Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Brick building with large machine in front.
Brick building with large machine in front.

Preserving Pennsylvania’s Historic County Courthouses

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Most Pennsylvanian’s think of jury duty, county assessment records or where they went to apply for their marriage license when someone mentions a courthouse.

Not me, I immediately think of the tall columns and central rotunda of Lancaster County’s Courthouse – or the countless hours I spent in its basement pouring through early deed books researching elusive title chains.  

Large stone building at the corner of two streets.
Lancaster County Courthouse (Key #001080), PHMC Photo.

Pennsylvania’s Historic Courthouses

My favorite aspects as the Keystone grant manager is the opportunity to interact with many of Pennsylvania’s historic county courthouses.  I have visited several of them, even climbed onto the roof of one too – with much cajoling, mind you. 

People standing on roof of building next to large window
Luzerne County Courthouse (Key #000735), PHMC. Yes, that is me in the red sweater looking at the monumental stained-glass windows – ON THE ROOF OF THE COURTHOUSE!

It is no surprise that often the county courthouse is the most architecturally significant and high-styled building in the county seat if not their entire respective county. 

There are thirty-four county courthouses listed individually in the National Register of Historic Places, while many others are listed in the National Register as part of their surrounding historic district. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Allegheny County Courthouse & Jail, 436 Grant St. (Key #001716) is considered a National Historic Landmark.

Large stone building at the corner of two streets.
Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh. (Source: Flickr user: Allie_Caulfield https://www.flickr.com/photos/wm_archiv/ / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Preserving County Courthouses

The Keystone Historic Preservation grant program has funded many of the architecturally significant county courthouses in the commonwealth.  Nineteen counties have received grant funding through the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the continued preservation of this resource type. 

County courthouses have unique preservation challenges. They are architecturally complex buildings, with towers, rotundas, domes, dramatic decorative flourishes, elements that require continual maintenance by artisans and specialized contractors. 

Brick building with large machine in front.
Huntingdon County Courthouse (Key #205839), PHMC Photo.

Because courthouses are heavily occupied buildings so these finishes and features are especially vulnerable.  

I appreciate how difficult it must be for County Commissioners to stretch their budget to care for these impressive buildings and still provide necessary county government services. 

And how they must complete the complex puzzle to balance the demands for safety and security of our modern world with the architectural characteristics of the buildings all while ensuring that the building is barrier free for all members of the public.

Large stone building with clock tower in center of roof.
Schuylkill County Courthouse (Key #125983), PHMC photo.

Fayette County Courthouse

The Fayette County Commissioners invited me a few years ago to tour their impressive 1892 Richardsonian Romanesque building (Key #088148) designed by Butz and Kaufman in the Uniontown Historic District. 

It was a memorable visit to enjoy the behind the scenes tour of how they maintain the facility and incorporate other county buildings to supplement the services.  I enjoyed my visit immensely and certainly got a better understanding of all the moving parts that factor into their decision making.

Blair County Courthouse

One of our recent projects certainly highlights how careful planning and dedicated commissioners can restore the glory of the interior decorative finishes of their courthouse. 

The Blair County Courthouse, 423 Allegheny S. (Key #001295) in Hollidaysburg was constructed in 1875, designed Philadelphia architect, David Smith Gendell (1839-1925). 

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s Philadelphia Architects and Building Project has a brief record on Gendell’s career.  The courthouse was listed individually in the National Register of Historic Places on June 17, 1976 but is also a prominent building in the Hollidaysburg Historic District (Key #078872), listed in the register in 1985. 

Tall stone building covered in snow.
Blair County Courthouse, PHMC photo.

The Blair County Commissioners were recognized by Preservation Pennsylvania in their 2019 Historic Preservation Awards.

Interested in more information about the Pennsylvania’s County Courthouses?

The Pennsylvania County Commissioner Association teamed up with the PCN to offer tours of several of courthouses.  Check out select episodes on their website: https://pcntv.com/pahistoriccourthouses/.

Author: Karen Arnold

Karen Arnold manages the Keystone Historic Preservation Grant program at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

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