History of the Allegheny County Courthouse

Allegheny County Courthouse

Allegheny County Courthouse

The Allegheny County Courthouse is located in downtown Pittsburgh. Along with the historic Allegheny County Jail, it forms a complex that was designed by famous architect H. H. Richardson. These buildings are renowned for their stunning representation of the Romanesque Revival style, for which Richardson is widely recognized.

The boundaries of the complex are defined by broad streets named after the city’s founders James Ross (Ross Street), John Forbes (Forbes Avenue), and James Grant (Grant Street). In 1888, the current structure was completed and was later recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Richardson called it his “greatest accomplishment”.

Allegheny County Courthouse

The original courthouse in Pittsburgh was built in 1794 and was made of wood. It was situated on one side of Market Square. Along with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Western District of Pennsylvania also held court sessions at Market Square from December 7, 1818 to 1841.

In April 1834, a parcel of land was acquired on the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Grant Street, known as Grant’s Hill, for the construction of a new courthouse. The building was completed between 1836 and 1840 using polished gray sandstone from Coal Hill (now Mount Washington) along the Monongahela River. It was designed by John Chislett in the Greek Revival style, featuring a domed cupola housing a rotunda measuring 60 feet in diameter and 80 feet tall. The courthouse was finished in 1841 and became the headquarters for both the Commonwealth Supreme Court Pittsburgh region and the Federal Western District until a new U.S. Customs House/Post Office was opened on Fifth and Smithfield in 1853. However, the building suffered from deterioration due to coal smoke, causing the facade to drop off and the cornices near the roof to fall. A fire on May 7, 1882, completely destroyed the building and it was subsequently demolished. The third and current courthouse was then constructed on the same location.

The Current Courthouse

After the second courthouse was destroyed, the Allegheny County Commissioners made the decision to launch a contest to create a new design. The victor of the contest was the renowned architect from Boston, Henry Hobson Richardson. The construction of the new buildings was initiated by the Norcross Brothers, who were Richardson’s preferred construction company, in 1884. On October 13, 1884, the cornerstone for the building was placed.

Richardson’s main building design was considered his greatest achievement due to its innovative approach. The structure was uniquely designed to include an interior courtyard, which allowed for plenty of natural light and fresh air to reach all areas of the building. The courtyard is bordered by four stories on three sides, with a five-story tower rising from the open side. Similar to Richardson’s other buildings, the roof is steep and features dormers at each corner.

The “Bridge of Sighs” links the courthouse and the prison together. Its structure was inspired by the famous Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Made of sizable blocks of granite, the entire complex features grand arches above the entrances and windows, giving it a sturdy and respectable look.

During the 1900s, Pittsburgh underwent a general re-grading and as a result, the street level in front of the building was lowered. Richardson had foreseen this and had hidden the finished masonry underground, which has now been uncovered. However, this caused the ceremonial entrance to be a full story above the street. In response, a grand stairway was constructed but was later removed in the 1930s due to street widening. As a result, the low arched doorways were extended downwards to street level. This means that instead of being greeted by the grand entrance hall that Richardson had planned, visitors are now welcomed by the low corridors, which were previously the basement.

In 1937, artist Vincent Nesbert finished painting five murals for the building’s ground floor, which were titled “Industry”, “Justice”, “Peace”, “Fort Duquesne”, and “The Battle of Grant’s Hill.”

The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was later deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Allegheny County constructed a modernized prison in 1995, situated near the Allegheny River. The previous jail was renovated to serve as the Family Division of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. This transformation involved a budget of approximately $25 million and took two years to complete, with the intention of preserving essential features such as the rotunda, cell blocks, and warden’s office. A section of the former cell block now serves as the Old Allegheny County Jail Museum, showcasing the history and artifacts of the jail.

The renovation process consisted of eliminating asbestos, installing new plumbing and electrical systems, adding air conditioning, and creating new offices and courtrooms. The project also involved the protection of the original elements such as the stone facade, ironwork, and stained glass windows. The transformation project received numerous recognitions for its adaptive reuse and historic preservation, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award in 2002 and the American Institute of Architects Pittsburgh Chapter Award in 2001.

Historical Significance

The architectural design of the Allegheny County Courthouse has served as inspiration for numerous buildings in North America, including the Toronto City Hall, Minneapolis City Hall, the Milwaukee Federal Building, Altgeld Hall located on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Wayne County Courthouse in Richmond, Indiana designed by James W. McLaughlin.

In 2007, the American Institute of Architects commissioned Harris Interactive to conduct a survey among 2,000 individuals. The participants were shown 247 photos of buildings and structures from various categories, as chosen by 2,500 architects. Among these, the Allegheny County Courthouse was ranked 35th overall on the list and was deemed the top courthouse in the nation, second only to the United States Supreme Court Building.

More information on the courthouse can be found here.

More Pittsburgh History can be found here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).

2 thoughts on “History of the Allegheny County Courthouse”

  1. I believe Richardson was the Architect for the Boggs mansion on the Northside. The Boggs mansion is aB&B. The stone was also restored, and the owners have preserved as much as they could inside and out.

  2. Carol Jackson Meola

    So many memories. I worked for attorneys in the Grant Building and was in and out of the Courthouse all the time. I left Pittsburgh in 1977 but I still miss it. There’s no place like it.

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