The Cincinnati Law Library Association is a private, nonprofit corporation which, until January 1, 2010, operated the law library in the Hamilton County Courthouse under the provisions of Ohio Revised Code §3375.48 et seq. Since January 1, 2010, the Law Library is governed by the Hamilton County Law Library Board.
Originally created in 1834, this Bench and Bar library was incorporated June 5th. 1847 for "the improvement of its members and the cultivation of the Science of Law." Members pay annual dues but use of the library is provided without charge to elected and appointed officials of Hamilton County and the State of Ohio.
The first American law libraries were the private collections of the men who administered justice or practiced law, even before our independence from Great Britain. Lawyers relied on English law books, with Coke’s reports and Blackstone’s Commentaries providing the basis of American law. Each colony operated under its own institutions. After the Revolution, each of the colonies continued to operate under separate legal institutions but their legislation and court decisions increased. Congress created the Northwest Ordinance to govern the territory which would become Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois.
Cincinnati, like many other settlements in the Northwest Territory, had grown up near the shores of the Ohio River. The first courthouse was traditionally considered to be a log cabin built by volunteers in 1790. The log cabin was located on a public square donated to the City and Hamilton County commissioners by Mathias Dennan, Robert Patterson, and Israel Ludlow, the original owners of all of what eventually became downtown Cincinnati. That first courthouse, the jail, and a whipping post, were all contiguous with a swamp & frog pond on that site.
A second, two-story limestone brick building was constructed at the same location around 1802. That courthouse was used as a barracks during the War of 1812. A fire caused by careless soldiers burned the structure to the ground in 1814.
In 1815, Hamilton County commissioners accepted the gift of one of the city’s "out-lots" from a man named Jesse Hunt as the location of its next courthouse. This third courthouse stood on a 200-foot circular plot of ground, in the Federal style of architecture prevalent at that time. Being 62 feet long and 50 feet wide, its walls rose another 50 feet to a cornice, then 120 feet to the top of its dome on a cupola centered on a four-sided roof, with another 160 feet to the top of its spire. Completed in 1819, it had -- as the term "out-lot" well implies -- the profound disadvantage of having been quite remote from the centers of business and major law firms at that point in time.
In 1834, the need for a centrally-located law library was on the minds of a number of local attorneys. On February 25th of that year, the Ohio General Assembly passed " an act to incorporate the ‘Cincinnati Law Library’," naming twenty-one men, including William Henry Harrison, as officers. Harrison was also involved in the formation of the Mercantile Library. No action was taken on the law library, and the idea remained dormant for another twelve years. The attorneys complained of the inconvenience of carrying books to the Courthouse. The judges considered it a conflict of interest to borrow books from counsel in pending matters.
In the Fall of 1846, a meeting was called, and William R. Morris, Daniel Van Matre, William Corry, Alphonse Taft, and George E. Pugh were appointed to a Committee. The Committee was charged to devise a plan, and, if possible, raise money for the establishment of a law library association. On Sept. 3, 1846, a subscription drawn up by Morris began to circulate. William B. Caldwell, the presiding judge of the Court of Common Pleas at the time, became involved in the effort, and between him and George Pugh an initial roster of 102 pledges had been obtained by January 1847 with the committee beginning to buy the first books. By February of that same year a large walled bookcase had been purchased, and the first library was set up in the actual courtroom of the Court of Common Pleas.
On February 8, 1847, Bernard Bradley was appointed the first librarian. On June 5th, The Cincinnati Law Library was reincorporated and its first board of trustees elected. The first board consisted of Morris, as president; Oliver Spencer, as vice-president; Van Matre, who had acted as treasurer for the committee, continued in that capacity now; R.B. Warden, secretary; Alphonse Taft, and Jordan Pugh.
On the afternoon of July 9, 1849, sparks from a nearby pork house caught the exposed wooden rafters of the courthouse’s roof on fire and the building burned to the ground. The relatively small library lost only a few books, thanks to the efforts of Bradley and the time of day the incident occurred. The Law Library moved with the Courts & County offices to a four-story brick building temporarily.
In 1852 Hamilton County’s perhaps most exquisite courthouse was occupied. Designed by Isaiah Rogers, a nationally renowned architect at the time, this fourth courthouse was a massive structure, filling the entire 190-foot square lot. The Law Library was on the third floor of that building.
Early membership growth had been slow, but by the time the Library had moved into this fourth courthouse its collection numbered some 1,380 volumes. Rufus King, had been elected President of the Board of Trustees in 1855, and Maurice Myers, law librarian in 1861. Thanks in large part to their combined efforts both monetarily and in devotion the collection grew to well over 17,000 volumes by 1844, and was considered one of the best law libraries in the country.
On March 28, 1884 riots broke out in Cincinnati over the verdict which had been rendered on a murder trial involving a livery stable owner who had been killed by two employees. The trial of the first defendant ended in a verdict of guilty of manslaughter and a sentence of 20 years imprisonment. A crowd numbering more than 10,000 gathered but Sheriff Morton Lytle Hawkins refused to turn over the prisoner and established defenses for the Jail. Unable to get to the prisoner, the mob centered their hostilities on the courthouse. On March 29th the mob ransacked the Courthouse and set it on fire. The courthouse and law library were total losses. National Guard, then called the Militia, armed with two Gatling guns, restored order. Shots were exchanged and a lawyer, John J. Desmond, serving as Militia Captain was killed. Captain Desmond’s picture is in the Law Library and a statute of him is located in the Courthouse Lobby.
The Law Library reopened on April 3rd with nine books. The Library Association assessed each member $100 to rebuild the collection. Support & substantial donations poured in from around the country as well. Contributions in the form of books came from the Secretary of State’s Office of both Ohio and Kentucky; the City of Cincinnati, and from libraries and law firms in New York, Connecticut, and as far away as the then Territories of Montana and Wyoming. In June 1884, the Library’s treasury was $6,852 in cash receipts. A year later it had grown to $19,808. By June 1893, the Library’s collection had been rebuilt to 16,373 volumes, and by 1899, over 20,000. The single largest contributor, over time, was Rufus King leaving the Library Association $20,000 in his will. Edwin Gholson succeeded Myers as law librarian in 1899, and further built the collection to well over 50,000 volumes.
After the riot in 1884, the Ohio General Assembly passed a bill creating a board of trustees to oversee the renovation of that structure and construction of a fifth courthouse which remained until 1908. Then, agitation started growing about conditions in the County jail and County Commissioners passed a resolution providing for the construction of a new one. The measure was approved by voters, and a planning committee appointed to oversee the project. The committee recommended that not only a new jail be built, but another whole new courthouse as well; and on Sept. 26, 1911, the Commissioners prepared a new resolution calling for the issuance of $2,500,000 in bonds to rebuild both the jail and courthouse.
Ground for the sixth and present courthouse was broken on April 3, 1915. The corner stone was laid on October 1, 1915 by former U.S. President William Howard Taft. While some departments began moving into the new building in the fall of 1918, the building wasn't completed until the following year. The current courthouse was dedicated on October 18, 1919. The exterior remains essentially unchanged to this day, but there have been interior renovations and new courtrooms. It is made of New Hampshire granite and Bedford limestone in a Renaissance Revival style of architecture. Like the courthouses of 1853 and 1887, the building is elevated on a one-story base set at grade-level. Three main tiers are grouped together by a row of Corinthian columns. Currently, since security was increased in 1996, the public entrance is one of three wide-arched doorways featuring polished, wrought bronze doors facing the Main Street entrance.
The Law Library is on the sixth floor of this courthouse, extending almost the width of the building. Its main reading room is flanked by six pairs of polished marble columns extending fifteen feet to cornice stained glass windows bearing the names of the Library’s founders and others important the history of the law.
The Library is a blend of tradition and progress, today offering a collection exceeding 40,000 physical volumes, plus extensive CD-ROM, on-line and microfiche materials. Tradition is well represented by archival and historical materials. The Law Library catalog is available on computer, both in the Law Library and on the World Wide Web. The Law Library has continued to benefit from the contributions of subscribers, in their dues, by their service on the Board of Trustees, and by donations.
Researched and written by Charles E. Kallendorf, Jr.
Here is a nifty video by Judge Melba Marsh about the history of courthouse (2017).