Kaleidoscope: Tiffin's Ritz a beautiful, restored theater

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published:

A good place for "puttin' on the ritz" is Tiffin, the 17,900-resident government seat of Seneca County and home to Heidelberg and Tiffin universities.

The city also is home to one of Ohio's finest restored small-town theaters -- the Ritz -- located downtown on North Washington Street, just south of the Sandusky River.

I almost had the chance to take in the Arrival from Sweden show, an Abba tribute band, during my March overnight stay in Tiffin, but the show was sold out.

I would've liked to have seen the theater inside, but I had to settle for watching the crowds pour in on the street outside and seeing the flashing neon lights on the vertical "Ritz" sign above the marquee.

The Ritz was built by Dan Kerwin and Adam Ritzler and opened in 1928, when 1,500 patrons packed in to hear the Ritz Quality Orchestra.

Tiffin had three other theaters operating in downtown at that time, but the Ritz was dubbed "Tiffin's quarter-million-dollar movie palace."

Today, there are about 1,260 seats in the Italian Renaissance-style building, with terra cotta and buff brick covering the front facade. A terra cotta mask of the Greek muse of tragedy -- Melpomene -- looks down over the front entrance from the roof.

In the outer lobby is a floor of mosaic tile, and the inside features fixtures of solid brass and black onyx marble walls. Two marble staircases lead to the balcony, which creates the feeling of a trellis in an outdoor garden.

On the walls of the lower seating area are four 10-by-30-foot murals depicting garden scenes and statues painted onto wet plaster by local artists Lloyd Roberts and Horace Drew. A curved proscenium envelopes the audience.

Above the auditorium, a 1,200-pound chandelier made of 20,000 Czechoslovakian crystal pieces hangs from a dome of sky blue. Renovated in 1998, the Ritz is the only one of the four original Tiffin theaters remaining.

The theater occasionally hosts national acts -- the country band Sawyer Brown performed in early March -- as well as Ritz Players' productions. The latter group will present "Les Miserables" in July. Classic movies are sometimes shown, and high school concerts take place there.

FORT IN WAR OF 1812

Tiffin was the site of the War of 1812's Fort Ball. It was located on the north side of the Sandusky River across from today's downtown.

Col. James V. Ball and his troops built the fort to secure the area along the river, which was important as a supply route for the troops in the thick wilderness.

It was there that Gen. William Henry Harrison received word of Oliver Hazard Perry's famous victory on Lake Erie. In a message delivered to Harrison, Perry wrote the famous words: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

Today, a bronze statue of an Indian maiden stands on Frost Parkway, where Fort Ball was located. That area eventually became known as Oakley, while Tiffin was across the river. They merged as Tiffin in 1850.

OTHER HISTORIC SITES

On the north side of the Veterans Memorial Bridge in downtown Tiffin is the Police and Fire All Patriots Memorial, which was completed in 2012 after the 2001 terrorists' attacks on the United States.

It features a 17 1/2-foot long, 6,200-pound beam from the World Trade Center. The entire site comprises 16,200 square feet, with areas recognizing the Pentagon attack, crash of Flight 93 and Tiffin safety personnel who died in service.

Three flags are present -- U.S., National Fallen Police and National Fallen Firefighters. A callery pear tree symbolizes the survivor tree at Ground Zero.

St. Paul's United Methodist Church in downtown has a storied background. The first part of the beautiful red brick church was completed in 1874 and another section was dedicated in 1884. Total cost of the two phases was $50,000.

The church became the first public building in the world to be wired for electricity, and in 1884 when Thomas Edison donated a massive chandelier to hang above the sanctuary, it was the first church in the nation lighted by Edison lamps.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the inside the church, but the sanctuary with its curved pews looks magnificent in an old photo I dug up online.

In 1869, the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis incorporated an institution known as St. Francis Orphanage on a farm on the southeast side of Tiffin. It operated until 1936, and has since been a home for the aged.

The original buildings are gone, but an old chapel and convent still stand on the grounds. There's also a museum housing artifacts related to the site, but it is open only by appointment and I didn't get to go inside.

Also on the St. Francis grounds is a home which utilizes passive solar, wind turbine and PV solar energy, and has many other unique features to obtain a net zero carbon footprint. It is open to the public, but was not open when I visited.

MORE NEAT LOCATIONS

I ventured past the old Seneca County Infirmary (poorhouse), which dates to 1856. It is now beside the county jail and sheriff's department. The complex housed residents until the 1980s, and since has been used by various government and service agencies.

Heidelberg College on the east side of town was founded in 1850 by the Synod of the Reformed Church. The Rev. Emanuel Vogel Gerhart was the college's first president, and during his tenure the awesome University Hall was built.

Heidelberg's enrollment is about 1,450. An interesting structure across the street from the campus is an octagon-shaped house built in 1852 and now owned by the college.

Built of brick on a stone foundation, the two-story house has a second story window on each side, while the first-story segments are occupied either by a door or window.

Several sides are surrounded by a wraparound porch. The hip roof rises just a small distance from the edges to the center and is made of tin.

Tiffin University was established in 1888, and has an enrollment of about 6,600, including those at a handful of other campuses and those in online programs. The campus' signature building is the old Miami School, built in 1884 and used as a public school until 1956, after which it was acquired by the university.

There are several historic structures on the south side of the Sandusky River along Riverside Drive. One once was a distillery, one was a brewery and an old grist mill built in 1875 is now the Pioneer Mill Restaurant.

The latter was built on the same site as a wooden mill erected in 1822, which was destroyed by fire. The restaurant has a large deck out back which affords a picturesque view of the Sandusky River.

The Tiffin Art Guild is a gallery of oil and acrylic paintings, watercolors, photos, sculpture and jewelry created by local artists.

An 1862 train depot in town has been beautifully restored and serves as a place for social events and programs. Landscaping around the station includes rock gardens, waterfalls, fish ponds, conifers and a grotto with a spiral sandstone stairwell and massive boulders. It won a preservation award in 2007.

SOME FINAL FACTS

Tiffin was named for Ohio's first governor -- Edward Tiffin -- who was later a member of the U.S. Senate. He fought to win statehood for the Ohio territory in 1803.

One of Tiffin's famous residents was Oliver Cowdery, one of the founders -- with Joseph Smith -- of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He practiced law and politics in Tiffin from 1842 to 1847.

The Great Flood of March 1913 resulted in 19 deaths in town and more than $1 million in damage. The Sandusky River crested at 24 feet. Forty-six houses, two factories and several bridges were swept away.

Despite an outcry to save the building, the 1884 beaux-arts style Seneca County Courthouse was razed in 2012, thus becoming the first National Register of Historic Places courthouse to be demolished in Ohio. Contents of a time capsule encased in the cornerstone in 1884 were given to the county historical society.

Email; klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189

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