Old Allegheny County courthouse gets modern holiday glow

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Henry Hobson Richardson never saw a light-emitting diode he didn't like, mostly because he never saw one at all: The famous 19th-century architect died 80 years before they were patented.

But the cheery glow of these twinkling lights so common nowadays on Christmas trees can now be seen illuminating one of his most famous structures, the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.

Last week, a flick of a ceremonial switch turned the 125-year-old masonry building's facade into a blazing beacon of holiday reds and greens, thanks to an array of 12 LEDs recently installed by the county. As Pittsburgh's Light Up Night set the sky afire, the normally stolid courthouse had a bright place of its own in the skyline.

"Years ago, the courthouse was one of the most prominent buildings in the Golden Triangle," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. "Now other buildings have come up. It's really about putting pride in our public building."

County workers installed the lights as part of a larger restoration of the courthouse's tower, which previously saw an overhaul of the building's carillon chimes. Once technicians got up there -- lugging the 75-pound LED units behind them -- they found ancient bulbs already installed but long since shorted out.

Colors have danced across the courthouse's lower facade since 2012, when Mr. Fitzgerald first took office and made beautifying the building's Grant Street presence a priority. Until recently, workers regularly screwed on colored filters over existing exterior lights to achieve the effect, a labor-intensive process that only lasted a couple weeks at a time before the gels burnt out.

Now, those 1,000-watt halide lights have been replaced with 290-watt LED equivalents, which can switch colors at the click of a mouse.

"What I can do, I have a program, I can change the colors and download it [into the lights]," said Steve Kossert, director of the county Department of Facilities Management. "I can have the lights go in waves, I can have them flash. It's saving time for my guys -- they don't have to go outside."

Though currently decked out in red and green, the courthouse also will shine blue for Hanukkah and red for World AIDS Day. County spokeswoman Amie Downs already is lining up the colors for next year, with a possible black-and-gold combo if the Pirates play their cards right.

Despite the new glow in the tower, the switch will also save the county money. Running just the facade lights used to cost $4,100 a year; now, the entire array will cost $1,100 annually.

As a whole, the tower restoration project cost $134,600, with the lights built by local company Repcoll at a cost of $68,200. Mr. Fitzgerald sees that as a bargain, given the historic building's prominence.

The only bad news? The new lights will not forecast tomorrow's weather, a la the colored steps of the Gulf Tower's crown.

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.

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