ELYRIA — If Lorain County officials decide to stop using the deteriorating Lorain County Courthouse to house probation officers and the county’s crime lab, they could run afoul of the 1825 deed for the property from Elyria’s founder, Heman Ely.
The land under the Lorain County Courthouse must be used for “a seat of Justice” for the county or a “meeting house” for the township of Elyria, but “for no other purpose whatever,” according to the deed.
A judge would have to approve any deed modification, just like a judge did when the county wanted to dispose of the former Green Acres children’s home in Oberlin, said Gerald Innes, the chief of the civil division of the Lorain County prosecutor’s office.
Other county officials aren’t sure what to do about complaints about working conditions within the building as there is no money to renovate it because of a looming $6.25 million deficit in 2012.
The courthouse remains beautiful on the outside, but it has significant water damage and other problems inside, said county Commissioner Tom Williams.
He guessed that it could cost $10 million to renovate or restore the building.
One thing is sure — the county will not try to demolish it and build a parking garage in its place, Williams said. He had discussed such a possibility with a member of the Lorain County Historical Society and was set straight on the building’s significance to Elyria’s landscape.
“One thing that would be nice is more parking,” Williams said. “Somebody threw out the idea, ‘Can we put a parking garage there?’”
Bill Bird, the historical society’s director, said he stressed to Williams the importance of the structure, which has a number of historic designations.
The sandstone courthouse makes the area around Ely Square — also deeded to this community by Heman Ely — very attractive, Bird said.
He said the building is probably the most important landmark in Elyria and is similar to the Lorain Lighthouse, which Bird labeled Lorain’s most important historical structure.
“I feel that the courthouse building is a similar type of symbol,” Bird said. “People just don’t identify with the Justice Center or county administration building in the same way.”
The courthouse was constructed from 1878 to 1881 when it opened and was designed by Elijah E. Myers, the architect who designed Michigan’s state capitol building.
“I’ve been wracking my brain about what could go in there,” Bird said.
Bird said the historical society has its hands full maintaining The Hickories mansion and its newest acquisition — the Starr house at 284 Washington Ave.
Elyria Mayor Bill Grace said the city was interested in acquiring the building for a municipal courthouse about eight years ago as the county was planning to build the Justice Center, but it has since built the John A. Howard Municipal Courthouse at Broad Street and Lake Avenue.
Steve McQuillin, an Elyria native and an expert in historical preservation, said he would like to convince county officials to renovate the building, possibly using up to 45 percent of state and federal money.
“It could be marvelous if it was rehabilitated and restored,” said McQuillin, who helped the city of Elyria come up with a way to renovate its historic City Hall.
He currently is working with officials in Cleveland on the restoration of the Higbee building for use as a casino.