Restoration envisioned for Allegheny County courthouse

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When Allegheny County was looking to build a new courthouse in 1882, county officials could have played it safe.

A Philadelphia architect submitted a blueprint mimicking a Renaissance chateau. The same thing came from a man in Chicago, just with a bigger tower. And a fellow from Detroit drafted a plan that history books charitably say was very popular in "prosperous Midwestern counties."

But the county chose Henry Hobson Richardson, whose hulking fortress of stone harked back more to a medieval castle than the stately French citadels his competitors preferred -- and made history for it.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of the courthouse, the first building of note on Grant Street and still dominant among today's steel-and-glass towers.

Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail

  • 436 Grant St.
  • Designed by

    Henry Hobson Richardson in the Romanesque style.

  • Completed

    in 1888.

  • At 249 feet high,

    the tower stood until 1902 as the tallest structure in Downtown Pittsburgh.

  • Placed

    on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

  • Jail was closed

    in 1995 and converted to offices for the

    justice system.

County officials want to make sure it can still hold its own.

At last Tuesday night's county council meeting, Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced a plan to renovate and restore the courthouse and adjoining former jail, a top-to-bottom task that likely will take years. Although there's no firm plan yet, Mr. Fitzgerald plans to ask for assistance from outside donors and take advice from local experts.

"As part of the celebration this year, we want to put some plans together on how we can make our signature building have all the grandeur it deserves," he said.

It certainly could use some help, county manager William McKain said. Walking along the courthouse's first floor, he didn't have trouble pointing out work to do: water damage above the lobby's murals, drafty windows, dim light fixtures.

And that's just what's easily seen, leaving aside the old wiring or antiquated heating. As any courthouse visitor knows, the building alternates between take-off-your-sweater hot and where's-my-scarf cold. And despite floor-to-ceiling windows, the halls still are dim.

"Obviously the history and the craftsmanship of this are the things we want to retain," Mr. McKain said. "First, we need to get the low-hanging fruit done."

Mr. Fitzgerald plans to form a committee to prioritize work. That's sure to include representation from the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, a group of preservationists who recently helped renovate two courtrooms and who have stocked hallways with new benches.

Most prominently, the foundation in 1976 helped convert the interior courtyard from a parking lot into a public park at the behest of then-Commissioner Jim Flaherty.

Foundation president Arthur P. Ziegler Jr. already has his to-do list written up. He detests the drop ceilings in offices that conceal original work, and he yearns for new windows. Last week, he stopped by to check on the progress of repainting the hallways, musing over shades of brown that his people tell him are historically accurate.

It's not yet clear how that will square with Mr. McKain's plans to "brighten" the place up, but no matter.

"Some say this is the most important work of architecture in Western Pennsylvania," Mr. Ziegler said. "It should symbolize the county government and the strength in architecture and quality of area."

In an oft-repeated quote, Richardson, his health ailing as the courthouse neared completion, gave one last plea.

"Let me but have time to finish Pittsburgh and I should be content without another day," he wrote.

And more than a century later, the county is still trying to pay him back.

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Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.


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