Seneca County Courthouse
The Seneca County Courthouse Complex at Ovid was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
Virtually unchanged, the "Three Bears" stand in a row on a grassy knoll overlooking Courthouse Square and the village of Ovid to the west. The Seneca County Courthouse stands to the north and slightly closer to the village than do the new clerk's office and the old clerk's office. Lawns dotted with trees to the west and fields to the east preserve the natural setting of the Seneca County Courthouse Complex.
The 1845 Seneca County Courthouse, commonly known as "Papa Bear," is a two and a half, three-bay by four-bay, neo-classical brick structure with a monumental frame pedimented portico. The basement is raised and built of coursed rubble which is separated from the brick construction by a smooth-faced stone watertable. The windows, surmounted by stone lintels, are predominantly double-hung sash of six-over-six lights, and there is one exterior chimney on the south elevation.
The portico is of the Doric order with four fluted columns and contains little embellishment other than a balustrade. The lines are simple. The architrave, running underneath the plain box cornice extends along the north and south sides and is carried around the corner to form the return of the east gable. The east gable end is broken by a fanlight and two windows at the second-story level, and on the first story by a doorway and a one-bay screened porch.
The roof ridge is broken near the west end of the structure by a domed cupola with fixed louvers and an ornamental weather vane. Old lithographs of the west elevation indicate that the porch stairs, leading to a door in the third bay, were originally balanced by another flight leading to a door in the first bay. Although these were removed and the doorway converted to a window, the changes do not alter the graceful proportions of the structure.
Within the courthouse is a virtually unchanged courtroom on the second floor. Door and window surrounds in the courthouse are of a simple neo-classical motif, and the public seating consists of plain slat pews. The ceiling is ornamented with a plaster medallion. The bench is low and separated by a low panel partition and balustrade. The first floor has been renovated to accommodate county offices and the basement contains a jail which is thought to be original.
Commonly known as "Mama Bear," the "old" clerk's office (1845), similar in design and construction, is a one and a half story, three-bay structure with a door at ground level in the first bay. The door was originally in the center bay but has since been moved to its present position to accommodate remodeling. There are no windows in the north and south walls and only two, separated by a door, in the east or rear wall. Similar to the courthouse architecturally, the interior is largely unchanged. The walls were insulated with sand in order to fireproof the building and insure the safety of county records.
Commonly known as "Baby Bear," the "new" clerk's office built 15 years later, is also of the same simple, unornamented, Doric design, but is interpreted with somewhat more verticality. The four columns of the portico are much taller and more slender than those of the earlier buildings. The main entrance is in the second bay of the west (front) elevation at ground level. The north and south walls are unbroken by windows. The east wall contains a single bay with a rear entrance, above which is a double hung sash window.
Situated in Ovid, a small agrarian community which has served as a county seat since 1804, three brick neo-classical buildings which comprise the county administrative complex are a significant feature of the area both politically and architecturally. The Seneca County Courthouse Complex, traditionally called the "Three Bears" consists of the courthouse (1845), the "old" clerk's office (c.1845), and the "new" clerk's office (c.1860). The Seneca County Courthouse Complex is a vernacular illustration of the transition in neo-classical design from the Jeffersonian concept embodied in the University of Virginia to the more attenuated proportions utilized later in the nineteenth century.
The governmental seat of Seneca County was established at Ovid Village, also called Verona, upon the organization of the county in March 28, 1804. A frame courthouse was erected in 1804 upon the site now occupied by the Three Bears. However, the formation of Tompkins County in 1817 from surrounding lands including parts of southern Seneca County placed Waterloo and not Ovid in the geographic center of the county and a new courthouse was established in that community soon after. In 1819, the State Legislature, acting on a petition from Ovid citizens returned a portion of the recently created Tompkins County to Seneca County. The formation of Wayne County to the north in 1823 removed further land area from the geographic center of the county, to the north and south respectfully. Therefore, the State legislature compromised and in that year designated both towns as "half shire" seats of County government in alternating terms of three years.
In 1841 the County Board of Supervisors appropriated $5,000.00 to replace Ovid's old frame courthouse (1806). In January 1844, the State legislature approved the expenditure, and the partnership of O.S. and O.B. Latham received the contract to build a brick courthouse as well as a smaller "fireproof" office for the county clerk — the latter to be funded by private donation.
The substantial brick neo-classical courthouse known later as "Papa Bear" was completed in 1845 and housed a court room, administrative officers and a jail. The structure was built in the form of a Doric temple, with a neo-classical cupola breaking the roof ridge near the west (front) end. The court room, which occupied the entire second floor, is remarkably intact.
Also completed in 1845, the brick county clerk's office, later known as "Baby Bear," was also in the Doric temple form but at a smaller scale. The building was considered to be fireproof since it was constructed with a thick layer of sand insulating the walls and ceiling.
In 1859, the County Board of Supervisors, after investigating the cost of refurbishing the clerk's office to meet its expanded needs, chose instead to build a larger facility and commissioned Deacon Horace H. Bennett to erect the structure.
The "new" clerk's office, later known as "Mama Bear," was completed in December 1860 and although it also illustrates the Doric temple form, it is divergent from the earlier two structures in its more attenuated interpretation of the neo-classical theme. The more vertical emphasis was achieved by the use of thinner columns and a narrower portico.
Their setting uncompromised by modern development, the Three Bears have continued to serve as a visual and social landmark in southern Seneca County since their construction. In addition to housing the county government, they have at times also accommodated additional community facilities such as the local bank after a fire in 1874 destroyed much of Ovid, and the Ovid Free Library (1905). Today, two of the three still function as facilities of the county government, for although the county records were permanently installed in Waterloo's courthouse early in the twentieth century, Seneca County still alternates its seat of government every three years. There role is the history of southern Seneca County and their high degree of architectural integrity make the Three Bears distinctive historic resources.
Ovid Bee. October 8, 1845.
Seneca County Board of Supervisors. Proceedings, 1804-1867. Waterloo, New York.