Courtroom has history of acoustic problems
Friday, November 30, 2012 7:03 PM
This is the second of a two-part look at the construction and renovation of the Van Wert County Courthouse. Part one ran Nov. 23.
BY ED GEBERT
Times Bulletin Editor
VAN WERT - The completed Van Wert County Courthouse was met with rave reviews by those who worked in the building and all those who visited to do business there - almost. While the structure was an incredible sight giving area residents an extra sense of pride, there was one room that was never quite accepted.County officials moved into the courthouse in October of 1876, but just three months later an article in the Van Wert Bulletin described the troubled room.
"From the beginning it has been evident to the most casual observer that the acoustic properties of the court room are very defective," the account read.
In short, it was very difficult to hear and understand the voices belonging to other people in the courtroom. This soon became a large problem as jury members strained to hear attorneys and witnesses and witnesses strained to hear questions from the attorneys. Van Wert County had been waiting for a showpiece of a courthouse after four barely serviceable buildings, and now that it was complete conducting a trial or a hearing was difficult to impossible.
The problem only worsened when trains arrived or even passed through the city on the tracks just outside the building.
Newspaper accounts describe the courtroom as taking the entire floor with the judge's bench on the north end. Certainly the size of the room complicated the matter, but courtrooms of similar size in other counties did not have the acoustic problems, or at least not to this extent.
By the end of 1877 the Common Pleas Court judge ordered the county commissioners to find a solution. The Van Wert Bulletin reported on Dec. 28, 1877, "It is almost impossible for a speaker to render his voice audible at the distance of twenty feet in the new court house."
So the search was on for a solution. The earliest description of a possible solution appeared in January 1877. It was described as "the stretching of a network of wires" in the room, however given the year they were obviously not electrical wires. No explanation of how the wires would help was given. Near the end of 1877, the county commissioners met with the architect, T.J. Tolan, who recommended that an air cushion be put in the dome in the center of the room. Tolan's thought was that there was not enough ventilation in the room so vibrations were causing the sound problems.
A newspaper account from Feb. 22, 1878 described the efforts to try to correct the acoustics. It stated that workers cut a circular hole in the middle of the ceiling. The hole measured 13.5 feet across. A muslin screen of some sort was to be placed over the hole to "gather the sound" and make hearing in the courtroom easier. This was apparently Tolan's air cushion contrivance. The article noted that if Tolan was wrong about this solution, the county was set to go back to the wire system idea.
The dome was not the only focus of the sound-deadening efforts. The 1878 account also describes refinements done to the swinging doors of the courtroom designed to quiet the sounds of people going into and out of the doors during a court session.
It appears that the acoustic issues continued even with all the efforts to improve the sound in the courtroom itself. There appear to be no descriptions of the original dome of the courtroom in which Tolan wanted an air cushion. Accounts that do exist describe a dome made of stained glass to have been in place by around 1900.
The next mention of work in the courtroom comes from some interview notes from around 1970. In those notes there is a mention of repair work done to the Common Pleas courtroom in 1951. It is presumed that it was at this time that an drop ceiling with acoustic ceiling tile was installed to improve the acoustics in the room. Judge Charles D. Steele had noted that he believes the workers who covered the stained glass dome in the ceiling of the courtroom took whatever steps necessary to install the new ceiling tile system. Unfortunately, that included knocking out portions of stained glass from the dome itself to run support wires and cutting ornamental wood carvings atop the two archways in the room. The drop ceiling was installed at the height of the top of the arches, so the workers eliminated the decorative touches that got in the way.
The problems persisted though. Requests to remodel the courtroom were refused by the county commissioners in the 1980s and 1990s due to the large expense of the project, other needs in the county, and tight economic condition. But Judge Sumner Walters started to direct some funding directly into an account earmarked for such a renovation. By 2010, enough money had accumulated in the Special Projects Fund to make that restoration a reality.
After design work was finished, the job went to the bidding process. During much of the warm weather months of 2012, crews have been taking painstaking effort to take the courtroom back in time in appearance, but achieve the improved sound quality that even the architect himself could not correct. Even sound-absorbing panels, framed and mounted on the walls and placed into flat ceiling sections, only enhance the antique look of the room.
On Dec. 9, 2012, the general public will have the opportunity to take a look at the improvements in the courtroom. Between 1-3 p.m. court staff will be on hand to answer questions as persons gaze at a room that looks much as it did in 1876. However in 2012, improvements in acoustics as well as sound amplification have made a huge difference in how well voices can be heard in the historic courtroom. Perhaps the complaints that date back to the first juries and attorneys about the room have been answered at last.