Thursday, November 1, 2007

Portsmouth’s First City Building

Although Portsmouth was incorporated as a city in March 1815, it was not until twenty-one years later, in 1836, that a city hall was constructed to house the mayor’s office, a council chamber, and a police station. As in modern-day Portsmouth, its location and construction was not without controversy.

The story of Portsmouth’s first city building starts with the construction of another public building, the first county court house. In 1807, as part of a coordinated effort to have the seat of Scioto county government shifted from Alexandria to Portsmouth, Henry Massie, the proprietor of Portsmouth, donated several city lots to the county commissioners, with the stipulation that the lots be sold to raise money for the construction of a county courthouse. Two years later, in 1809, Massie donated lot 31, on the south side of Second Street, between Market and what is now Court Street, for the exclusive purpose of erecting a courthouse on the lot. The sale of the donated lots, however, did not raise enough funds to construct the building; to cover the shortfall, the commissioners implemented taxes on the owners of horses and cattle and tapped funds raised by fines and licenses for ferries and taverns.

By 1814, with necessary funds now raised, the commissioners were ready to contract for the construction. For some reason, however, the commissioners decided not to use lot 31, which Massie had donated for that express purpose. Instead, in a bizarre decision, they chose to build smack dab in the middle of Market Street, on the block between Front and Second Street.

The commissioners awarded the contract to John Young, a Portsmouth resident who operated a dry goods store near Market on Front Street. “English John Young,” as he was known around town, subcontracted with Nathan Wheeler (of Wheelersburg) to provide the brick, which were made with an 8-inch mould, an inch shorter than the standard. When Wheeler’s brick ran out, the building was completed with 9-inch brick, causing the upper part of the structure to extend an inch out over the lower part. Young apparently underbid the actual cost of the construction and ran into financial trouble in his attempt to finish the structure; he was forced to liquidate his dry goods store to complete the project. When finished the structure was a bit strange -- forty-feet square, having the look of a barn, with two stories, toped with a low square cupola, twelve-to-fifteen feet high, with a spire rising another fifteen feet towards the sky, “on which was a figure cut or carved out of a common pine board, intended to represent an angel blowing a trumpet.”

The location of the court house proved to be problematic. Although situated at the center of the old town, the modern-day Boneyfiddle District, it’s placement in the middle of Market Street prevented the Commissioners from inclosing the structure behind any kind of fence. As one resident later recalled, “if the door should accidentally be left open, any cattle or hogs straying around could enter without molestation or trouble.” Unsurprisingly, the structure also came to obstruct business and traffic on Market Street, which was meant in the original design of the town to provide direct access to the Ohio River waterfront.

In 1836, the Portsmouth City Council voted to condemn the building, declaring it a nuisance; the city notified the County Commissioners, demanding that they remove it from the street or it would be pulled down by city authorities.

Whether the scheme had already been launched or not before the council’s vote, once the building had been declared a nuisance and the county commissioners had laid their plans for the construction of a new county court house, city officials began openly discussing the possibility of using the old court house for a new city building. The mayor, it appears, believed that it was time that he have an official office and the councilmen believed it was only right that they have their own official chambers; and the city constable, of course, was looking for an official, city-owned “watch-house.”

When word of their plans swirled around town, the City Council decided that such a scheme “would look too much like swindling to take possession of it themselves after having driven the county out of it.” In the end, the council did the right thing. As one resident recalled in 1869, “in order to be consistent in the matter, and as people were not as corrupt in those days as they are now, they pulled the old court house down.” Council then voted to tear down the old the old city-owned market house, removing the market house’s roof and placing it upon a new city building, constructed from the now dismantled court house bricks.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. It just so happens that I am trying to get a picture or drawing of the first scioto county courthouse...would you happen to know where one is available?

    Also, what is your source of this info? Any info would be helpful.