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Judging the Portage County Courthouse

By Mike Sever Record-Courier staff writer Published: March 8, 1998 12:00 AM

The Portage County Courthouse may be the Rodney Dangerfield of courthouses _ it gets no respect.

One book, "Guide to Ohio's Historical Courthouses," called it a "rather drab and boring building that would not be recognized as a courthouse if it did not have 'County Courthouse' written up it." A county judge told county commissioners whatever they did to its facade couldn't make it any worse. And visitors, who are forced to enter through a side door, wonder aloud why the county is using what looks like an old high school as a courthouse.

But life may be looking up for the 38-year old building, due to get a minor facelift as part of a $3.5 million, second phase to its renovation. That doesn't include the cost of new furniture or office equipment that will be needed.

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Commissioner Chuck Keiper said the total package will probably hit the $5 million mark. The current courthouse cost $1.5 million when it was built in 1961. The renovation, which commissioners say will meet the needs for the next 15 years, will cost more than five times that original figure that when all is said and done.

But will it be enough to make the ugly duckling building at least passable if not an outstanding example of architecture?

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Architects involved in the renovation presented preliminary concepts, including three ideas for a new vestibule, colonnade or clock on the facade. But in general the building's buff brick and brown marble exterior remains unchanged.

Some officials, such as Commissioner Kathleen Chandler, would like to see more changes. Chandler is interested in making the outside of the building, "at least the facade, one we can be proud of."

She said she'd like to see the facade blend in with the Victorian buildings around it, such as Riddle Block No. 1 and Etna House.

Eric Hummel, co-owner of the Riddle Blocks, agreed. Hummel won a Raven Award from the city chamber of commerce for his restoration of downtown buildings.

"I'm delighted they have concerns about making an investment" in the looks of the building, he said. Hummel said he would like to see the courthouse reflect the Victorian detail of the previous courthouse, built in 1881 in front of the existing courthouse and torn down after the current building opened.

Hummel said he'd also like to see what local architects might design to fit in with the Ravenna scene.

The courthouse plays a central role _ literally and figuratively _ in Ravenna's street scene, Hummel said.

"It is a public building. We want it to look nice and function nicely. People want to go to the courthouse and feel good about working there," he said.

He noted the city has expended much money on the downtown Streetscape project. "And the county should contribute by doing something with the courthouse. I think it's refreshing they're concerned, and I think it's refreshing they want to do something about it. It would be great if some local people, who are very capable, can be involved in it."

He noted that modern buildings such as Ravenna's City Hall, which was renovated last year, can be refurbished to fit in with the existing city style gracefully.

"It's very impressive," he said. "It fits in nicely. Now the only thing that doesn't is the courthouse."

Chandler wants to find out if there would be community support, possibly even financial support, to do more with the outside of the courthouse than now being planned.

Commissioner Chris Smeiles said commissioners haven't decided on a final exterior plan. "The board has agreed to solicit input from downtown Ravenna interests," he said. If money were not an issue, he said, "we'd reinstate a stately courthouse that gives the county seat the appearance it deserves."

But money is an issue, Smeiles said.

"Our goal is to restore a respectful appearance for the downtown community and the county seat," Smeiles said.

Suellyn Truax, new president of the Ravenna Chamber of Commerce, said local merchants have long wished the courthouse was more in keeping with the other buildings in town.

"First impressions are important for a building," she said. "Everybody always remembers what the old courthouse looked like; they say what a shame it was (that it's gone)." So, if there's a chance to make the courthouse more distinctive, the community might be supportive, although the chamber has taken no official position on the question, she said.

As envisioned now, the second phase of renovation would include adding a vestibule with some architectural embellishments, and restoring the front as the main entry to the courthouse. All that could cost $100,000 or more, according to architect Dennis Check of Hastenstab & McCarthy.

But Keiper said he can't see spending a lot of money to change the outside of the building beyond the front entrance.

"For a million dollars you get a brown box instead of a yellow box. I don't want to be in the position of telling the public we're going to spend their money to change the color of the brick," he said.

"I don't want to tell you what to do with the front," Judge Jerry Hayes told commissioners, "but no matter what you do, you couldn't possibly make it worse."

While court officials are generally satisfied with the interior renovations, leaders of the Portage County Bar Association objected to a proposal to replace the county law library annex at the back of the courthouse with a three-story addition. The law library would be relocated to a central area on the second floor previously used by the Clerk of Courts. It's the same area that housed the law library nearly 20 years ago.

Joseph Giulitto, president of the bar association, objected that the new area would be only about three-quarters the size of the current library. And, he said, the bar association just spent thousands of dollars to renovate the library.

Commissioners proposed computerizing at least part of the law library to save needed space, but Giulitto said that raises the issue of providing staff to help lawyers do research and maintaining and updating the computers.

The second phase will involve the renovation of interior spaces not done in the first $3 million phase of the project. Phase two will involve approximately 25,000 square feet of interior space including courtrooms, offices and hallways, and an 8,200 square-foot three-story addition at the courthouse's southeast corner.

On the exterior, the front entrance will once again become the main courthouse entrance, with access for the handicapped. The front entrance was closed off several years ago because of access and security issues, and entry has been restricted to the Chestnut Street doorway. That doorway would be eliminated in the renovation.

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