Washington County Courthouse needs restoration to save historic landmark

Raising the roof

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Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
The courtroom in the Washington County Courthouse of Judge Katherine B. Emery, where a foot-long section of the stained-glass skylight crashed down while court was in session June 13. No one was hurt in the incident but the courtroom and another one across the rotunda were closed.
By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You don't need to be a preservationist to understand that a 107-year-old building, no matter how lovingly maintained, is eventually going to need some repairs. Still, most major problems come with some kind of advance warning.

Which is why when a foot-long section of stained glass suddenly came crashing down from a skylight in Judge Katherine B. Emery's second-floor courtroom in the Washington County Courthouse, everyone was, well, floored. Especially since court was in session.

Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
The head of one of two angel statues removed from the courthouse in the '70s sits in J. Bracken Burns' office. He bought it from an antiques dealer.
Click photo for larger image.
Online photos
See more photos from the Washington County Courthouse.

No one was hurt during the June 13 incident. Luckily, one of the lawyers trying the case had just stepped from his table out of harm's way to question a witness, noted Chief Clerk Mary Helicke. County commissioners quickly closed the courtroom to the public, as well as a portion of President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca's courtroom across the rotunda, which has a matching skylight.

"I'd always thought, wouldn't it be great if we got [the skylights] cleaned. But they're delicate and hard to get to, so we put it off," said county Commissioner J. Bracken Burns, whose office authorized emergency repairs. He paused, and gave an embarrassed chuckle. "I didn't understand they'd degrade over time. Lead is lead. I figured it was good for the duration."

Not that Mr. Burns or his fellow commissioners have deliberately let things slide when it comes to the landmark sandstone building, which was designed in 1897 by famed Pittsburgh architect Frederick J. Osterling and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

To the contrary, as custodians of the county, they understand full well their responsibility to preserve and salute its history. When the county turned the old recorder of deeds office into a sixth courtroom two years ago, for instance, every step was taken to make sure it matched the classical architecture in the rest of the building, right down to the marble on the floors, picture-box molding on the walls and intricate egg-and-dart border on the ceiling.

The same care was taken in the 2004 conversion of the handsome old jail, built at the same time as the courthouse, into a state-of-the-art family court center. Some officials were tempted to simply raze the old building and replace it with a metal box, said Mr. Burns. That would have been a tragic mistake, architecturally and historically.

"You can't go there," he said. "We have to maintain the integrity of the county seat. We're proud of what we accomplish here."

With those major projects complete, though, it's time to get back to the courthouse, which was last renovated to the tune of $1 million in the late '70s.

Last summer, the county approved a $1.3 million project to replace all the rotting wood underneath the building's distinctive Spanish tile roof. Mr. Burns and Judge O'Dell Seneca also are working to raise funds to re-create the 12-foot masonry "angels" that used to adorn the pedestals in front of the ornamental cupolas gracing the dome.

Degraded to the point that they became a safety issue (no one wanted one of the massive wings to fall off and clunk someone walking into the courthouse on the head) , the statues-- dubbed "Justice" and "Liberty" -- were removed sometime in the '70s. Someone was smart enough to take pictures of the statues and have molds cast for their replacement. But as so often is the case, the statues and molds were lost over the years. And out of sight, they soon fell out of public consciousness. But not to Mr. Burns, who rather remarkably has one of two statues' original, larger-than-life heads sitting in his office.

People scavenged the statues when they were brought down, and some pieces ended up in antiques shops; he purchased his years ago from a dealer, he explained.

"Most people don't remember them or miss them," he said. "But they're such classic pieces and such a part of the history of the courthouse, that it's always been my dream to restore them."

It is, however, going to be expensive -- by Mr. Burns' reckoning, as much as $500,000. The angels alone, which officials say could be sculpted by Alan Cottrill, who recently completed two outdoor statues for Washington & Jefferson College, are expected to cost about $240,000, according to Scott Fergus, the county's director of administrative services. But on the plus side, it won't involve any local tax dollars.

Mr. Burns and Judge O'Dell Seneca are working on grant applications and have formed a committee to organize a gala or social event to raise funds for the project. The long-time commissioner is certain there are people like himself and "the good judge" who are lovers of history and recognize the importance of getting the project done. The main challenge, he said, is getting that first piece of money on the table.

Until then, other projects will have to take precedence, including the repair and restoration of the two brilliantly colored stained-glass skylights that illuminate the domed ceilings in Courtrooms 1 and 2.

Mr. Fergus said it will take about a week to remove the hundreds of pieces of stained glass and replace them with a plywood template. Then the restoration work, which may take as long as six months to complete, is expected to be put out to bid in the next week or so. And like the angels, it will require some serious cash.

But, really, what else can they do?

"We have to make sure future generations will have the ability to appreciate what we appreciate today," noted Mr. Burns.

"When they're cleaned up, they'll be really spectacular," agreed Mr. Fergus.


Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-761-4670.


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