Courthouse History



Photo Courtesy of Wooster Book Company 
The Courthouse of 1878, Wayne County’s best-known symbol and most outstanding architectural landmark, is the latest in a succession of buildings that have housed Wayne County’s court system since pioneer days.

Shortly after the county was organized on January 4, 1812, the first court session was held in a log shanty built by one of Wooster’s founders, John Bever. The structure, located on East Liberty Street, housed a livery stable operated by a Mr. Weed, known to local townsfolk as “Fin.”

The following year, in 1813, the March term of the court was held at the log house of Joshia Crawford in Wooster. In 1814 a frame structure attached to the rear of First Baptist Church in Wooster came into use for court sessions, rented by the county for $50 per year.

The county’s first real courthouse was erected in 1819 by Wooster founders John Bever, William Henry and John Larwill. Building a courthouse was one of the conditions of a deal that allowed the county seat to be moved from its original location in Madison (located atop what is today known as Madison Hill) to Wooster. The three-story brick structure, which incorporated a gallery, was occupied by county offices and Freemason organizations. In 1823, John Bever donated a bell for the structure’s bell tower. The courthouse burned in 1828 during a term of the court, and some county records were lost.

The second courthouse was built between 1831 and 1833 on the site of the first courthouse at a cost of $7,200. Designed by an architect named Mr. McCurdy, it was a square brick structure two stories tall with arched door openings, six-over-six window sash with shutters, and a central bell tower topped by a dome and high spire. The roof of the structure was covered with lead. In its day, it was considered to be one of the most architecturally outstanding courthouses in the state. Decorating the spire were an iron weathervane and two balls that were made of copper. The copper balls were gilded and bronzed. Crafted by John Babb of Wooster at a combined cost of $15.00, the large ball was 24 gallons and three quarts in size, while the smaller one was one-and-a-half gallons. The structure was condemned in 1877 after 44 years of service due to rotting timbers and “defective walls.”

Public meetings began on Feb. 16 and 18, 1878 on building a new county courthouse, and $75,000 was appropriated for the project. John McSweeney and John P. Jeffries served as chairmen for the undertaking. While the new courthouse was under construction, court was held in the France’ Hall, built in 1870. That building was eventually incorporated into the west section of Freedlander’s Department Store.

The cornerstone-laying ceremonies for the present courthouse took place on Oct. 9, 1878. Architect for the project was Thomas Boyd of Pittsburgh, Pa., who enjoyed a regional reputation. Boyd designed the structure in a style known as Second Empire, named for the reign of Napoleon III of France. At the time the architectural style was the rage in the United States. A close architectural relative of the Wayne County Courthouse is Philadelphia City Hall, built in 1871.

To do the extensive stonework needed on the courthouse, Boyd brought in a group of itinerant Italian stonemasons. It was they who carved—among the myriad of other architectural details—the four huge figures of Atlas which support the entablatures and pediments over the south and east entranceways. These figures were carved from solid blocks of stone that had already been set in place in the structure. Boyd topped the courthouse with a mansard-style roof, then in vogue, which permitted usable space on the top floor.   The Wayne County Historical Society has an interesting report on "Who Really Carved the Wayne County Courthouse Atlases."Interestingly, only half of the courthouse as it was originally designed was built, undoubtedly much to the frustration of its architect. As originally conceived, the bell tower was to stand at the center of a largely symmetrical structure; however, the North Courthouse Annex Building had been constructed in 1868 and it remained in excellent condition. Frugal Wayne Countians refused to tear the building down to accommodate what they viewed as the whim of the architect. The resulting asymmetry of the building serves as a reminder that the ideals of design are not always supported by the reality of economics.

The court returned to the site in June of 1879 when the work was finished. When the courthouse was completed, it was felt that the space was not properly divided with respect to its space and rooms. In 1910 the county commissioners spent $10,000 to alter the interior layout.

In July 1960, after running continuously for 81 years, the clock was stopped for three days during which it underwent a major cleaning and overhaul. By 1974 the striking hammer had been hitting the bell in the same spot for 95 years. A consultant recommended that the bell be turned 180 degrees and that the striking hammer be bored and a magnesium-bronze plug be inserted to strike the bell rather than the original cast steel hammer face. As a consequence, the bell now has a fuller tone and its resonance has been improved.

Since 1889 the clock has had seven keepers. During the first half of the 20th century three generations of the Long family were among those taking care of the clock. The longest-serving caretaker of the clock is George J. Riehl of Wooster who has maintained the timepiece since 1952. All those who have taken care of the clock have etched their names and dates on the door frame of the clock works.

In September, 1989, the courthouse’s tower began being illuminated at night by large yellow low-sodium spotlights placed on the roofs of surrounding buildings. The lighting plan was conceived by Main Street Wooster, Inc. and implemented with the assistance of the General Electric Company. The result is that the courthouse can now be seen at night on the Wayne County landscape from a great distance, looking like a large candle towering over the city’s other lights which spread out into the countryside.

Over 177 years, the courthouse has undergone few renovations that disturb its original 19th century character. The recently completed renovation of Courtroom No. 1 to return it to its original character is indicative of the county’s ongoing commitment to preserving this outstanding structure so that it can continue to play the vital day-to-day role for which it was designed in the life of Wayne County.


A. “The Iron Block”
One of the earliest structures that survives in downtown Wooster – as well as one of the city’s most interesting from an architectural perspective – is the Amster Building, located immediately west of the courthouse. This stately red brick structure with hand-cut stone trim is assumed to have been built in the late 1840s or early 1850s as a commercial block. With its stone-capped pilasters separating its eight bays of symmetrical windows on the upper two floors, the original structure reflected the Greek Revival style that was highly popular across northeast Ohio at the time.

The building was originally constructed by local businessman John H. Kauke as a three-story edifice having a low-crowned roof that actually looked flat from some angles. A series of decoratively cast square iron support columns along the front of the structure resulted in its being called the “Iron Block” for many years.

B. The Frick Era

In 1865 Jacob Frick, one of Wooster’s leading businessmen, purchased the Iron Block which at that time housed the Jacobs Hardware Store. An ambitious young entrepreneur, Frick by the age of 30 had already been involved in a variety of successful business ventures in Hancock County, including merchandising produce and dry goods. Seeking new opportunities Frick and his wife, the former Elizabeth Shelly, moved to Smithville in 1859, establishing a grain and milling business. Frick moved that operation to Wooster in 1865.

Jacob Frick added both his name and a fourth floor to the Iron Block in 1889. A Victorian mansarded roof was utilized to add height to the building which had been somewhat dwarfed by the construction of the present-day Wayne County Courthouse in 1879 and the impressively ornamented Memorial Building (presently Freedlander’s Department Store) to the west which Frick had purchased in 1886. With its mansarded roof crowned by a row of sheet iron cresting all the way across, the building pleasingly combined two entirely different and contrasting architectural conventions.

The ground floor of the Frick Building was leased steadily during the 1800s. Among the numerous emporiums that occupied what at the time was considered to be the city’s best business location were the Jacobs Hardware Store, Harding & Jones Hardware Store, the D.B. Ihrig Grocery Store which was famous for its fresh and canned oysters, and the grocery store of McClarran and Caskey which specialized in foreign and domestic fruits, as well as china and lamps. The upper floors of the building were typically occupied by lawyers, real estate firms and insurance agencies.

C. The Amster Era
One business in the Frick Building faltered in the 1890s and faced bankruptcy. Word of that reached the attention of Nick Amster, a young clothier in Galion, Ohio. Amster, who had arrived in America from Czechoslovakia in 1888 at the age of 14, had worked ambitiously to learn both the language and the clothing business. Amster, acting on the advice of Frick – who was a banker by this time – purchased the business and its stock of goods and moved to Wooster. At age 24, Amster, the new proprietor, had only two friends in town – the sheriff and Mr. Frick.

The Nick Amster Store was remodeled and expanded in 1907, becoming one of the largest men’s clothing establishments in the northeast Ohio area. After Jacob Frick’s death, Amster was able to purchase the structure from his estate. Eventually, the property passed on to Amster’s daughter, Julia Amster Fishelson, who in January 1995 leased the property to the Wayne County Board of Commissioners with a 10-year option to purchase it.

During the 1960s and 1970s, some of the space in the Frick Building was leased by Freedlander’s Department Store for warehouse space, workrooms, tailoring operations and part of it for Toyland which many a child who grew up in Wooster can remember visiting as a highlight of the Christmas season.
The county commissioners purchased the building from Fishelson in 1997 and 1998 began a multi-million dollar renovation of the structure to meld it with the Wayne County Courthouse and relocate the county’s law library there, along with offices for a variety of other county operations. As a part of the remodeling of the historic structure’s façade, a period-appropriate stone entranceway was constructed at street level and the windows facing Liberty Street were replaced with more authentic locking six-over-six pane sashes.

While many of the original interior accoutrements of the structure were lost to the remodeling, including an elegant black walnut grant staircase that ran from the first to the second floor and other walnut interior woodwork, one interesting piece of the building’s history was preserved. At the rear of the law library can be seen the original hand-forged gear-work for a hoist mechanism used to unload items from horse-drawn wagons parked in the alleyway behind the building and haul them to the upper floors of the structure. This hoist would certainly have seen its share of use during the many years of the 19th century that the Frick Building served as a hardware store. The windows in the center of the rear wall of the law library were originally the opening for massive wooden chevron-paneled loading doors. The third floor had another set of loading doors. Those original doors are preserved by the Wayne County Historical Society along with the iron posts from the front of the building and other miscellaneous items found during the renovation process.

Regardless of whether one refers to this venerable and picturesque structure as the Iron Block, Frick Building or Amster Building, it is a structure that has figured prominently in Wooster’s past, and it destined to play an important role in the community’s future as well.

Compiled by:
K. William Bailey
Paul G. Locher
Carol White Millhoan
May 15, 2000