by Steven McQuillin
(click on photos to enlarge)
Fire has played an important role in the history
of the courthouses in Hamilton County. Three of the county's six
courthouses were destroyed by fire, a record unsurpassed by any
other Ohio county. Not only were three fine courthouses destroyed,
but invaluable county records and legal documents were also consumed.
Hamilton County's first courthouse was a log
cabin erected in 1790. It stood on what is now Government Square,
but which was in the late eighteenth century dotted with swamps
and frog ponds. The building was constructed by volunteers and
thus cost the county nothing. Measuring fifty feet by forty feet,
this was a small building. Because of the lack of facilities for
incarcerating offenders, the public whipping post was resorted
to as the method of punishment. The whipping post was prominently
located directly in front of the courthouse and presumably served
as a source of entertainment to the frontier community, which
had the opportunity to witness the public administration of justice.
The first courthouse was soon replaced by a
more substantial building, reflecting the growing prosperity of
what was rapidly becoming Ohio's most important trading center.
This 1802 courthouse was located on the public square near the
southeast corner of Fifth and Main streets. Constructed at a cost
of $3,000 this was a two-story limestone building measured 42
feet across the front and had a depth of 55 feet. The exterior
walls of this building rose up above the roofline to form a parapet.
Rising from the center of this early courthouse was an arcaded
cupola surrounded by a projecting balustrade and surmounted by
a wooden dome. This courthouse was used as a barracks during the
War of 1812, and through careless soldiers, it was destroyed by
fire during this occupancy.
The county commissioners accepted a lot offered
by Jesse Hunt, grandfather of noted attorney Elliot Hunt Pendleton
as the site for the new courthouse. Located at Court and Main
streets, this building was considerably removed from what was
then the village of Cincinnati. Built at a cost of $15,000, this
third courthouse was not completed until 1819. It resembled the
second courthouse in appearance and was an example of Federal
style architecture. Drake and Mansfield's book, Cincinnati in
1826, had the following negative comments about this old courthouse:
It presents neither in its domestic
economy nor external architecture a model of convenience
or elegance. Its removal from the centre of the city is
justly a cause for complaint.
They need not have been so concerned, because
the rapidly growing city soon encompassed the courthouse. As to
its appearance and utility, fire would settle that question. The
building was still in use by 1849, but had been supplemented by
wings to house the growing number of offices in Ohio's largest
county. The following account of the building's demise was recorded
in 1881 by a citizen who was present at the time:
In the afternoon of Monday, July 9, 1849,
this old and noble structure burned up, or down, and nothing
was left of it but its thick, blackened walls, and they have
been made and builded to last forever. The fire had been communicated
to it by a neighboring pork-house conflagration on a warm summer's
day. It caught on its exposed timber roof and cupola, and soon
roof, dome, cupola, spire and steeple were enveloped in flames.
I remember gazing intently into the surrounding, wrapping, warping,
writhing, enclosing flames atop the immense roof. Dome, spire
and steeple and roof soon fell with a tremendous roar into the
midst of the enclosing walls, which had been blackened but not
injured in their structure by the fire. They stood for a long
while a sort of ruined monument of former justice and law .
. . During the burning of the roof and dome and tower of the
old courthouse it was a very curious and interesting sight to
see numerous doves or pigeons flying in extended circles about
the flames, as near as the fierce heat would permit them. The
cupola had been a long-time home for the pigeons of the city.
The old courthouse, it seems, was the home of pigeons as well
as the judges and lawyers. It was a great old courthouse and
had a great history in its eventful days. Sorry to part with
After the fire, the courts and county offices
found a temporary home in a pork packing house at the northwest
corner of Court Street and St. Clair alley. This was one of numerous
such facilities for the slaughter and dressing of hogs in the
city, which by that time had acquired the nickname ''Porkopolis''.
This temporary courthouse was a large four-story brick building,
evidently not occupied at the time for its intended purpose, but
which later became the home of Wilson, Eggleston & Company,
a large pork packing company. Several offices were housed across
the alley from what was for three years to serve as the courthouse.
Isaiah Rogers, a prominent architect of national
reputation, was selected to design the new courthouse. Rogers
was perhaps the country's foremost hotel architect and had recently
designed the Burnett House in Cincinnati, the largest and most
elegant hotel in the Midwest.
His design for the fourth Hamilton County Courthouse was for a
massive three-story building, measuring 190 feet square. Its immense
size entirely filled the site at Court and Main streets. The building
bore a close resemblance to Rogers' Merchants Exchange building
in New York City. Located on Wall Street, this building still
stands, with later additions, as the headquarters of National
City Bank. A series of arcades accented the ground floor, which
was at grade level. The three center bays led directly into the
building. Rising above the podium formed by the first floor was
a temple-like Greek Revival style building. Its center section
was recessed to form a balustraded portico, which was accented
by six colossal Corinthian columns supporting a massive triangular
pediment in the center of the facade. It rose to a height of sixty
feet and was crowned by a massive cornice and balustrade. The
front of the building was finished in locally quarried limestone,
known as Dayton Marble, while the sides were finished in red brick
accented by stone trim.
The main entrance through the center three bays
led to a broad flight of iron steps to the second or main floor
to a broad central rotunda room, which was lighted by a massive
skylight. This room served as the main criminal court room. Circling
the main courtroom was a broad hallway, which led to numerous
offices. On the third floor were other courtrooms and the law
library and offices. The building was very substantially built
of fireproof materials and was well lighted from numerous large
windows and the central glass dome, which was invisible from the
street. The cost of what for many years was the largest courthouse
in Ohio was a then-staggering sum of $695,000 a sum unequalled
by many twentieth century Ohio courthouses.
Work on the third courthouse suffered many frequent
delays caused by changes in the plans and conflicting ideas about
its style and layout. When the first offices moved into the still-unfinished
building in 1852, ''they were small, dark, and cold (offices);
and the judges and the bar had a generally unpleasant time of
it there. Finally, one of the judges had a long siege with sore
eyes, as a result of his attendance in these rooms, and, by arrangement
with the supreme court and the three common pleas judges, he secured
a peremptory order to the sheriff that other quarters for the
courts should be obtained.'' (Following from the 1881 History
of Hamilton County, Page 235).
Immediately behind the courthouse was the county
jail, which faced onto Sycamore Street. The jail was built of
limestone, like the courthouse, and was completed in 1862 in a
style to match the courthouse at a cost of $226,500. The building
contained 152 cells and was of fireproof construction and surrounded
by a high stone wall. A passageway led from the courthouse to
this jail building.
Cincinnati's beautiful courthouse, constructed
to last for centuries, succumbed after only thirty years of service.
Its tragic demise is recounted in this article taken from Henry
Howe's Historical Collections of Ohio:
"Cincinnati has never witnessed such
violation of the law, defiance of authorities, and so much bloodshed
as attended the great Hamilton County Courthouse riot on the
night of March 28, 1884, and continuing for several days, there
being open conflict between the militia and police on one side
and an excitable, yet determined mob upon the other.
The circumstances that led to this most unfortunate
affair was the trial for murder of Wm. Berner, who killed his
employer, Wm. Kirk.
It was one of the most outrageous assaults
upon society, and a dastardly, cold-blooded crime that unsteadied
the nerves of the populace, causing excitement to run high,
and incensed all law- abiding citizens when the case came to
trial by the methods pursued by criminal lawyers, who sought
to perjure witnesses, bribe juries, and resorted to openhanded
means to have their client acquitted against all principle of
law or justice. There was called at the great Music Hall on
the evening of March 28, 1884, a mass meeting of citizens. Immediately
after the meeting, as the masses were surging out upon Elm street,
some one in the crowd shouted, ''Fall in! Let's go to the jail!''
and a great mob from the meeting proceeded directly to the county
jail in the court-house on the Sycamore Street side, above Court
On the way the mob was increased by hundreds
of others. Upon reaching the jail it was surrounded by a howling,
angry crowd. A piece of joist was procured, and with it the
basement doors, at the foot of the stone steps, were battered
down. Bricks and stone were hurled by men in the street above
at the windows. Clubs, huge pieces of timber, crowbars, and
other weapons were quickly procured and passed down to the men
who were at work upon the heavy outside entrance doors of the
jail, and it at last yielded, the work being done speedily.
The crowd then poured into the jail office, and there found
other obstructions in the matter of stone walls and heavy iron
grated doors. Morton L. Hawkins, the county sheriff, and his
few deputies faced the mob upon their entrance between the outer
and inside doors. They were powerless to stem the fierce human
tide, and besides the sheriff had given orders to his officers
not to use their weapons on the mob, believing that such proceeding
would only make bad worse. The mob completely filled the interior
of the jail, yelling and searching for the murderer they had
come to hang. They filled the corridors, and a force of men
succeeded in so forcing the iron grated door that it at last
gave way, and the mob ran up the winding stone stairway to the
cell rooms, peering into each cell and demanding of other prisoners
the where-abouts of the murderer whom they sought.
While this was going on within a squad of
fifteen policemen arrived on the scene and began clearing the
jail, meeting with but little success, as they were set upon
by the mob and hurled to one side as though they were not there.
At 9.55 P.M. the fire-bells sounded the riot alarm. This brought
people to the scene from all sections of the city, and they
turned in with the mob, the greater majority being in sympathy.
It called the police from their posts of duty and the various
stations; and through good management they were formed above
and below the jail in two sections, and, headed by the patrol
wagons, advanced upon the crowds assembled on Sycamore Street,
in proximity to the jail. The crowd outside was estimated to
be between nine and ten thousand. The patrol and police advancing
in two solid columns caused a stampede, the rioters escaping
through side streets. Ringleaders and some of those who had
been active inside the jail were taken in the patrol wagons
to the station houses. The patrols were permitted to leave amid
much jeering and denunciatory language, and after their passage
the gap was closed up and another onslaught made upon the jail;
the rioters in the meantime having armed themselves with axes,
stones and bricks.
Upon their being repulsed, however, a great
crowd rushed over toward Main Street and down town. Simultaneous
attacks were made upon the entrances of several gun stores,
and the places completely gutted of firearms, powder, cartridges
and other ammunition. In the meantime others of the mob had
fired the jail and the courthouse, in a score of places, coal
oil and powder being liberally used, and neighboring stores
and groceries being sacked for the purpose. Affairs were assuming
a serious and critical aspect. The light of the fires illuminated
the whole city, causing hundreds of other citizens, upon the
hilltops and in the suburbs, to hasten to the scene.
Immediately after the sentence had been pronounced
that afternoon the murderer Berner had been hurried to Columbus,
going in a buggy to Linwood, where the train was taken. He was
in custody of Dominick Devots, a watchman or deputy sheriff,
and through the latter's negligence the prisoner managed to
escape from him while the train was at Loveland. All these things
the rioters of course were ignorant of. They had been told by
Sheriff Hawkins that the prisoner was not in jail upon the first
attack, but this was looked upon as a subterfuge to cause them
to cease their violence. The fires around the jail and court-house
had been put out, and towards early morning the mob, almost
worn out with their labors, thinned out, but hundreds remained
about the scene throughout the night, and as the hours approached
the working hour their numbers were increased.
All day long Saturday the militia and police
were on duty, and the courthouse and jail were surrounded by
tired-out but determined men, and thousands of others drawn
there by the excitement of the occasion.
There were no attempts at attack made during
the day, but Saturday night for several blocks above and below
to the east and the west of the jail and court-house the streets
were choked by rioters who had greatly increased their strength,
and another attack on the jail was made.
This proved to be the most serious attack
of all, and the most disastrous. Admission was gained to the
courthouse. The militia in the streets were held in a hollow
square formed under the masterful leadership of some of their
number. Once inside the courthouse, the work of demolition began.
The whole magnificent stone building seemed to become ignited
at once. The whole place was gutted and the valuable records
of three-quarters of a century's accumulation were destroyed.
The building burned to the ground. The governor
of the State had called out the militia of the State, and they
were arriving by every train. Their appearance upon the scene
seemed to more aggravate and incense the mob, and being fired
upon a bloody riot began in the streets, men being mowed down
like grass under the keen sweep of a scythe.
Captain John J. Desmond, of the militia,
was shot and killed inside the burning courthouse, while leading
an attack on the mob. Many prominent citizens received wounds
from stray shots of the militia. Windows, doors and even walls
of houses in the vicinity of the riot to this day bear evidence
of that time of terror and bloodshed.
United States Secretary of War Lincoln ordered
to the scene the United States troops, and their appearance
seemed to have the desired effect, as the rioters gradually
dispersed. The result was, however, that 45 persons were killed
and 125 wounded.
Berner, the cause of all this terrible loss
and destruction to life and property, was recaptured late on
Saturday afternoon in an out-of-the-way house in the woods on
a hillside near Loveland. When captured by Cincinnati detectives,
aided by the marshal of Loveland, he was coolly enjoying a game
of cards, and was unaware of the riot and the attack upon the
jail. He was taken to Columbus and lodged in the State penitentiary
under the sentence that had been passed upon him on the 26th
day of March of confinement for twenty years."
Among the many persons killed in this incident
was the militia commander, John J. Desmond, whose statue stands
in the current courthouse lobby. Destroyed in the fire were records
of Hamilton County, dating back nearly I 00 years. The law library,
considered to be the finest in the country, was also destroyed.
All that remained of Isaiah Rogers courthouse, frequently referred
to as the ''finest public building in the West'' were its immense
stone walls. The state legislature passed a bill creating a board
of trustees to oversee the reconstruction of the courthouse. Governor
George Hoadley appointed as trustees Henry C. Urner, John L. Stettinius,
Wesley M. Cameron and William Worthington. This board of trustees
served without compensation for 2 ½ years until the fifth
courthouse was formally dedicated. On January 15, 1887, the Bar
Association gave a banquet for the trustees and their architect,
James W. McLaughlin, as a tribute for their work in rebuilding
McLaughlin's design consisted primarily of reconstructing
the interior partitions apparently in much the same fashion and
refacing the old courthouse with a new front. The new stone front
was executed in the then fashionable Richardsonian Romanesque
style. The side walls of Rogers' courthouse were left intact and
the new front was made to conform basically to Rogers' plan, but
in the new style. The central portico was omitted in the rebuilding
and another floor was added to the top of the central portion.
The result was a curious blending of classical and romantic forms,
similar to what can be observed today on a much smaller scale
in the Pickaway County Courthouse. It is likely that McLaughlin's
early use of the Romanesque style was to exert a heavy influence
on later public buildings, such as the Chamber of Commerce Building,
which has been destroyed, and the city hall by Samuel Hannaford,
which still stands.
It is not surprising that the fifth courthouse,
which was essentially
the same size as the 1853 building, would soon be outgrown by
the county government. Yet it is remarkable that less than thirty
years after its completion the courthouse was demolished. Few
public buildings from this era have had so brief an existence.
Agitation had been developing for the construction
of a new jail to replace the county jail directly behind the courthouse.
Civic organizations and individuals found that the building was
not only obsolete and inadequate, but it was also damp and unhealthy.
On October 2, 1908, the County Commissioners passed a resolution
providing for the construction of a new jail and for levying a
tax to support a bond issue for that purpose. The measure was
approved by the voters and a planning committee was appointed
to oversee its implementation. The committee ultimately recommended
that not only should the jail be replaced but that a new courthouse
be constructed at the same time, or at the least, an enlargement
of the current facility.
At this time, Cleveland was well on its way
to planning a comprehensive civic center in its downtown with
a new county courthouse as a major focal point. This same desire
to create a downtown civic center took form in Cincinnati when
the canal at the northern edge of the downtown was abandoned.
A broad avenue was planned for its site and is now known as Central
Parkway. It was decided to have the new jail and courthouse conform
to the concepts then being proposed for the Canal Parkway. On
September 26, 1911, the County Commissioners prepared a resolution
calling for the issuance of bonds totaling $2,500,000 for a new
courthouse and jail. The issue was approved by the voters and
on April 1, 1915 the contract for the work was let to the Charles
McCaul Co., and work began that same day. During the period form
1915 to 1919, county offices occupied temporary quarters in the
Fleischer Building, presumably a better arrangement than that
secured in 1849. The new courthouse, whose construction continued
with some difficulty during the First World War, was completed
and formally dedicated in October 1919. The total cost of the
building and its furnishings was $3,022,000.
The exterior of the sixth and present courthouse
is Renaissance Revival in style and is constructed with New Hampshire
granite and Bedford limestone. Like the 1853 courthouse, this
building is elevated on a one story base set at grade level. Above
this ground story arc three main levels grouped together by a
colossal row of Corinthian columns. Like the earlier courthouse,
this building consumes much of its site, with little room left
for lawn or open space. Its location on a broad parkway makes
the courthouse highly visible. The building is entered through
three wide arched doorways on Main Street which feature finely
wrought bronzed screens. Flanking the doorways on each side are
arched windows of the same character.
The law library was regarded as the showroom
of the entire building. As the Cincinnati Law Library was considered
to be the most complete law library in America, no expense was
spared to provide it with fitting quarters in the new building,
including many unusual features and building materials from all
over the country.
This beautiful building has served Hamilton
County for over ninety years without serious mishap, setting a
record of longevity, the average length of service for its predecessors
being well under thirty years. The building survives in good condition
with its major architectural features intact.