The first floor rotunda tells an interesting story that is unique to the history
of the Eaton County Courthouse – that of the fire that took place here in 1894.
Americans were always concerned about the destructive power of fire. The great
Chicago fire in 1871 brought the issue of fireproof building construction to the
forefront. Prior to the Civil War, most buildings in the Midwest were simple
wooden structures, built by first or second-generation residents. Because wood
was plentiful in Michigan, it was used almost universally for homes, churches,
stores, schools, and public buildings. Yet as time passed and Midwesterners’
wealth grew, communities began to look for “fireproof” construction materials
that would ensure safety.
Though a solid masonry building built of both brick and stone, the Eaton County
Courthouse caught fire on July 4, 1894. The dome of the courthouse fell in,
crashing through the courthouse to the first floor rotunda. Thankfully, the fire
spread no further, largely sparing the wings.
Evidence of the damage can be seen on the floor of the rotunda. The pattern of
the tile abruptly changes in front of the south steps, where a small portion of
the original tile still remains. This tile matches the flooring found in the
building’s wings, suggesting that the contrasting tiles located in the rotunda
are replacements installed after the 1894 fire. The county purchased the tiles
from the U.S. Encaustic Tile Company in Indianapolis, Indiana.