Memorial Hall may have a use in future

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 3, 2003

More than 100 years after it was constructed to honor war heroes, Ironton's old Memorial Hall stands as a testament to the past. It may also play a role in the city's future.

Despite a common misconception that it is privately owned, the city has owned the building since 1892, according to courthouse documents.

Standing vacant since 1996 when the city government offices were moved to the Ironton City Center, off and on discussion over what to do with the building keeps surfacing.

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Several months ago, the Ironton City Council asked Mayor Bob Cleary to get an estimate on the cost to tear it down. Now, the mayor said he and newly hired Economic Development Director Matt Ward may have come up with a another idea that could create jobs.

As Cleary and Ward have begun working on plans to market the fourth floor of the Ironton City Center, they must find some place to move all the records, furniture and other items stored there.

Cleary said the first floor of the Memorial Hall building may be a good solution, if a new roof is put on and a basic heating system is installed. The city is looking into finding grants to help pay for a roof, and could also lease some rooms for storage.

By doing this, it may help the city lease the undeveloped 14,000 square foot top floor of the City Center and bring much-needed jobs.

"I would love to see the fourth floor developed," Cleary said. "No matter how you divide it up, as long as it creates jobs is all that matters."

To help clear some space, Cleary said the city may have an auction to get rid of some of the old furniture. A few years ago, the city missed an opportunity to attract a telemarketing business, and Cleary wants to make sure that does not happen again.

"Ward has some pretty good ideas," the mayor said. "We are looking at about four possible projects and if any would come to fruition we would have to vacate (the fourth floor) immediately."

But, any renovation project will be a huge task. The lights flicker ominously and the floor is soggy with water from the leaking roof. The many problems include electric, plumbing, the roof and wooden stairs, said John Schwab, the city's facilities manager.

"The old boiler was one of the big problems," he said. "It was easier to get a new building than do anything with the old one."

While an old alarm dully hums in the background, Schwab opens the doors to several rooms piled with old records that remain from "everybody's offices."

Located at 403 Railroad Street, Memorial Hall was built in 1892 by Yost and Packard Architectural firm of Columbus. It was to honor Civil War veterans.

The building was constructed on what used to be Market Square, a place where weekly country markets were hosted.

It was partially destroyed by fire in 1905, and only the tower and the stone archway remain from the original structure. It originally housed

the city jail, police station, municipal court and all of the city administrative offices.

The inscription honoring the Great Army of the Republic, the Women's Relief Corps, American Expeditionary Forces and the Spanish-American War soldiers still hangs over the arched doorway.

Judge Frank McCown, a local history buff, remembers some interesting stories about the building. On the outside of the building you can still see markings from the floods of 1913 and 1933, he said.

Another forgotten part of local lore was that a former administration was afraid to talk about anything in the building because it was rumored that the city engineer had placed listening devices throughout the building, McCown said.

Although he would like to see it restored, McCown said that may be too tall of an order in such tough financial conditions.

"I suspect, given its current condition, that you would have to gut the whole place," he said. "It would probably cost $1 million to restore."

Although not on the National Register of Historic Places, "It is a pretty significant building, no question about it," said Steve Gordon, survey and national register manager for the Ohio Historical Preservation Office.

Ironton Fire Chief Tom Runyon said he does not think the building is worth trying to save because it is in bad shape.

Naomi Deer, president of the Lawrence County Historical Society and Councilman Bob Lipker, however, are among those who would like to see at least part of the building restored.

"I would love to see it preserved, but I do not see any way it could be done because it would cost so much money," Deer said. "To me, it would be wonderful to at least see the old part restored but it would take a community effort because I do not think one organization could do it."

Although it may just be a dream, Deer said she would love to see it turned into a park with the archway and front of the building remaining as a testament to the past.

"It would be wonderful to have a park in downtown Ironton. I can visualize it," she said. "That is a very historical building and so much of Ironton's past has been torn down and done away with."

Cleary agrees that if the building had to be demolished, at least the old part should be preserved and maybe a park would be a good solution.