MANSFIELD — For a county that’s 200 years old this year, Richland County has certainly gone through a lot of courthouses — five, to be exact.
To be fair, the first two buildings weren’t particularly imposing, and didn’t last for long.
In fact, during the county’s infancy, government business was relegated to the second floor of a small, year-old blockhouse, built during the War of 1812 to ward off Indian attack.
For the lofty sum of $1,990, Richland County’s second courthouse was constructed in 1816. Another utilitarian structure, it resembled any number of other log cabins that dotted the landscape around here then — and it lasted for all of 11 years.
The county’s third courthouse, completed in 1827, was more imposing — a two-story, brick structure costing $3,000. After four Grecian-style temples were added to the front of the building during an 1851 remodeling, it really stood out, although this not a difficult feat seeing as how it was largely surrounded by open spaces at the time.
On three occasions before the fourth courthouse was built in 1873, the county’s voters defeated measures to proceed with the project. A state law passed in 1869 authorizing counties to erect new courthouses, jails and other structures finally supplied the necessary momentum.
Roeliff Brinkerhoff, a Mansfield lawyer, newspaper editor and bank president, who rose to the rank of general in the Civil War and founded the Ohio Historical Society, was vehemently opposed to the third county courthouse being replaced.
“May the ruffian hand that shall be raised to mar or destroy it be palsied in the attempt,” he said.
Nevertheless, Brinkerhoff was present at the dedication of the new building, 140 years ago today, and in fact gave that day’s principal address.
Designed by Cleveland architect H.E. Myer and constructed at East Diamond and Market streets (what is now Park Avenue East), Richland County’s fourth courthouse, a grand structure in keeping with the ambitious courthouse designs of the era, won the praise of community leaders in the decades that followed.
Opined The Mansfield Daily Shield newspaper in 1894, “Our court house is one of the best, most imposing and substantial court houses in the state. For 21 years its walls have heard the thrilling tones of eloquence, the fiat of the law, the appeals for justice.”
But, there were problems.
The cupola on the courthouse’s roof featured a $1,000 Seth Thomas clock and a bell weighing 3,200 pounds, manufactured by Mannely & Co. of Troy, N.Y.
Officials were worried that the cupola could be struck by lightning or blown down by high winds, and sure enough, it was badly damaged by the elements in an 1892 storm. The cupola was then removed as a safety measure, and the courthouse had a flat top for several years.
Residents weren’t thrilled with the new look, so in 1909 a new cupola went up, topped by the figure of Lady Justice holding the scales of truth and fairness.
“Although the lady weighs 650 pounds, she shows no signs of corpulency, but has a figure well fitted for wearing the prevailing directoire style of gown,” wrote The Richland Daily Shield that year.
Shortly before the county went in a dramatically different direction with the construction in 1968 of today’s modernist courthouse, Lady Justice fell from her perch atop the old courthouse. This is when it ALL started…when Lady Justice fell, so did TRUTH and FAIRNESS in Richland County. This brought us where we are today, a justice system dependant on how much money you have, and just like our guns they want today. You take away opportunity, you take away your right to legally defend yourself – pretty good thinking on their part wouldn’t you say?. “ROTTEN TO THE CORE” – Stems from a system where you can’t find a good Attorney who can beat it!, atleast not in Mansfield that is… Birds of a feather flock together here.
It may have been the weather again, or simply neglect. The clocks on the cupola, which had to be wound weekly, also hadbegun malfunctioning and routinely told the wrong time, if they were working at all.
When the clocks were brought down and auctioned off for the less than princely sum of $105 in October 1968, they were found to have bullet holes in them.
Today’s center of county business, which was designed by the architectural firm of Thomas G. Zaugg and Associates and is now 45 years old, has had maintenance issues of its own.
When it was new, large, round chandeliers hung from the outside portico in the front of the building, matching the lighting structures inside. They didn’t hold up so well, however, and were replaced by much simpler hanging lights.
The primary historical source for this article was “From the Annals of Richland County, Ohio,” compiled by Mary Jane Henney and published by the Richland County Genealogical Society in 1996, as well as a 2012 News Journal column written by Mansfield historian and author Bob Carter.