The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building, Park Avenue West’s Grand Old Lady, is both a local and statewide survivor. Since it opened in 1889, it has served veterans and the community well. Today it houses an extraordinary museum , provides character and dignity to Mansfield’s principal thoroughfare, and is a remarkable connection to what is arguably the most important conflict in American history.
In the years following the Civil War, the Ohio General Assembly passed laws which facilitated the financing and construction of buildings and monuments to serve and commemorate veterans of that conflict and earlier wars. Some cities, such as Sidney and Toledo, began local efforts even earlier. In total, 14 such structures were erected across the state.
After authorization was given in the mid 1880s, Mansfield and Madison Township decided to undertake such a building project. A bond issue was passed; $40,000 was set aside for its construction and $11,000 for site acquisition. While several locations were considered, including on Central Park, the decision was made to locate next to First Baptist Church on West Market Street (now the location of the Farmers/Chase Bank Building).
The architect chosen for the project was Chicagoan Oscar Cobb. Cobb (1842-1908) was born in Maine and began his career as a carpenter and joiner. Immediately following the famous fire of 1871, he moved to Chicago and hung out his shingle as an architect. By 1875, he had acquired an expertise in theaters and through his career he designed about 200 of them, including the Grand Opera House in St. Paul, the Grand Opera House in St. Louis, and eleven theaters in Chicago. He was paralyzed by a stroke in 1902 and died in Seattle six years later.
Initially, the Soldiers and Sailors Building housed the Richland County Library, a theatre, and places for veterans to meet and eat. When the adjoining auditorium was completed, the theatre was turned into a museum by Edward Wilkinson, who had served as acquisitions agent for the Chicago Field Museum. The auditorium was first named Library Hall, and then the Opera House; it sat some 1,200 people and welcomed entertainment such as the visit of band leader John Philip Sousa.
The Opera House burned in 1929, to be replaced by the now lost Madison Theatre which, like its predecessor, stood on what is now the parking lot behind the building.
The museum proved extremely popular. In the eight years after it opened, it welcomed 65,000 visitors (consider that Mansfield only had 14,000 residents at the time). Housing an amazing collection of artifacts, the museum remained open until 1955, reopened in 1955, and remains open to this day. Housed on two floors, it is literally a “museum of a museum,” providing those who visit with the extraordinary opportunity to travel back in time and experience artifacts as their ancestors did. The Mansfield Memorial Museum houses collections of Native American relics, artifacts from Africa and Asia, military objects and natural history items – as well as Elektro the Robot.
In its 129 year history, neighboring buildings on Park Avenue West have come and gone. First Baptist Church was demolished; the Mansfield Leland Hotel across the street was constructed and leveled just 50 years later. Across Ohio, Civil War veterans memorial buildings have suffered a similar fate. In 1999, only 12 remained. Since then, buildings in Springfield and Ironton have been demolished withing the last five years and others, such as the Allen County Memorial Hall in Lima, sit vacant and deteriorating. Mansfield’s is one of a literal handful in active, daily use and in good condition.
The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building was constructed at a time when the so-called “Richardson Romanesque” style was popular for large civic buildings. Named after architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the style features strong, solid stone massing; round-headed Romanesque arches, recessed entrances; and rich rustication. The building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.
Sources: Wikipedia, The American Institute of Architect Quarterly Bulletin from July 1908; Mansfield News Journal; Preservation Ohio; Photos:1812Blockhouse