The Seneca County Courthouse in Ohio (2017-)

It’s rare for a historic courthouse to be demolished, and it’s less common to see a downtown flourish afterward. Nevertheless, both of those things happened in Tiffin, Ohio, in 2017. For a modern building, the Seneca County Justice Center credibly anchors Tiffin’s city center, and its construction led to a historic rebirth of the city.

The 2017 Seneca County Courthouse in Tiffin, Ohio.

Just under 20,000 people live in Tiffin, situated on the Sandusky River about an hour southeast of Toledo. The city was founded in 1821 and was named the county seat three years later. Industry came to town during the gas boom of the 1880s, and so assured was Seneca County’s promise that no less than E. E. Myers -designer of the Michigan, Texas, and Colorado state capitols by that point- submitted plans for a new courthouse to properly serve the growing area. When it was completed in 1886, Myers’ 148-foot-tall, Beaux Arts structure was the crown jewel of downtown Tiffin. It stayed that way for nearly sixty years.

The 1886 Seneca County Courthouse as depicted in an old postcard.

Many county seats used the prosperity the gas boom brought to construct elaborate, landmark courthouses. Unfortunately, the reserves of the Trenton gas field were practically used up in less than two decades. People thought the supply was infinite, so they were flamboyantly wasteful.

Although most gas-boom-era county seats went into sharp decline after the fuel ran out, Seneca County avoided that fate and continued to grow. By 1940, it was clear that the area’s evolving needs didn’t square with the state of the courthouse, so several changes occurred. First, a fourth story was carved out from the high ceilings of the courtroom to provide space for a badly-needed law library. Then, an elevator was installed in the building’s rotunda, which blacked out its stained glass skylight1.

Here’s the 1886 courthouse as it appeared after it was altered. The red-brick, 2002 annex is to the right. Image courtesy Flickr user OZinOH under the CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

The most apparent alteration came in 19442, when officials decided to modernize the building’s exterior to make the courthouse look like the renovated Beaux Arts courthouse in Erie County five years prior3. To that end, the clock tower was stripped down to a blocky, streamlined mass forty-one feet shorter than its original configuration4. Unfortunately, the project stalled before stopping entirely when the funds dried up.

The 135-foot clock tower of the current courthouse features a ‘Liberty” statue that compares favorably to the one once atop its predecessor.

In 2002, officials built a modern version of an Italianate annex next to the courthouse. They abandoned Myers’ structure two years later, moving into offices around town. Without any tenants, the courthouse was labeled Ohio’s “Most Endangered Historic Site” in 2007 after commissioners seemed fully invested in demolishing it after years of neglect. Preservation Ohio, that state’s version of Indiana Landmarks, said that “it would be impossible to overestimate the loss of this iconic building would have on the revitalization of historic downtown Tiffin, with resulting negative impact to the entire community.”5 Nevertheless, the 126-year-old building was contentiously demolished in 2012, the first historic Ohio Courthouse to be knocked down in a generation.

The courthouse has a 2017 Masonic cornerstone, which I found unusual.

The building’s replacement is the Seneca County Justice Center. Its construction was antagonistic. I was amused to find a Toledo Blade editorial from 2017 that described its topping-out ceremony as “an orgy of self-congratulation” and called the commissioners who led the project “bullying and unimaginative…lost in their own derangement.” Furthermore, the editorial referred to the building as both an “ugly, new white elephant,” and a “soulless architectural nonentity.” The paper went on to describe the justice center’s decapitated predecessor as “lovely” and “a particular work of beauty.”6

The new courthouse is to the left, and its connected to the 2002 justice center at right.

I expected the worst but was surprised at how well the new courthouse fit with downtown. Despite an almost clinical execution of the main tropes of the Second Empire style, the courthouse works, and that’s largely due to its scale. Other than sky-scraping office towers, when in the past sixty years have we seen a new courthouse that’s actually taller than its predecessor? This one rises to 135 feet, including a statue of Lady Justice that resembles one once found on the demolished building. Were it not for the trees, I’m sure that you’d be able to see its landmark clock tower from anywhere in the city.

The courthouse looks great from a distance. Up close, it’s a little more impressionistic and by-the-numbers. When I think of the Second Empire style, which the building attempts to ape, I think of red brick, a mansard roof, and dormer windows. This new courthouse has all of that. The ground floor resembles the raised, stone basements often found in older courthouses although it rises to full height and is topped with a projecting water table. Throughout the first three stories, window bays are recessed and separated by stone and brick pilasters that provide subtle depth and texture.

The main entrance to the Seneca County Justice Center, as the courthouse is known.

The fourth floor -within the mansard roof- is separated from the lower stories by a prominent cornice and decorative corbels that come straight from the Second Empire cookbook, as do the building’s arched dormers. That’s all good, even if the sum of it lacks the eclectic exuberance and detail of actual Second Empire courthouses found around these parts.

So many modern courthouses miss the mark on achieving the status of a landmark, but architects Silling Associates nailed it in Tiffin. I’m glad the community didn’t end up with some bland, low-rise justice center, and my only point of contention is that the new building wound up costing $15 million- nearly double what it would have cost to renovate the old courthouse, and half again above the original estimate to build anew7.

The courthouse is protected by a statue of William Harvey Gibson, an Ohio state Treasurer who resigned in disgrace but later made up for it by becoming a Brigadier General in the Civil War.

Even without a historic courthouse as an anchor, Tiffin’s downtown has grown and even thrived since the current structure was built. The demolition of the 1886 courthouse inspired citizens to rally around the city’s remaining Victorian buildings, which convinced local officials to invest in them before it was too late. In 2015, local government set aside $100,000 a year for facade enhancement grants of up to $10,000 for individual owners to restore their downtown buildings. In 2017, cosmetic renovations were performed on twenty structures, while ten new businesses opened downtown and created 41 new jobs8. That’s more than many small county seats in the rust belt can boast!

If an old courthouse has to be demolished, we can only hope that doing so spurs its community to act to repair its other old buildings before it’s too late. Seneca County stakeholders acted to preserve the rest of Tiffin’s historic downtown, and they deserve all the celebration for doing so. Even if it’s not historic, the Seneca County Justice Center looks enough the part, especially from a distance, to have the same effect on downtown.

Seneca County (pop. 55,718, 47/88)
Tiffin (pop. 17,546)
Built: 2017
Cost: $15,000,000
Architect: Silling Associates
Style: Modern Second Empire
Courthouse Square: Shelbyville Square
Height: 135 feet
Current Use: County offices and courts
Photographed: 11/2/2019

Sources Cited
1 Genet, C.L. “A new courthouse for Tiffin, Ohio” Cardinal Scholar. Ball State University [Muncie]. Web. Retrieved 11/10/20.
2 (See footnote 1).
3 Vincent, K. Courthouse History. Web. Retrieved 11/10/20.
4 Thrane, Susan W., Patterson, B., & Patterson, T. “County Courthouses of Ohio” Indiana University Press [Bloomington]. November 1, 2000. Print. 
5 ”Preservation group will announce ‘most Endangered Historic Site’ The Telegraph-Forum [Bucyrus]. April 17, 2007. 7. Print.
6 “Seneca County’s derangement” The Toledo Blade [Toledo]. April 21, 2017. Web. Retrieved 11/11/20.
7 “Seneca County courthouse project progressing” The Toledo Blade [Toledo]. September 15, 2017. Web. Retrieved 11/11/20.
8 “Historic rebirth: Tiffin on upswing years after courthouse battle” The Toledo Blade [Toledo]. July 1, 2018. Web. Retrieved 11/11/20. 

2 thoughts on “The Seneca County Courthouse in Ohio (2017-)

  1. I had intended to write this earlier – my husband, J.R. Seifert, was born and grew up in Seneca County, Tiffin, OH. He was the 15th of 17 children – they were a strong German Catholic family. For the reason unknown to any of us, he was supposed to be the last child (born at home) and was named after his father; Oswald Edward, Jr. (In later years he had it legally changed to J.R.) Usually the 1st born son is named after the father, however, he was named John (22 years older than J.R.). They had 2 more sons after J.R. When all the kids had grown up, his mother did cooking for the Catholic Home. He had 2 aunts that were nuns, and having traced his family from Bavaria, Germany – there was also a Priest in the family.. When we were married in 1983, he told many, many stories about growing up in such a large family – 7 girls and 10 boys; one sister, he and six brothers, all served in the Armed Forces. He spent 3 years guarding the Berlin Wall. Johnny, his oldest brother told stories about making and running “moonshine”… One sister, Ruthie, became a nun, but left the convent and married. Several of the girls had large families, J.R. and two of his brothers had no children.. When it came time to butcher hogs, the grown families/children would come to the homestead and butcher 12 hogs at a time… I’m sure this is more information than I needed to share – but J.R. was such a wonderful guy and the love of my life. I just wanted to let you know my connection to Seneca County, OH. (I read that nobody likes to read more than one paragraph – so I made this all one!!) humor…


    1. 17 kids! What the heck! That’s unreal.

      Thank you for sending so much. I’m a carpetbagger in every county seat I go to, and I’m glad that those trips resonate with people who have actual ties there. I’m so happy you and JR had a great life together, and I’m also glad I didn’t have to butcher twelve hogs. 🙂

      It means a lot that you connect with what I write about, whether it’s this courthouse or something closer to home. I’d read whatever you had to say regardless of if it was crammed into a single paragraph or not!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s