Courthouse: A grand structure

COUNTY COURTHOUSES throughout Ohio are grand buildings and the center of county government in Jefferson County is no exception.

Located in downtown Steubenville opposite the site of Fort Steuben, the Jefferson County Courthouse is a source of community pride and commitment, just like most courthouses in the Buckeye state.

Jefferson County was formed July 29, 1797. The county was named for Thomas Jefferson and was founded by Bazeleel Wells and James Ross. Steubenville was selected as the county seat due to its location and activities.

The first building to serve the citizens of Jefferson County as a courthouse was built in 1798. The simple log cabin cost $40 to construct and served in that capacity for only 11 years.

A second courthouse was built in 1809 for the unheard of grand total of $2,260.49. It was a two-story brick structure and induced a cupola. This structure served the resident of Jefferson County for nearly 65 years before it was replaced with a grander building.

The current courthouse was constructed between the years of 1871 to 1874. It was built during a time of prosperity when Steubenville was developing from a rural community to an industrial one known for manufacturing steel. The architectural firm of Heard & Blythe constructed the courthouse.

The sandstone building originally featured a mansard roof with ornate dormer windows and mansard roofed tower.

It was built in the Greek Revivial style with four floors and impressive flight of stairs leading to each floor. High Corinthians columns support a pediment at the main entrance with Justice standing at the peak. During a strong snowstorm in 1950, the steep-sided, flat-topped roof collapsed, destroying the ornate towers and damaging upper floor of the building. The numerous historic records which were housed on that floor were saved and were relocated to the courthouse’s basement.

The damage to the building led to a hotly debated plan. At that time, county officials decided to forego the construction of a new courthouse but only after an overwhelming public outcry ended the grand plans. Rumors of an “evil scheme” to “steal” the courthouse from the residents of Jefferson County were circulating “like a house afire” and a bond issue was to appear on the ballot.

A song was penned by an unnamed author that contended the collapse of the structure’s roof wasn’t caused by the snowstorm but by “scheming” individuals who started their misdeeds by stealing the clock from atop the building along with the bell.

The lyrics accuse someone of cutting the block and piling debris on an attic cell.

“Now they would sell that beautiful courthouse at an auction block,” the song continued. “Ev’ry time I pass that courthouse, I get the courthouse blues.”

The words to the song was included in a handout opposing the bond issue.

That handout, which made its way into the hands of most residents in the area, also included the following; “Between 1932 and May 1951, your courthouse was subjected to a deliberate sabotage to show such weakness that you would be willing to give it away by voting for a new one. You are asked to vote $3,000,000 for a planless project, and give the spenders $6,020,000 as a bonus. Don’t do it!”

After the bond issue was soundly defeated by the electorate, restoring the roof was not financial feasible and the tower atop the courthouse which held an elegant clock which for years been illuminated from all four sides, was not restored to its once grand display. A bell that hung just below the clock was also relocated to the Steubenville Union Cemetery. The mansard was converted to a flat roof and the courthouse shrunk in size with the ornate roof-top towers no longer adorning the grand structure.

However, some evidence of the building’s original grandeur still remains today and can be found in the arched windows with hood moulds and keystones, paired Corinthian columns, central pediment, pilasters, console and brackets supporting entablatures over the windows.

In front of the courthouse is a statue of Steubenville native Edwin McMasters Stanton, United States Secretary of War to President Abraham Lincoln.

Following Lincoln’s assassination, in 1867, President Andrew Johnson removed Stanton from the Cabinet. He believed the Steubenville native was aligned the Radical Republicans and that Stanton opposed his reconstruction policies.

Stanton was later nominated to the Supreme Court by Ulysses S. Grant and was confirmed by the Senate. However, he died four days later without taking the oath of office.

A plaque to the left of the main entrance of the building was placed in memoriam to the USS Maine (ACR-1) and is constructed from metal recovered from the ship. A 19th-century ship of the United States Navy, the Maine exploded and sank on February 15, 1898 in an event that precipitated the SpanishAmerican War and also popularized the phrase “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!” The cause of the explosion that sank the ship remains an unsolved mystery.

Today, the Jefferson County Courthouse continues to serve as the symbolic center of county government although, as it names implies, its primary purpose, like that of other such structures, has always been to provide facilities for court functions.

A restoration project began on the courthouse and 2006 including the cleaning of the sandstone, replacement of sidewalks and restoration to the inside of the structure.

Sedgmer may be reached at ksedgmer@timesleaderonline.com