Marion County Common Plea Court Judge Warren Edwards is working on renovating and restoring the Marion County Courthouse and, with it, building confidence in the justice system.
Since taking office in January 2019, Edwards has used his skills learned during his career as a prosecutor and his authority within the courthouse to advocate for courthouse restoration and change within community after seeing how the tribunal was run by its predecessor, Judge Edwards said.
“I believe I have become this change,” Edwards said.
Edwards described the adaptation he went through working as a lawyer to become a guardian of peoples’ rights. He sees this same responsibility in the county courthouse, living up to its promise to the community to “keep Marion, Marion”.
“Part of what I told people I would do is ‘keep Marion, Marion’. As the rest of the world and her idea of justice evolve, I think Marion’s sense of justice has always been focused and her people understand what justice is. This building is part of it, ”he said.
When Edwards first became a judge in 2019, county commissioners were considering moving court operations to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office as the second floor was empty at the time. Although Edwards would have been okay with the change of venue at the time, he has since fallen in love with the courthouse upon learning about its history.
Take away the original beauty
The courthouse, which began as a one-room courthouse with a fireplace in 1884, underwent a renovation in the late 1970s that prioritized maximizing space to accommodate the population increasing while minimizing heating costs.
Unfortunately, in the process, renovations covered much of the building’s original artwork and craftsmanship through suspended ceilings under the vaulted archways, pink and shag carpets on the floors of the building. Original hardwood and pristine walls over hand painted artwork and trim.
The renovation also removed the stairs in front of the building and cut the third floor of the courthouse in half to install a fourth floor made of steel, damaging the original arch, and added a heating and air conditioning unit in each room. without adding ducts, presenting challenges for the summers and winters these days.
A painting of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt was discovered behind an air conditioning unit damaged by moisture. Edwards hopes to restore these artifacts in a cost-effective manner.
The suspended ceiling has been removed from parts of the courthouse, revealing the original ceiling: green with hand-painted details.
Brandi Wilson, executive director of the Marion County Historical Society, described the cornerstone of the courthouse for Marion and the opposition the 1970s renovations felt from the community.
“The county decides they’re going to do some renovations, and a lot of them are going to be these ‘modern upgrades’,” Wilson said. “It kind of undermined the integrity of the original building, so a lot of people in Marion County were like, ‘Hey, let’s not destroy what’s in there, let’s keep it traditional and bring some improvements. “”
The county carried out the renovations despite opposition, at a cost of $ 950,000, more than $ 5 million today, according to Wilson.
“Unfortunately, while it added space, it took away some of the original beauty of the courthouse,” Wilson said.
Mix history with function
Years later, when Judge Edwards took office in January 2019, the third-floor courtroom where he now worked was obsolete, with old cinema-style folding seats.
Folding chairs were replaced with benches in October 2021, leather chairs were purchased for prosecution and defense teams, and plexiglass was installed as a precaution against COVID-19.
The jury platform was moved to the side of the room from the center to face the accused’s seat. Edwards also plans to move the jury room adjacent to the third floor courtroom to a location where jury members do not have to pass the audience on their way to the room, perhaps in front of friends and to the families of the accused in the hallway outside the courtroom.
The jury room is also currently adjacent to the accused’s holding cell, allowing the jury to hear the accused through the wall, another reason to make the switch, according to Edwards.
Another major problem the courthouse found was leaks from the roof and ceiling damaging documents archived on the fourth floor.
Restoring the internal ceiling will be a top priority, Edwards explained, as he doesn’t want to invest money in renovations just to be thwarted by water damage. Marion County Commissioners have already funded renovations to the exterior roof, beginning the process of stopping the damage.
“Although they were reluctant at first, the commissioners have become good partners. I think they showed leadership and appreciated this movement to restore downtown Marion, ”said Edwards.
The overall goal of the upcoming renovation efforts is to preserve some of the original design while maintaining a functional workplace, respecting Marion’s history, and enabling modern function.
Reveal the story
The Marion County Courthouse has seen a lot of turnover in recent years due to the 2018 election and the criminal conviction of former Marion County Judge Jason Warner.
It was during the Warner trial that Judge Edwards made an interesting discovery outside his courtroom: a locked vault hidden by bookcases previously believed to be recessed into the wall.
Joanie Hoffman of Edwards’ staff knew about the suit from her years working at the courthouse, and they were able to open the safe.
Inside, staff found a time capsule, with documents dating back to 1831, including immigration records and records from the days when the Ohio Supreme Court was a mobile court and had been operating since the Marion County Courthouse. They are still working to organize the files and have applied for a grant through the Ohio Historical Society for an intern to help manage the new historical archives.
In addition to old documents, Edwards and his team found a safe containing money and evidence of a long-standing case: a knife, a pipe and a bullet.
Edwards believes the safe may contain documents about the famous case, where a judge, Thomas J. Anderson of the Marion County Court of Common Pleas granted freedom to an accused runaway slave in 1839 to outcry from the public opposition. The case is commemorated on a sign outside the courthouse.
Edwards believes Anderson acted in accordance with Marion’s spirit of justice.
“The case on the panel is a perfect example of that. Here is a judge who had the courage to do the right thing, even though the sky may fall,” Edwards said.
Restore confidence in justice
Judge Edwards doesn’t just want to restore the courthouse itself, but the Marion County community and confidence in the justice system itself. He takes pride in staying downtown, allowing staff to frequent downtown restaurants, and he hopes to hire local contractors to continue the work he started.
“In some communities, I think we should go outside and hire an agency or people who are experts in the matter, but I think at Marion we have this expertise that we just need to attract them. and tell them, “You were a part of saving those great pieces of history in Marion: wouldn’t you love to be a part of it too?” Edwards said.
Edwards hopes the renovation will create a lasting legacy of improving Marion County that the community will remember when he leaves office.
“Every time my time here is up, every time the constituents kick me out of here, which I have done, I want to make sure it lasts, longer than the last renovation. Hopefully that will be seen as a good thing 50 years from now, unlike what we think of the last renovation, ”said Edwards.
Story by: Sophia Veneziano (740) 564 – 5243 | [email protected]