As the official seat of Richland County governmental and administrative business, Mansfield has always had a building in the center of town for hearings, trials, and filing cabinets.
The concept of local government as an immediate reflection and re-presentation of national government is the fundamental essence of American democracy. As such, the idea of a county courthouse is always intended as a mirror somehow of the nation’s Capitol in Washington DC.
It is interesting how the temples of justice in Richland County have so classically reflected the culture, styles and values of evolving generations of our citizens throughout local history.
We have had five courthouses since the county was founded, and each one was emblematic of its time.
1) The Blockhouse
When a boundary was first drawn in the forest to indicate which land was to be designated as Richland County, three local settlers were commissioned to represent government in the newly devised territory.
These were the County Commissioners, and when they first met to inaugurate the business of government there were only two public buildings in Mansfield: they were both little wooden forts built on the public square for defense during the War of 1812.
These log buildings had been thrown up quickly during a few days when the settlement seemed to be in imminent danger. The Commissioners selected the one that had fewer splinters, and that was where they had their hearings, held their court and stashed their paperwork.
That was how the Blockhouse became the first Courthouse in 1813. It also became the city’s first church sanctuary and its first schoolhouse.
The Blockhouse Courthouse stood in the center of the north side of the Square.
At that time Richland County was barely hewn out of the wilderness, and the courthouse symbolized that perfectly.
2) The Barn Courthouse
It didn’t take more than a couple meetings, trials and filing cabinets before everyone recognized that a larger courthouse was necessary for a county filling up with settlers.
In 1816 a larger building was constructed for county business that was placed nearer to the center of the Square. About 20 x 30 feet in size, the second courthouse was two stories tall and of very curious design.
The first floor of the building was made of logs that were hewn square, laid in a double layer with stone filled in between them. It was more of a fortress than the Blockhouse had been.
The top story was made of frame construction covered with siding like a farmhouse. This second courthouse was half-log, half frame.
Half primitive and half civilized, the building was exactly symbolic of how the county itself was at that time in history.
3) The Brick Courthouse
The county’s third courthouse could not have more perfectly embodied the style of government institutions popular at the time it was conceived: it was modeled almost exactly on the original 1803 Ohio Statehouse at Chillicothe.
Constructed in 1827, it was built with brick and mortar, tall windows and a lofty cupola. It was placed on the site where the Blockhouse had once stood in the middle of the north end of the Square.
Sadly the cupola motif was not terrifically effective at keeping the rain out, so by 1851 the building was redesigned with a new and entirely modified lid.
The new presentation of the old building created a look that was very popular and pervasive in early American architecture, replicating something of a Greek temple. This Greek Revival style in the nation was always intended to evoke the Classical world in order to lend ancient credibility, dignity and stability to the form of governmental structures.
It was a classic era of American architecture, and the Richland County Courthouse was a quintessential specimen of that time.
4) The Gilded Age Showplace
Another generation later Mansfield was a prosperous and trending city, so when a new courthouse was built to accommodate a new era it was designed in the latest cutting-edge fashion.
It was dedicated in 1873 when the United States was less than a hundred years old, and the young nation had no old buildings to rival the ancient traditions of Europe. With this in mind, the County Commissioners expressly intended that this edifice should stand for many generations to establish tradition, not only for Mansfield, but also for American culture.
The roofline of the courthouse was impressive on the skyline from a distance, but up close it was not very effective at keeping the rain out. By 1904 the towers were removed and a Mansard roof was fashioned.
No one was happy with the shape of the courthouse because no matter how much bunting you hung on the place it looked like the County Toaster, so for Mansfield’s hundredth birthday an appropriately domed new tower was prepared.
The courthouse with its clock tower became something of an icon of Mansfield, and emblematic of the city.
5) The Present Edifice
The old domed landmark that was supposed to last for ages was considered sadly outmoded by the 1930s when the first attempts were made to replace it.
Every few years after that someone was raising the question again, but each time it came to a vote the county voters turned it down. They liked the old place. It had character.
It seemed to represent venerable old American traditional values in the face of uncertain times and fluctuating standards.
The old building needed repairs every few years, and underwent a number of modifications in lieu of replacement. From street level it looked different with new doorways and fewer stairways, and sometime in the 1950s the whole top was whitewashed.
Finally in the end of the 1960s the County Commissioners realized they would never get a courthouse levy passed so they figured out a way to replace the building without consent of the people.
As with all the county courthouses that preceded it, the new 20th century structure looked very much like a product of its time: more functional, less ornamental.
Years have lent the courthouse lawn a sort of grandeur that ennobles the arches of our civic center when seen through the trees.
Photos tell this story, but there is one element to the tale of Richland’s passage through time that can be fully appreciated only in numbers:
1812 Courthouse 1 cost $0.00 (built by Militia)
1816 Courthouse 2 $1,990
1827 Courthouse 3 $3,000
1851 New roof $16,000
1873 Courthouse 4 $226,700
1968 Courthouse 5 $2,000,000.00