Three Bears

A historic image of the Three Bears Seneca County Courthouse Complex in Ovid.

Gracing the east end of the village park in Ovid are three buildings in Greek Revival style. Local folk have referred to these buildings for years as the Papa Bear (the largest one), the Mama Bear (the middle one) and the Baby Bear (the smallest one).

According to the Preservation League of New York State, these three brick structures are unique in the entire United States as the only set of three intact adjacent public buildings in Greek Revival-style architecture. For several years, these buildings housed Seneca County offices when they were in Ovid. Seneca County was a half-shire county, with the county seat alternating between Waterloo and Ovid every three years.

The Papa Bear and the Baby Bear were constructed in 1845. The Seneca County Board of Supervisors decided there was a need to replace the deteriorating wooden courthouse in Ovid and a new courthouse building (which became known as the Papa Bear) was built on the north side of the old wooden courthouse. A new county clerk’s office building (which became known as the Baby Bear) was built on the south side of the old courthouse. The contractors were the Latham Brothers of Seneca Falls. Bricks were produced locally on the John B. Seeley farm.

These two new buildings were built in the popular Greek Revival style, dominant from the 1830s to the 1850s and used for houses, schools, churches, commercial buildings, courthouses and other government buildings. The popularity of the Greek Revival style in the United States was partly due to its symbolic association with the democratic ideals of ancient Greece. The symmetry, dignity and formality of this style reflected the high regard in which law and local government were held. These three structures have the basic temple design with a portico of graceful Doric columns.

The Papa Bear courthouse is architecturally significant as an example of an intact mid-19th century courtroom. It possesses a high level of period architectural integrity and retains many of its original materials and features. As was typical for 19th century courtroom architecture, the Ovid courtroom is graced with large windows (on three walls) and a tall ceiling. The judge’s bench, jury boxes and witness chair were placed on elevated platforms so they could be seen clearly from anywhere in the courtroom. The seating was tiered and curved to allow for better viewing by the public.

Like its predecessor, the new courthouse was not only the setting for court trials and political debate but also for concerts, lectures and meetings of community organizations. One of the most celebrated speakers to give a lecture in the courthouse was Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, who spoke there on Sept. 30, 1857.

In 1859 it was decided a larger county clerk’s building was needed. This new building — known as the Mama Bear — was built in between the two brick buildings, on the site of the old wooden courthouse.

A number of changes in use have taken place at the Three Bears throughout the years. The Papa Bear ceased to be the site of court sessions sometime before 1975. This was largely because the courtroom is not handicapped accessible.

Each year, the Seneca County Board of Supervisors still holds one of its monthly meetings in the Ovid courtroom. For many years the Papa Bear provided living quarters for the sheriff or undersheriff. From 1905 until 1962, the Mama Bear housed the Ovid Free Library. In 1962 the Mama Bear housed the Seneca County Department of Health until that office moved to the Papa Bear in 1974. The Mama Bear then became a satellite office for the Seneca County Sheriff’s Department.

The Baby Bear housed the county surrogate’s office from 1862 until about 1874 in those alternating three-year terms that the county clerk was based in Waterloo. Sometime later the Baby Bear was used exclusively by the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union veterans of the Civil War. As Civil War veterans passed away, the Caywood chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans succeeded the local G.A.R. chapter.

In recent years Seneca County government has moved away from using the Three Bears, except when the county board of supervisors holds one of its meetings in the old courthouse. Fortunately, since 2002 the Friends of the Three Bears group has spearheaded efforts to maintain the buildings and use them for tourism, promotion of local history and other beneficial economic uses. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of The Friends of the Three Bears and Seneca County government, the renovated Mama Bear will be dedicated on July 14, 2012, as a tourism center for the southern part of the county.

The collaborative efforts of Seneca County and the Friends will, hopefully, lead to a new roof on the Papa Bear in 2012 and an elevator in 2014. These restoration efforts will help ensure the long-term viability of these historic buildings.

Gable is the Seneca County historian.

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