AIM Media Midwest Operating, LLC [Lima]. January 20, 2020. Web. Retrieved 12/27/20.
10 Kline, Nancy “Veterans Office at new location” The Putnam County Sentinel [Ottawa]. January 13, 2016. Web. Retrieved December 27, 2020.