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New Justice Center: A Vision for the Blind Eye

It is very necessary to distinguish carefully between “Architecture” and “Building.” John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

When I was a young reporter in 1991, I had the opportunity to participate in a walk-through of the old Shawhan Hotel at the corner of South Washington and East Perry streets in downtown Tiffin. At that time the building was a pretty sad sight. The top floor had been gutted by a fire in 1976, during that dark era when the downtown experienced a rash of arson-induced blazes.

After that disaster — and if the truth be told, even before — the once-grand hotel suffered a pretty dismal reputation. The fire merely added an exclamation point to the fact that it hadn’t experienced a glory day since the trains carrying traveling salesmen stopped coming through town. For almost two decades following the conflagration, the Shawhan Hotel sat abandoned. It was nothing more than a huge eyesore in the heart of downtown Tiffin.

The eventual tour of the building’s shell was arranged to determine whether or not the Shawhan was worth renovating. A handful of topnotch preservationists from the East Coast, as well as a representative from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, braved everything from the peeled wallpaper, chunks of broken plaster and vandalism in the dilapidated, dust-laden rooms to the charred remains of the pigeon-infested upper floor.

At the end of the day, one preservationist termed the old hotel a potential “white elephant.” Essentially, it was a toss up. Yes, it was possible to recapture the opulence of the Shawhan’s heyday; but doing so wasn’t going to be cheap.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that day provided me one of the best learning experiences of my career. I was provided a rare opportunity to see the utter shambles of the old building’s interior and how — with a firm purpose, a sizable amount of vision and of course, financing — that proverbial train wreck ultimately was transformed into the showplace now known as Elmwood at the Shawhan.

Vision. It’s what was sorely lacking when two Seneca County Commissioners decided to rip the 1884 courthouse out of the heart of the city two years ago.

Judging from the rendering of what is to be built in its place, our politicians are still legally blind. The design of the newly proposed “Justice Center” is nothing more than a banal square box that painfully resembles the atrocious bank building at the corner of Washington and Market streets that now, ironically, houses county offices.

Too many of us — me included — were caught sleeping during the courthouse fiasco. It’s now time for normal citizens to step up and demand the bulk of the input concerning a Justice Center that will affect our city and county for years to come.

New developments have resurrected an alternative to the newly proposed $8.5 million building. There is already an existing structure in place that — like the Shawhan Hotel — can be transformed into the kind of Justice Center for which we can all be proud. The former East Junior High building, at the intersection of Market and Jefferson Streets, is a grand structure that has been standing since 1893. Like the 1884 courthouse, the school building is a fortress, constructed with quality materials that are no longer available. It has far outlasted the estimated 40-year lifespan of any new construction. Although the jury is still out on the estimated cost of the project, it’s safe to say the price tag won’t be an astronomical $8.5 million.

As an added bonus, the existing green space can be further landscaped and used as a gathering place for community events.

In the coming weeks, as more of the new developments are divulged, it will become apparent why the ornate school building is a viable option for the Justice Center. In the meantime, we need your input. Each day I will post a question on Facebook. Your response is vital. Please visit the Seneca County Courthouse Book or Virgin Alley Press Facebook pages, or friend me personally. If you don’t have a Facebook page, email your responses to Please share the posts and emails with your friends. All responses will be passed along to the pertinent individuals. Continue to visit this blog at for detailed updates.

Our forefathers had it right. To them, every county courthouse was intended to be a literal “palace of justice” — a magnificent crowning jewel of the county seat. This is your chance to relay that message to our local politicos — judges included.

It’s been said that tear-down is bad business, particularly when there are other options. We’ve experienced that to the hilt. But in this case, building another eyesore in the heart of an historic downtown district is just as tragic. Perhaps it’s time to remind our elected decision makers that they work for us, not the other way around.

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