Traditional Building Portfolio




Pure Style

Project: The Old Montgomery County Courthouse,

Dayton, OH

Architects: Schooley Caldwell Associates, Columbus, OH; Robert Loversidge, Jr., FAIA, principal; Jeff Wray Architects, Dayton, OH; Jeffrey S. Wray, AIA, principal

Historic Consultant: William Seale, Ph.D.

By Annabel Hsin

The Old Montgomery County Courthouse in Dayton, OH, is one of the country's finest examples of Greek Revival architecture. Built in 1850, the two-story building was designed by Cincinnati architect Howard Daniels, and modeled after the Theseum, a Greek temple located on the lower slopes of the Acropolis. The courthouse features a front colonnade with Ionic capitals and columns. Through the main entry, the original center hall procession, with brick arches and groin-vault ceilings, leads to the single elliptical-shaped courtroom with a coffered-dome ceiling.

In 1881, a larger courthouse was built right next to the Old Courthouse, hence the name, and the two buildings were used together for almost a century. The larger courthouse wasn't in a pure architectural style and was harshly criticized for it. When the community outgrew the two courthouses the larger one was torn down for the development of an urban plaza known as Courthouse Square. The Old Courthouse was preserved both for its design and its significance to Dayton's history. In 1859, Abraham Lincoln stood on its stone steps to address the community during his presidential campaign. Other presidents have stood there also, including Andrew Johnson, John F. Kennedy and William Jefferson Clinton.

Plans for a restoration project were spearheaded by the Montgomery Historical Society, which used the Old Courthouse as a museum and headquarters. The restoration began in 2003 with a facility assessment conducted by Columbus, OH-based Schooley Caldwell Associates and Dayton, OH-based Jeff Wray Architects; the firms were subsequently contracted for the project. "The county wanted this to be a functional restoration. It was very important to them that the building had an everyday use, that it was not just a museum," says Jeffrey S. Wray, AIA, principal of Jeff Wray Architects. "With that in mind, they were concerned about the opportunities for restrooms, accommodating crowds, meeting rooms and audio visual systems."

Accessibility was a major concern. Robert Loversidge, Jr., FAIA, principal of Schooley Caldwell Associates, and his team designed a pavilion to house a mechanical lift located on the north side of the main façade. "The courthouse sits on a plinth; the main entry takes a full flight of stairs to enter and it was impossible to install a ramp," he says. "There's a retaining wall that surrounds the building with these interesting columns. We picked up the details on the columns to create the base of the pavilion and we built an enclosure on top with openings so it wouldn't feel closed-in."

The pavilion was constructed of a local fossilized limestone known as "Dayton Marble," which matched the main structure. The details on the base were hand-worked using the same technique as the retaining wall and a matching copper roof was installed to protect the equipment from weather damage. "The good thing about the entry experience is that it's roughly the same for a person with disabilities as for someone using the stairs because the visitor arrives on the front porch instead of a backdoor with rear loading accessibility," says Loversidge. The freestanding pavilion not only complements the main structure but is also reversible should there be a better accessibility solution in the future.

Along with missing stones and details, the exterior mortar joints had deteriorated and had to be replaced. Acquiring the required local limestone became the most challenging aspect of the project. Fortunately, Schooley Caldwell had completed the restoration of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, OH, with a very similar stone. A local quarry had been opened for the Statehouse project, so additional stones were available. In addition, the Montgomery County had a small stock that was salvaged during the dismantling of canal locks and retaining walls of the Miami-Erie Canal. Wray also came across the demolition of local public school buildings and arranged to salvage more "Dayton Marble." Some of the larger stones were cut in half to stretch the supply and its surfaces were stained to match the weathered stones on the courthouse.

All of the window sashes and frames were restored to the period, and some still had original glass. "It was an old uneven glass with bubbles of a nice quality," says Wray. "We salvaged as much as we could and consolidated the use of the glass on windows on the first floor. We didn't try to replicate the glass; the replacements are contemporary float glass." The firm also re-created a rear window at the center of the first story, which had been covered over. "We knew the window was there because we had seen photographs of it," says Wray. "It was somewhat visible in the coursing of the stone that there had been some modification. The coursing was interrupted and the head joints were different." Once the exterior stone veneer was removed the opening was easily found and a new window was set in place.

In the two-story vestibule, restrooms had been built above an arch, with exposed piping through the ceilings above. "We think there might have been a bell up there," says Loversidge. "There's no bell tower in this building and bells were an important way to signal people in those days. There's a big opening that has a window in it now that may not have been there and it's at the bell level. It's one of the mysteries we haven't solved." The restrooms and its ceilings were easily removed to reveal a groin vault and balcony overlooking the main entry. The plaster walls, damaged by leaks and layers of paint, were peeled back to determine its original color. The walls were then painted to look like stone.

The restrooms were relocated to a room that had been considerably modified because it was once a connector to the larger courthouse. A partition of wood beaded board separates the room into two restrooms and a transom was installed above the partition to allow natural light to flow into the otherwise windowless room. The exposed stone floors and plaster details complement the rest of the building and the technique of subdividing the groin vault ceiling in the room was sensitive to the original time period, although the courthouse probably had an outhouse.

"Lighting is always a challenge," says Loversidge. "Our need for light today is much more than it was when the courthouse was built." As such, additional lighting fixtures were added in the style of the original gas lights. "Most of the light fixtures are what I call semi-custom," Loversidge adds. "If I'd had a bigger budget I would have done them totally custom. We took fixtures that were made and asked to rearrange them or use different pieces and parts or finishes. It's easier working with semi-custom because we're working with parts that exist but it's not necessarily better or more accurate."

The courthouse was originally heated with stoves and chimneys in each room that were later removed – the chimney cavities were concealed within the walls. Wood floorboards and sleepers had been laid over the existing stone floors to hide wires and pipes for HVAC but these were removed to expose the stone floors. "We used the attic and basement for the mechanical systems," says Wray. "The attic above had limited access, so we designed mechanical systems that could be broken into components so that we could get them up stairs and through limited openings."

The air handlers were installed in the attic and the basement; the duct work had to be fitted between brick arches and the existing chimney cavities that were reopened to the attic. Holes were cut in the stone floor for iron grilles that were patterned after an existing ventilation grille in the courtroom. Dayton sits on a huge natural aquifer and it is common practice to use the aquifer for heat rejection, so there was no need for a cooling tower on the exterior of the courthouse. The firm installed audio-visual equipment in the courtroom. "We needed to tune the room for common speech," says Wray. "It's a great place to have music or string quartets but not for the spoken word." Loversidge consulted with Jayne M. Vandenburgh, interior designer at Schooley Caldwell Associates, and William Seale, historic consultant, to create a period-appropriate design for a new wall-to-wall Axminster carpet, which was custom made in wool with a center medallion to mirror the skylight in the coffered-dome ceiling.

The courtroom also needed a period-appropriate judge's bench, but this was one design element that Wray and Loversidge couldn't determine. "We had a photograph that showed a stylized Victorian-style judge's bench but we were pretty sure that wasn't the original," says Wray. While the room would no longer be used as a courtroom, except for mock trials, a simple dais was needed for the meeting center. A custom-built walnut bench was designed to be expanded into a platform or wheeled up against a wall to become a decorative element.

Although the budget didn't allow for the restoration of the six meeting rooms on the second floor, the goals for the Old Courthouse were successfully met. "The county courthouse was a symbol of a growing state," says Loversidge. "It was a statement to the public of the permanence and importance of government. This explains why the county of Montgomery built this magnificent building." Completed in May 2005, the courthouse has a new purpose; it now features a fully restored courtroom that's not only reminiscent of a room in the late 1800s, but is also equipped to efficiently hold special events. TB

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