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Erie County Courthouse, a history

Ron Davidson • Jul 29, 2013 at 3:00 PM

The Erie County Courthouse has been in the news recently, as court records are now available online. Although the court records contain significant information about our county and its people, the history of the courthouse building and its predecessors provides another interesting story about Sandusky and Erie County.

Sandusky has been the only county seat for Erie County, with the first courthouse in Sandusky opening in 1838, when the county was created primarily from what was the northern portion of Huron County. (This explains why founding documents for Sandusky have been held in the courthouse in Norwalk.) This first courthouse was in a stone building that was constructed in 1828 as a private academy, to be used as a school and for other educational purposes. It was not completely finished, however, until 1838, when the academy stockholders made it available to the county to serve as a temporary courthouse. This temporary status lasted about 36 years, when the new courthouse was opened in December 1874 on the site of the present courthouse. The Academy Building, as it was often called, was on the east side of the public square, nearly adjacent to the original high school building, which opened in 1869. Although its service ended in 1874, the building remained standing until 1886, when it was removed to provide more space for the school grounds. It must have been a very sturdy building, as news reports stated that the demolition crew had to resort to dynamiting the walls to bring them down.

In photographs, you can see a belfry on the building. A bell was installed in that tower around 1840, and was transferred to the new courthouse when it was under construction. This bell served as the city fire alarm until 1873, when a steam whistle was installed on the standpipe of the newly-built water works on Meigs Street. The bell was removed from the courthouse in 1936, and is now on exhibit at the Follett House Museum.

Since the original courthouse was intended to be only temporary, it is no surprise that a larger, more ornate courthouse was built across Columbus Avenue on the west public square. Formal plans for its construction began in 1872, and the cornerstone was laid in August 1872. The building officially opened for business in 1874. The Sandusky Library holds an interesting document relating to the construction of the courthouse. The “Record of Estimates for the New Courthouse, 1872,” lists in detail the contractor’s final bid for the construction work, which added up to $123, 913.87 (about $2.2 million in today’s money). This ledger also includes monthly estimates for labor and materials incurred during the construction, from June 1872 to November 1874. After work was completed, the final report showed that the project went over budget by $18, 912.88.

The ornate, Second Empire style courthouse on Washington Square served the county well for several decades, but by the 1930s proposals for a new courthouse arose, as it was thought that more room was needed for the existing courts. Initially, those who wanted demolish and replace the courthouse dominated the planning, but that soon changed when the possibility of federal aid for renovation arose. With the assistance of grants from the New Deal-era Public Works Administration, the courthouse was almost completely redesigned, from 1935 to 1938, into the building as it appears today.

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