‘They don’t build them like this anymore’


In February 2004, the Supreme Court of Ohio moved from the Rhodes Office Tower into its new home on South Front Street in Columbus, marking the first time in its 202-year history that the court had a permanent home completely separate from the other branches of government.

Actually, its “new” home wasn’t new at all – it was the magnificently restored, 15-story Art Deco gem that used to be called the Ohio Departments Building when it first opened in 1933.

It’s no exaggeration to say they don’t build them like this anymore. In the building’s public spaces, the detail and ornate flourishes offer a surprise around every corner, and the entire structure is a tribute to Ohio’s history.

The Grand Concourse on the first floor is an architectural delight. Harry Hake, the building’s architect, intended the concourse to be a “hall of fame” for Ohio governmental leaders. The marble-lined walls of the two-story tall concourse run the full length of the building, and feature bronze relief sculptures of Ohio’s eight presidents, nine United States Supreme Court justices, and two speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Ground Floor lobby – with its intricate mosaic ceilings, carved elevator doors, ornate window grills, bow-and-arrow light fixtures, and bronze relief plaques – pays tribute to the great American Indian chiefs who called this land home.

The courtroom – where we conduct oral arguments – is a grand, stately walnut and marble, gold-trimmed feast for the eyes. A series of murals depicting the states that were carved from the Northwest Territory adorn the ceiling, and smaller murals that line the top of the walls depict significant milestones in Ohio history.

Regrettably, in the years following its 1933 opening, the building fell into disrepair. Decades of cigar and cigarette smoke, wear and tear, and benign neglect had dulled the murals and taken the sheen off the glitter; the building was more eyesore than landmark. By the 1990s, it had reached a crossroads – it either needed to be torn down or fixed up.

Enter Tom Moyer – Ohio’s chief justice from 1987 to 2010 – who had a vision of what the place could look like fully restored. After years of trying to get others to see what he saw, and then more years of renovation and construction, the grand old building reopened in all of its former glory.

I’ll admit, I was one of those who couldn’t see the beauty in the beast that the building had become. But thank God Moyer did.

For the past twelve years, those of us fortunate enough to work in the building that now bears Moyer’s name have been the beneficiaries of his determination. Sadly, Chief Justice Moyer died in April 2010, just months shy of completing his final term and heading into retirement. But he saw the restoration of this building to its completion. And he experienced the joy of presiding over the dedication ceremony, which featured William H. Rehnquist, the Chief Justice of the United States, who traveled from Washington for the event.

In addition to seeing what the building could be if restored to its original splendor, Tom also imagined what our new home could mean for telling the story of Ohio’s court system. He envisioned a place where people of all ages, particularly school kids on field trips, could learn about the important role of the judiciary as the third branch of government.

Just one year after we moved in, the Supreme Court of Ohio Visitor Education Center opened on the ground floor of this building. The 4,400 square-foot space consists of four distinct areas: the main gallery that focuses on Ohio’s courts; a smaller gallery that spotlights the art and architecture of this building; a full-scale mock courtroom; and a rotating exhibit space.

As its name suggests, the main gallery is the main draw. It contains a number of eye-popping exhibits, including a model 9-foot cannon, a bathroom sink and the back end of a late-model car protruding from a wall. The exhibits all review the basic facts of a case that made its way through the court system. Visitors are given a chance to decide how they would rule on the case before comparing their decision with the actual opinion.

For instance, the model cannon illustrates the case of Hugo Zacchini, the “human cannon ball,” whose act included getting shot out of a cannon into a net 200 feet away. When a Cleveland television station broadcast his entire act on the news without his permission, Hugo went to court, claiming that the station stole his thunder and owed him $25,000. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled in Hugo’s favor.

In another area of the gallery a small, mock courtroom gives students the chance to take a seat and play the role of judge, prosecutor, defendant or juror. The facts of a real case are provided at each seat. The case progresses to the Ohio Supreme Court, which is also presented as a mock courtroom for role playing.

Two videos supplement the information presented in the courtroom settings. “Myth v. Reality” challenges the misconceptions about courts that have been popularized in movies and television shows. And “A Day in the Life” takes viewers behind the scenes for a close-up look at the workings here at our court. Other interactive exhibits and videos throughout the center further the story of Ohio’s courts.

Over its lifetime, the center has won several awards for its excellent design and creative displays, including the top award from the Ohio Museum Association and another from the American Association for State and Local History. And, since its opening, more than 150,000 students have passed through its doors.

When the visitor center opened, Tom Moyer hoped that it would help people learn “that the law touches their lives. It protects their freedoms and defines their responsibilities.” He wanted everyone who visited “to go away with some knowledge they didn’t have” before.

I think his hopes have been fully realized.

By Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

Contributing Columnist

Paul Pfeifer is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio.

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