The imposing stone courthouse and jail Henry Hobson Richardson designed for Allegheny County is considered one of the architect’s most inspired buildings.
Educated at Harvard University in Boston and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Richardson established a practice on Long Island, N.Y. when he returned to the U.S. in 1865.
Allegheny County officials wanted to replace a Greek Revival courthouse that burned in 1882 so they hosted a design competition. At the urging of John Ricketson, a Pittsburgh lawyer who was his Harvard classmate, Richardson submitted a belated entry in September of 1883. Construction of the new Allegheny County Courthouse and jail began in 1884 and finished in 1888.
In his book, “Pittsburgh’s Landmark Architecture, historian Walter Kidney called the courthouse tower “one big ornament.” At more than 318 feet high, it was originally designed to store the county’s archives but that plan fell by the wayside.
The courthouse interior is made of brick, much of which was made from clay dug during excavation for the foundation. If you stand in the building’s courtyard, you can see that the building’s exterior is a symphony of Roman arches created out of cut granite.
The carved moldings and ornamental stonework are the artistic legacy of 26 stone masons employed by the Boston firm of Evans & Tombs. Half of the masons were Italian and the rest Americans, according to a concise history of the building by architectural historian Albert M. Tannler. The exterior carving alone lasted for 10 months.
In the 1980s, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Raymond Novak played a key role in restoring Courtroom 321 to its original appearance. The project, completed in 1988, cost $450,000 and was based on three historical photographs.
The courthouse has served as the stage for countless large and small dramas that have played out in its courtrooms, hallways, prosecutors’ offices and judges’ chambers.
In May of this year, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced that a team of former county officials will lead a campaign to raise funds for the building’s restoration, a long deferred project that will cost tens of millions of dollars.
When the building’s 125th anniversary arrives next week on Sept. 24, we hope Mr. Fitzgerald and his team begin raising the money necessary to restore this magnificent landmark. When it was finished in 1888, the courthouse cost $2.3 million and furnishings were another $113,107.
Richardson was 47 when he died of Bright’s Disease in 1886 so he never lived to see this masterpiece finished.
On the day of his death, he told his doctor that he hoped to live two more years to see the completion of the Allegheny County Courthouse and a wholesale store for Marshall Field’s in Chicago. Regrettably, the Chicago building was torn down in the 1930s.
In his own words, the architect said he wished to be judged by those two buildings.
“If they honor me for the pigmy things I have already done, what will they say when they see Pittsburgh finished.”