The Montgomery County Courthouse in Ohio (1850-1880)

I have a clodhopper tendency to say that any community which features a skyscraper that tops three-hundred feet is big, and I generally use South Bend, Indiana, as my baseline since it has one tower that meets that requirement. So far, I’ve only gone to a few courthouses in cities that qualify as big according to my skyline standards- places like Columbus, Indianapolis, Toledo, and Fort Wayne that represent the country’s 14th, 15th, 83rd, and 84th largest communities. But with five towers that top my 300-foot benchmark, Dayton counts too. I love when I can take a photo of an old courthouse surrounded by skyscrapers!

The 1850 Montgomery County Courthouse in Dayton, Ohio.

Dayton’s old courthouse sits right between the city’s second- and third-tallest buildings, the 385-foot KeyBank Tower and the 336-foot Fifth Third Center. Even though it’s stood in the same location for 170 years, the courthouse wasn’t Montgomery County’s first: initially, officials used a nearby house to hold trials. Later, they used a tavern. In 1806, Benjamin Archer put that transiency to rest when he constructed a two-story, brick courthouse at the corner of Main and Third streets. That 42 x 38 foot building featured a hipped roof that Archer intended to support a cupola and bell that arrived in 1815 and 1816, respectively1.

I like that the building is surrounded by some of Dayton’s tallest structures.

The courthouse only lasted about forty years before it was time for a replacement, and a man named Horace Pease decided that he had something to contribute. Pease was fascinated by antediluvian architecture and owned a book of sketches of the buildings in ancient Athens. That was uncommon in the 1840s!

When it came time for a new seat of government, Pease showed his book to local officials. They were so impressed with its depiction of the Temple of Hephaestus that they decided to recreate it as the new county courthouse2! As if that wasn’t enough, they also committed to the archaic building techniques used to erect the temple by directing stonecutters to prepare its locally-quarried limestone with saws, sand, and water, just as had been done in ancient Egypt3. Howard Daniels was the architect chosen to make the plans a reality.

All this stone was cut with water, sand, and other Egyptian techniques. Unreal!

To recap, commissioners hired hired an American architect to replicate a Greek temple through the use of Egyptian building techniques. That’s quite a mishmash of influences! The plan was exuberant and audacious, but the courthouse was completed in 1850. Its primary facade, facing east, features six two-story, freestanding Ionic columns that surmount a monumental stairway.

Outward appearances might imply that the courthouse has a simple interior layout, but that’s not the case: although the building’s west elevation is similar to its primary face, its west side is simpler, with only two freestanding columns. The key to understanding the arrangement of the rooms inside is the pair of concave walls that stand behind the columns.

Here’s the back of the courthouse. You can see the curved wall behind the column to the right that conforms to the building’s elliptical courtroom.

Those curved walls frame an elliptical courtroom with a second-floor gallery and sunlit dome that protrudes into the building’s attic forty-three feet above the courtroom floor. The courtroom is simple, but majestic, but the front of the building is even better: somehow, Howard Daniels figured out how to stuff a rotunda into it.

The courthouse rotunda is twenty feet in diameter and forty feet high. It features a second glass dome along with a curving, cantilevered staircase that wraps around the rotunda’s walls without any visible means of support. According to legend, the stairs were the work of an itinerant Swiss immigrant who came to Dayton to help build locks for the Miami & Erie Canal4. Entry to the rotunda is gained through a pair of ornamented iron doors that each weigh more than a ton5.

This photo was taken from the site of Montgomery County’s 1880 courthouse. As designed, the two buildings were connected. The Courthouse Square plaza is attractive in a platonic way.

The old building is surrounded by an L-shaped plaza called Courthouse Square that was dedicated as part of a contentious urban renewal project in 1974. The commons frames the building, offering a needed setback from the skyscrapers that surround it. “For the first time in 90 years the Old Court House stands free, no longer dwarfed by neighbors of gross proportion and inferior design,” columnist Jean Kappel remarked upon the plaza’s completion6. I assumed she was referring to the tall buildings that populate the area, but I was surprised to learn that Kappel was actually talking about Montgomery County’s other historic courthouse, built in 1880 right next door to the 1850 building. 

Here’s an old postcard I own of Dayton’s 1850 courthouse next to its 1880 version.

At one point, Dayton had two neighboring courthouses. In fact, Dayton had three courthouses for seven years beginning in 1966: there was the 1850 Greek Revival courthouse (always called the “old” courthouse by locals), its 1880 replacement (the “new” courthouse), and the modern, 1966 building three blocks to the west often known as the Courts Building7. Of the three, only the “new” courthouse no longer stands.

Here’s the current courthouse, the 1966 Montgomery County Courts Building.

There’s little information online or in newspapers about that demolished “new” courthouse from 1880, but I learned that a man named Leon Beaver designed the three-story tall, Second Empire structure. The building, along with two annexes, a skyway, and a passage that connected it to the 1850 courthouse, were all demolished in 1973 to make way for the Courthouse Square plaza. Its removal was well-received, since it seems like nearly everyone hated the 1880 courthouse: “It was an insignificant example of out-of-control design,” said John Kerwood, the director of the Montgomery County Historical Society at the time of its destruction8. Alright then.

Here’s another old postcard of the 1880 Montgomery County Courthouse.

The 1966 Courts Building sits three blocks west of the square and was designed by two architectural firms, Lorenz & Williams, and Pretzinger & Pretzinger. Initially finished at a cost of $2.8 million, the building received a substantial addition in 1987 courtesy of John Ruetshei Associates. Trials still happen there, but the county’s offices are housed in the 196-foot tall Montgomery County Administration Building built in 1972 across from Sinclair Community College. The 1850 courthouse underwent a major rehabilitation the year before, and it now serves as an event space for Dayton History, the city’s historical society.

A display with Dayton’s first church bell, cast in 1846 for the First Presbyterian Church, sits outside of the old courthouse.

I believe that historic courthouses -whether they actually house the courts or not- serve as fantastic anchors to midwestern downtowns. The 1850 courthouse in Dayton certainly does, particularly given its unique history and surrounds. Although the Courthouse Square project was mired in controversy9, it thrives today as the home to an incredible building and as an active downtown focal point home to one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the country.

Montgomery County (pop. 531,687, 5/88)
Dayton (pop. 140,640).
Built: 1850
Cost: $100,000 ($3.3 million today)
Architect: Howard Daniels
Style: Greek Revival
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 2 stories
Current Use: Non-governmental
Photographed: 11/2/2019

Sources Cited
1 Drury, Augustus Waldo. “History of the City of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio” S.J. Clarke Publishing Company [Dayton]. 1909. Print.
2 “The Old Montgomery County Courthouse” Montgomery County Common Pleas Court [Dayton]. Web. Retrieved 12/10/20.
3 “Montgomery County Courthouse” The Supreme Court of Ohio & The Ohio Judicial System. The Supreme Court of Ohio [Columbus]. Web. Retrieved 12/10/20.
4 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print. 
5 “ArtiFACT Friday” Dayton History [Dayton]. April 18, 2014. Web. Retrieved 12/10/20.
6 “New Life for an Old Lady” Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. June 24, 1973. 70. Print.
7 “Courthouses Are Her Bag” The Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. October 16, 1969. 18. Print.
8 “Who Was the Ghoul Who Snitched It?” The Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. June 7, 1973. 19. Print. 
9  “The Square: from rumor to reality” The Dayton Daily News [Dayton]. July 1, 1989. 3. Print. 

One thought on “The Montgomery County Courthouse in Ohio (1850-1880)

  1. It’s a shame that the “new” courthouse wasn’t saved. I think downtowns fit with my theory about remodels and clothes: Not much good happened during the 70s.


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