Stunning Architectural Details, Interior Artwork Prove the Ohio Judicial Center Is “Ohio’s Pride”

This art history minor loves spotting symbolism in architectural details. Whether they’re the gargoyles on the Washington National Cathedral or the Old, Old Post Office’s window arch ornaments, I’m always on the lookout for the special touches that make buildings great. 

That’s why I love to visit the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center. Formerly known as the Ohio Departments Building, this stately structure located at 65 South Front Street in downtown Columbus was designed by Harry Hake, a prominent Cincinnati architect, and opened in 1933. Although it was referred to as “Ohio’s Pride” when it first opened, it became lackluster as the years passed. In 2001, the local landmark underwent an extensive renovation; it was re-dedicated in 2004.

Home to the Supreme Court of Ohio and its affiliated offices, the Ohio Judicial Center is a showplace of detailed, finely crafted artwork that captures Ohio’s history. Lobbies, hearing rooms, hallways, and reading rooms are home to murals, mosaics, sculptures, carvings, paintings and maps. 

Sometimes, on picture-perfect days, I’ll walk over to the Ohio Judicial Center at lunchtime and have a picnic on one of the benches flanking the north and south reflecting pools. But even when the weather’s not its best, it’s a great change of pace to admire some striking creations. 

Sculptor Alvin Meyer carved ornamental Beaux Arts symbols on the building’s exterior. On the Front Street side of the building, panels portray farming, technology, and representations of Ohio industry, such as printing, mining and winemaking. Other sculptural panels represent the history of Ohio, such as the Pickawillany trading post and the early state capitals at Zanesville and Chillicothe. Sculptures of owls, a painter’s palette, a lyre, and a microscope depict intellectual, scientific and artistic contributions to the state. The Civic Center Drive façade is decorated by six panels devoted to attributes of good citizenship: loyalty, service, devotion, wisdom, integrity and vision. Best of all are the three sets of bronze doors on this side of the building. A buckeye-leaf motif frames them, while square medallions tell the story of North America from its discovery and settlement through the Emancipation Proclamation.

After entering the building through buckeye-decorated doors and registering with building security, you’ll see many wonderful things. 

On my last visit, I began my tour in the Kingsley A. Taft Map Room. This first-floor hearing room features a collection of 16 original, historically significant maps donated by Sheldon A. Taft, son of the late Kingsley Taft, who served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio from 1962 to 1970. When I worked for the Ohio Historical Society, I helped Mr. Taft and Mary Gray, director of the Riffe Gallery, with this project, but I hadn’t seen the maps installed in their new home until last week, when Mary arranged for me to see these wonderful items again.

Dating from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, the maps reflect the evolution of the mapping of the area that became the northeastern part of the United States, including Ohio. Mr. Taft assembled the maps over a 25-year period, acquiring them from historical map stores in New York and London, house sales, and even a Venetian street vendor. I’m partial to the map of North America that was printed on a fold-out page of the April 1744 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, another map of North America that was glued onto a thin wood base and cut into interlocking puzzle pieces, and a map of Ohio published in Mitchell’s New Universal Atlas in 1846 that also includes steamboat routes and an inset of a detailed plan of Cincinnati.

Next, I made a point to look at the bronze bas-reliefs in the Grand Concourse, which was designed to be a “hall of fame” for Ohio governmental leaders. May Cook, the artist behind the Peter Pan statue in front of the main branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the bust of Molly Brown that I saw in “100 Years of Art: Celebrating Columbus’ Legacy,” created the portraits not only of Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Warren G. Harding, but also of Supreme Court Justices Noah Haynes Swayne, Morrison Remick Waite and William Burnham Woods.

In Meeting Room 102, I marveled at Cincinnati artist H.H. Wessel’s 11 murals depicting the development and growth of commerce in Ohio during the 19th and 20th centuries. The story begins on the north wall, with early traders bartering with American Indians in a forest. In the center, an Ohio map shows various types of transportation and trade routes. On the south wall, a map illustrates commerce and transportation methods that were employed in Ohio during the early years of the 20th century.

After the Supreme Court finished its morning proceedings, I looked around the ornate Courtroom. The ceiling is divided into five symbolism-filled sections, representing the five states carved from the Northwest Territory (Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin). Fifteen wall murals illustrate significant milestones in Ohio history, including the death of Tecumseh, the establishment of state government in Columbus and the opening of the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Cincinnati native John F. Holmer created 11 murals, called “The Progress of Industry,” in Hearing Room 106. While the murals depict physical labor, they also reflect the American Realism style of public art that was popular during the 1930s. The center mural on the north wall depicts early forms of industry in Ohio, such as blacksmithing, pottery-making, plowing, spinning and churning. The south wall offers scenes of modern building, including welding, manufacturing concrete, and making steel.

Even the elevator doors and stairways are works of art. Mosaics by Rudolph Scheffler offer images of agriculture and industry, important sources of income for Ohio’s economy. “Fruits of the Soil” shows Ceres, to portray the richness of Ohio’s farmlands, while “Harnessing the Elements” depicts Vulcan and the power of Ohio industry. Elevator door panels feature Art Deco bas-relief bronze carvings by sculptor Paul Fjelde that depict the four elements and the four seasons. Vestibule ceiling murals depict the eight winds and the constellations in the zodiac. 

Downstairs, the Civic Center Lobby pays tribute to Ohio’s American Indian history. Mosaic ceilings, decorated elevator doors, and bow-and-arrow light fixtures continue the building’s Art Deco style. Four bronze plaques portray Ohio’s tribal leaders: Pontiac, Tecumseh, Logan and Little Turtle.

On the 11th floor, the Law Library features the Rule of Law Gallery, a series of oil paintings by contemporary Ohio artist Ron Anderson that represent the rule of law. The paintings depicting the signing of the Magna Carta and the signing of the Constitution are fine representations of these historic events, and “Dethroning the Monarchy” and “Lady Justice Leading the People” are especially attention-getting.

On the south wall of the reading room, you’ll find seven murals depicting the history of the printed word. Early works of Missouri artist LeRoy MacMorris, the murals illustrate man’s early efforts to depict nature, writing in ancient Egypt, the development of moveable type and vellum as a writing surface, the arrival of the printing press in the Renaissance, and the contributions that books make to science and technology. My favorite panel illustrates a scene contemporary to the 1930s, celebrating educational opportunities for women and the mechanical printing press’s ability to spread literature to everyday people. Thomas Carlyle’s quote appears at the bottom of the panel:

“In books lie the soul of the whole past time,
The articulate, audible voice of the past —
When the body and material substance of it
Has altogether vanished like a dream.”

Anyone can visit the Ohio Judicial Center to admire its magnificent artwork. Many informative booklets about the history of the building and its contemporary fine art collection are available to enhance self-guided visits; in fact, they’re the source of the information I’ve shared.  To learn more about the building, read “Ohio’s Pride: The Art and Architecture of the Ohio State Office Building”, by Barbara Powers, in the January/March 2006 issue of the Ohio Historical Society’s TIMELINE.

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