a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Clean dome a shocker on weathered landmark

WASHINGTON, Pa. _ The fresh coat of brilliant white paint on the terra cotta dome of the old Washington County Courthouse in Pennsylvania is going to take some getting used to.

Above the roofline, the century-old landmark in "Little Washington" looks brand new as the scaffolding comes down around the dome.

But, its new manicured look now makes the rest of the weather-beaten building look much worse for its wear and screaming for a makeover, as well.

Unfortunately, the clean dome no longer goes with the rest of the
building that seems akin to a fancy classic car that only has one door painted.

The contrast has the county looking into having the rest of the building power washed because sandblasting could further damage the aging and deteriorating stone.

There has been a running joke among courthouse workers about their bosses' tendencies to hire the lowest irresponsible bidders to patch and repair their place of employment. There have been times when pigeon droppings littered the grand stairway below the rotunda amid buckets catching leaks during rain.

To the staff, it seemed as if a long line of commissioners has been approving bandages atop bandages to mask deteriorating conditions there until June 2007, when shards rained down from a stained-glass windoww during a trial.

While no one was injured, the mess forced the county's hand to take measures to better protect the public and hire R.G. Friday Inc. of Pittsburgh to fix the roof. By all outward appearances, the company has been performing excellent work on the main dome on the 108-year-old Beaux Arts landmark.

Built of Columbia sandstone from Cleveland, Ohio, and South Carolina granite, the courthouse reflects the architectural style dating to 1850 France for having heavy adornment. It boasts large, white marble stairways to the second floor, carved Honduran mahogany and Flemish oak woodwork, a marble-lined vestibule, Mexican onyx fireplaces, ornate stained-glass windows under the large dome and dozens of rose-colored skylights.

Now, the commissioners are introducing yet another construction material to the mix. They are embracing a plan to replace four smaller, crumbling domes on the roof with fiberglass replicas, rather than hire a clay artist to reproduce the bad tiles.

And no one, not even an anal-retentive preservationist, has stepped forward to allege the gross bastardization of the courthouse by finishing it off with a product that looks similar to plastic.

The folks who appreciate the rich details of the focal point of downtown Washington will just have to adjust to the sight of those fake cupolas after the toppers are hoisted to the four corners of the roof in a few weeks.

(Story first published in the Observer-Reporter)

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