a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A 1900 view of a beloved courthouse

By William E. McElroy

WASHINGTON, Pa. - The Washington County Courthouse is constructed in the Italian Renaissance style of architecture, and has a frontage on Main Street of 188 feet, by a depth of 108 feet; its height from the pavement to the top of the dome being 150 feet.

It is constructed of Columbia sandstone from Cleveland, South Carolina granite, iron and steel, brick and cement; is entirely fire-proof and contains 54 rooms.

The main building extends 108 feet from east to west - through the vestibules, the area under the dome, and the semi-rotunda in the rear. 

From the north and south sides of the area extend the two main wings, which contain the principal courtrooms on the second floor.

In the northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest corners, between the main building and the main wings, are the secondary wings, which contain the county departments in the basement and first floor, and the offices of the court officials on the second floor. 

The main feature of the entire building, and the key which practically controls the entire plan, is the location of the courtrooms.

This idea has been taken from the court buildings of the Old World, the Capitol at Washington, D.C.,.,.,., and elsewhere throughout the United States, and has been adopted as the modern courthouse arrangement by architects of worldwide reputation. 

Between two massive square and deeply paneled sandstone pillars, which stand on the inner edge of the Main Street sidewalk, immediately in front of the center of the building, rises a flight of eight granite steps. 

The pillars are each surmounted by a sphere, and ornamented with four handsome bronze bracket lamps which project from the sides. 

These granite steps lead to a semicircular platform of granite forty-four feet long by twenty-four feet wide, which forms the pavement under the portico and extends to the main entrances of the building. 

The upper edge of this beautiful semicircular portico is adorned with a balustrade, beneath which is a heavy cornice ornamented with corbels, and a plain frontal supported by four massive monolith sandstone columns 36 feet high, resting on granite bases, and finished with chaste Scamozzi capitals. 

Beneath the portico three handsomely arched doorways with elaborately carved lintels, between which swing massive.

Honduras mahogany doors, give entrance to a marble-lined vestibule, within which another pair of doors, leather-covered and studded with brass, lead into a second vestibule, also marble-lined. From this second vestibule the main corridor, which surrounds the central area under the dome, is reached. 

The central part of the front of the building, which contains the main entrances, is 74 feet high, and projects six feet from the remainder of the structure.

Rising above the portico it is surmounted by an elaborately molded entablature, having in its center a rose window of colored art glass.

On either side are square buttresses, on whose summits rest two allegorical terra - cotta groups of heroic size, representing "Justice" and "Liberty," forming an admirable support for the entablature in the center. 

Those portions of the front which adjoin the buttresses, and which are composed of the secondary wings of the building, are slightly in recess. They are heavily paneled, and finished with a handsome corbeled cornice, surmounted by an elaborate balustrade railing. 

The north and south corners of the building project to a line with the central portion, and on the front sides are surmounted by finely molded entablatures, which rest on two 36-foot pilasters, inside of which are columns of the same size, ornamented with Scamozzi capitals, while the upper edge of the northern and southern sides supports a carved sandstone balustrade railing. 

The two main wings, in which are located the two principal courtrooms, extend north and south seventy feet from the main building, facing Beau Street and Cherry Avenue.

On the Beau Street side a handsome doorway, with heavy sandstone lintels and massive mahogany doors, leads into the basement through a vestibule lined with Italian marble, having heavy leather brass-studded doors. Artistic bronze lamps project from either side. 

This doorway is surrounded by a balcony, along the front edge of which runs an ornate stone railing. From this balcony spring four 36-foot monolith columns with Scamozzi capitals, which at the top of the second story support a heavily carved cornice adorned with corbels. Above the cornice rises a superb frontal Surmounted by an elaborately carved and molded entablature. 

The south main wing is approached from Cherry Avenue by a flight of seventeen granite steps, which rise between two massive sandstone pillars adorned with bronze lamps similar to those in front of the main entrance. 

These steps lead up to a magnificently carved doorway having heavy mahogany doors, which give entrance to the first floor through a lofty vestibule lined with Italian marble, having an inner pair of doors covered with leather and brass-studded.

The front of this wing is also adorned with four monolith columns with Scamozzi capitals, a superb frontal, and elaborate entablature. 

The secondary wings on the northwestern and southwestern corners project 10 feet on the western side, and between them rises the semi-rotunda-shaped rear of the main building, which extends 13 feet beyond the wings.

The entire rear is constructed of heavily paneled sandstone, finished at the edge of the roof with a deep corbel-ornamented cornice surmounted by a handsome balustrade railing. The roof is entirely composed of red Japanese tiling, with heavily leaded gutters. 

The central part of the main building, between the vestibules, the semi-rotunda in the rear, and the two wings, is 70 feet square. On the outside corners of its walls, rising above the roof of the building, are four highly ornamental cupolas twenty-five feet high, whose terra-cotta domes rest on sandstone Ionic columns.

Within these four cupolas rises the base of the dome 32 feet above the roof.

It is graced with an elaborately decorated cornice, and contains 12 windows. Above this cornice the dome itself springs to a height of 26 feet.

It is divided into twelve segments, between which gleam rose and paneled sky lights of art glass.

From the summit of the dome rises the cupola 16 feet high; on the top of which rests a heroic statue of George Washington 18 in height.

The material of which the dome and its accessories are constructed is composed entirely of terra-cotta, and it rises six feet above the inner dome which overhangs the area in the center of the building.

From the floor of the third corridor to the top of the statue the distance is 94 feet, and it is just 205 feet above the pavement of the basement beneath. 

The courthouse is furnished with every convenience necessary for the comfort of those either employed or having business within its portals. 

Aside from the main stairway, it is provided with a large hydraulic passenger elevator, which is situated to the right as one enters the front of the building, and runs from the basement to the third floor. It is provided with a very handsome and ornate car composed of antique bronze.

In the northeast and southeast corners of the building are located flights of iron and marble stairs, which lead from the basement to the second floor; while on the western side two additional flights lead from the second to the third floor, on each side of the Orphans' Courtroom.

In the basement on each side of the room devoted to public meetings are situated two large and commodious toilet rooms, one for the public and the other for the courthouse employees. The walls of these rooms are lined with Italian marble, and the plumbing is the best that can be had in the country. 

In other portions of the building private toilet rooms are provided, which are finished in the same rich and complete manner. 

The courthouse will be heated with hot air, and the facilities for doing so are of the most complete description. Immense galvanized iron ducts extend under the floors, over the ceilings, and throughout the walls of every room and corridor in the building. They all center in the sub-basement, which is located in the rear of the building, immediately beneath the "People's Meeting Room" in the basement.

Here is placed the machinery which warms the entire building, and entrance can only be obtained to it through a tunnel under the grass plot back of the building, 75 feet long, which opens into the engine room of the county jail. 

In this sub-basement are located two immense Sturtevant fans, 10 feet in diameter, which are driven by two 53 horsepower engines. These fans draw the cold air from the outside of the building and force it through tempering coils of one-inch pipe filled with live steam. After passing through these coils, which contain 15,650 feet of pipe, 7,825 feet to each fan, the air, now very hot, is received by two immense galvanized iron main ducts, each one nine feet long by 30 inches wide, and by them distributed throughout the walls and floors of the building, eventually entering and warming the different rooms. 

In addition to these two mammoth fans, there are situated on the top of the main building, under the base of the dome, two other Sturtevant fans seven feet in diameter. The provenance of these fans is to draw all the foul air from the different rooms, thus insuring perfect ventilation. 

The courthouse will be lighted exclusively by electricity, and has been wired in the most complete manner. The current at present will be obtained from the local lighting company; later, however, two dynamos will be placed in a room adjoining the engine room in the basement of the county jail, in which is now located the hydraulic machinery which runs the courthouse elevator. 

The principal entrance to the courthouse is on the eastern side of the building, facing Main Street, under the imposing portico which adds much stateliness to its appearance. 

Three doorways, the center one being the largest, adorned with elaborately cut-stone cornices and frontals, and hung with massive hand-carved mahogany doors, lead into a vestibule lined with Italian marble 40 feet in width, whose arched roof rises 20 feet above the white marble floor below. 

Inside this vestibule a second one is entered, also white marble lined, and having its ceiling studded with ornamental and highly colored rose foils, from the interior of each of which an electric light gleams.

The main corridor is now reached, and a sight breaks upon the eye of the visitor which can scarcely be equaled in this country.

Before him rises a graceful stairway; on either side stretch away vistas of Italian marble corridors; while above him, supported by 12 immense pilasters, interspersed with Roman arches, hangs the majestic dome, with its jeweled art glass and frescoes in colors and gold. 

When one stands here in the subdued light of the dome, mellowed and tempered as it falls from above; when he examines the exquisite finish of his surroundings, the brasswork, the bronze, the gleaming stretches of marble, together with the brilliant colors, and the gold, which seem to warm all into life - he cannot but feel proud that Washington County is the owner of a building unsurpassed in any other country this side of the Atlantic. 

The base of the dome, 40 in diameter, rests on the massive Corinthian capitals of 12 immense pilasters, which rise from the basement to the rotunda on the third floor. These pilasters are composed of white Italian marble on the first floor, and of Sienna marble between the second and third. Their capitals are gorgeously frescoed with bright colors and gold. From these capitals spring twelve Roman arches on the third floor, forming the rotunda, whose outer faces are richly gilded.

Above these Roman arches, and from each corner of the area, spring four other arches, each with a span of 40 feet. The facades of these arches are richly frescoed in colors in the renaissance style, on a background of pure gold leaf, and have a large rose medallion in their center, which is also richly decorated.

From the top of these four arches, which form its base, springs the dome, 64 feet in height from the third floor.

The dome is very richly frescoed, and is divided into twelve sections of brilliantly colored art glass, which terminate in a rose skylight in the center. It is one of the handsomest pieces of work in this country, and presents a brilliant appearance at night when illuminated. 

Looking down to the first floor from the rotunda the sight is one of unrivaled beauty; the massive pilasters, with their varied marbles and gorgeous capitals; the rich bronze balustrades, marking the lines of the different floors; the rich coloring of the frescoes; and the grand stairway winding down through the center of the area all form a harmonious whole. 

The grand stairway is a unique feature of the building. 

It rises from the first floor from three different directions-the east, the north, and the south. Each flight is 12 feet wide, and consists of 16 steps. These three flights meet midway between the first and second floors, ending on a broad platform, 12 feet wide and 26 feet long. From each side of this platform two more flights of 16 steps ascend, one toward the northern, the other toward the southern wings of the building, and reach the second floor immediately in front of the two principal court-rooms. Another flight also descends from the first floor to the basement. 

The framework of this stairway is composed of bronzed iron, and the steps are of white marble. The balustrades and railings are massive, and of elaborate design, ending on the platform in four richly ornamented newel posts, which stand at its corners. 

Rising above the top of each newel-post is an artistically designed electric standard seven feet in height, composed of antique bronze matching the stairway, and upholding 12 electric lusters. 

Descending the stairway from the first floor of the building the basement is reached, where a number of the county departments are situated, occupying the north, west, and south sides; the east side being furnished with rooms, which will principally be used for storage purposes. 

The walls in the basement are sand-finished, and tinted an olive-yellow in graduating shades from the sub-base, growing lighter as they reach the ceiling. They are ornamented with a graceful Grecian border in gold, and the woodwork is all composed of antique oak. 

In the northeast corner is situated the coroner's and surveyor's office, immediately adjoining which is that of the building superintendent. The county superintendent's office occupies the entire northwest corner, and he is also provided with a comfortable private office. 

On the west side of the building, and immediately below the treasurer's office, is a large room, semicircular in form, which will be used as a public meeting-room. It is provided with two handsome entrances, and will accommodate about 500 people. On either side of this room are two public toilet rooms, deeply wainscoted with white marble. The auditors' quarters are located in the southwest corner of the structure, are handsomely finished and provided with every convenience.

Along the east side of the basement are four large rooms, provided with vaults, which will be used for storing the county records and other important papers. 

Three corridors extend around the 40-foot square area in the center of the building, corresponding to the different floors, and each one is finished in a style distinctively its own.

The one on the first floor is 12 feet wide and 20 feet high. Its walls are composed of Italian marble, and its highly frescoed and vaulted ceiling is studded with electric lights, which gleam from richly decorated rose foils.

Doors on one side of this corridor give entrance to the different county departments, while the other is open to the area under the dome. 

In both wings of the building, and in the rear of the grand stairway, on the first floor, are situated the convenient quarters occupied by the principal county departments, opening out upon the corridor. 

The walls of these departments are sand finished, and colored a medium green, which graduates into a much lighter shade on the ceiling. They are ornamented with a red and gold egg border, and are finished with a broad piece of Italian marble at their base. The floor is laid in white marble, and all the doors and other woodwork are composed of heavy antique oak, while light is supplied by many handsome old brass and silver-gilt electroliers in the ceiling, each of which contains a cluster of three incandescent globes. 

On the immediate right of the main entrance, and occupying the northeast corner of the building, is situated the prothonotary’s office.

This room is supplied with handsome counters, the most approved filing racks, desks, and a capacious vault. The furniture is composed entirely of iron, painted a dark green color, picked out with gold, the desks and counters, however, being supplied with antique oaken tops. 

Next to this room is that occupied by the clerk of the courts, whose windows look out on Beau Street. This is also handsomely fitted up with counters and desks of the same fireproof material. 

In the northwest corner the county commissioners have their quarters, which consist of one large room and four smaller committee rooms, from which a spiral iron stairway leads down to a large transcribing room, immediately below in the basement. The furnishings are of the same indestructible character. 

Immediately back of the main stairway on the west side of the building, and occupying a large semicircular room, is the office of the county treasurer and his private retiring room. 

A handsome carved antique oak doorway leads into this room, which is divided through its center by a counter composed of solid brick, faced with iron, and ornamented with a gold and green design, which supports an elaborate railing of antique bronze. In the rear is an immense fire and burglar proof vault. As in the other rooms, the furniture is of iron. 

Adjoining the treasury department on the south are the sheriff's quarters, a large, well-furnished room, containing a large vault and a snug private office. From the main room an iron circular stairway leads down to a large room in the basement immediately beneath, containing an immense fireproof vault, where articles levied upon will be securely kept. This room will be used for the holding of sheriff's sales, and also by the jury commissioners in the drawing of jurors. 

In the southwest corner are situated the main and private offices of the county register, which are large, commodious, and handsomely furnished. 

To the left of the main entrance, and in the southeastern corner of the building, are the large and well-appointed offices of the county recorder, which are supplied with every convenience in the shape of counters, desks, and filing racks, all of a solid and indestructible character. 

The corridor on the second floor is 12 feet wide and 18 feet high, its walls being wainscoted one-half their height with a delicate shade of Sienna marble, ornamented with pilasters, while the coloring of the remainder and the ceiling is of a warm shade of yellow. The ceiling is paneled in square sections, in contrast to the  arch-shaped ones of the first and third floors, each section containing four rose foils holding electric lights, and is beautifully decorated in fresco.

The railing between the massive pilasters, which runs around the edge of the central arena, is composed of handsome and elaborately molded balustrades of bronzed iron, in the form of miniature columns. From this corridor, in the center of both its northern and southern sides, massive and intricately carved doorways of antique oak lead into the two principal courtrooms, which occupy the north and south wings of the building. 

The color scheme of the rooms in the northern wing of the building on this floor is red and yellow, with all the plaster enrichments picked out in green, red, and gold; that of the southern wing is green, yellow, and gold. The sub-bases are all composed of Alps green marble and the woodwork of antique oak. 

Passing through the ponderous carved doors on the north side, so perfectly balanced that they yield to the lightest touch, one enters courtroom No. 1, where Judge J. A. McIlvaine will preside.

The first impression is one of loftiness and grandeur, which rather increases than diminishes after the first view.

The woodwork, which lends a touch of impressiveness to the apartment, is composed of heavy dark Flemish oak, and harmonizes perfectly with the rich mingled coloring in reds, yellows, and gold. The architecture is distinctively Grecian. 

This apartment is 60 feet long, 40 feet wide, and its ceiling rises 32 feet above the white marble floor below. A sub-base of Alps green marble runs around the foot of the walls, above which is a three-foot dado of red Numidian marble.

Extending above this dado, and one-third the height of the walls, is an elaborately paneled and carved wainscoting of solid Flemish oak, which is surmounted with a massive hand-carved cornice of the same material. Above the wainscoting, the walls are sand finished and paneled in red and yellow pilasters between the six windows, which light the room on the east and west sides.

The space above these windows is occupied by handsome rectangular transoms filled with colored art glass, separated from each other by the gorgeously colored Corinthian capitals of the pilasters. A deep cornice ornamented with corbels connects the walls with the ceiling.

The north and south walls are sand finished in solid red with graceful renaissance borders.

Running around the four sides of the ceiling is a. deep panel enclosing 50 highly colored and gilded rose foils, the center of each holding an incandescent light. In the center of the ceiling is an immense circular panel which surrounds an artistically designed and colored skylight, composed of eight circular sections grouped around a central one.

On either side of this central panel, which has an inner circle of 16 electric lights, and extending across the ceiling, are two handsome rectangular ones, richly ornamented. The colors used in the decoration of the ceiling are very rich, yet so harmoniously blended that the general effect is a most pleasing one. 

Aside from the 50 incandescent lights and the circle of 16 in the ceiling, the apartment is illuminated by 16 handsome silver and old brass brackets, which extend out from the heavy wainscoting and hold three globes each, one bracket beneath the base of each pilaster, and one on either side of the entrance. 

The bar, whose floor is laid with varicolored vulcanized rubber tiles, is partitioned off from the rest of the room by a heavy railing of Flemish oak, ornamented with elaborately carved balustrades, which extend across the center of the apartment.

Railings of like character also enclose the desk of the clerk of the court and the seats of the jury. The judge's bench is plain, elegant, and massive, graced on either side with an antique bronze electric standard holding three incandescent lusters. 

Across the north end of the room and back of the judge's bench extends a most elaborate piece of cabinet-work, in the form of a screen, rising in the center nearly to the ceiling, and composed, like the rest, entirely of dull-polished Flemish oak. The central part is composed of a large panel with an arched top, on each side of which rise two fluted columns, whose handsome Corinthian capitals support an imposing entablature, magnificently carved.

Handsome entablatures, smaller in size, cap the windows on each side of the bench, and the intervening spaces are artistically paneled and carved.

The effect produced by this piece of work lends a grace and dignity which thoroughly harmonizes with the blended colors and rich molding of the apartment, and stamps it as the conception of a master mind. 

Courtroom No. 2, in which Judge J. F. Taylor will preside, occupies the southern wing of the building, directly opposite court-room No. 1.

The decorations and molding in this room are identical with those of No. 1, with the exception that green is the prevailing color used, instead of red, and the woodwork is composed of solid polished Honduras mahogany. 

A handsome antique oak door in the middle of the west corridor leads into courtroom No. 3, which will be used as the Orphans' Court. This courtroom is semicircular in shape, and is 44 feet wide, 35 feet long, and 18 feet high. The walls are surfaced in Alps green marble, above which is a three-foot dado of Sienna marble.

From this to the ceiling they are sand-finished, the color scheme being old blue, yellow, and gold, with the decorations in the renaissance style. The ceiling is of an olive-yellow shade, divided into eight longitudinal panels, from which project twelve old brass and silver electroliers, each holding three incandescent lights, while projecting from the walls are six brackets, three on each side holding two electric lights apiece. The woodwork is composed entirely of polished Honduras mahogany. 

The room is divided across the middle by a heavy and richly carved mahogany railing, enclosing the bar, which is laid with different colored vulcanized rubber tiles. 

The judge's bench is composed of the same beautiful wood, and immediately in its rear rises a handsome piece of cabinetwork carved in the Romanesque style of architecture. The center is occupied by an alcove, on each side of which rise fluted columns, supporting a finely carved frontal.

These three court-rooms, in beauty of design, fineness of finish, delicacy of color, and completeness of detail, stand the equal of any of similar size elsewhere throughout the country. 

On each side of the two courtrooms, corridors lead from the main one, on which open rooms provided for the use of the court officials, members of the jury, attorneys and their clients. The entrances to these corridors are furnished with leather-covered swinging doors studded with brass. 

In the northeast corridor is situated the office of the district attorney, which is 22 feet long and 17 feet wide. The walls are colored in golden tones, and it is provided with a handsome fireplace of red Numidian marble, having a carved antique oak mantel. 

The next room is one devoted to the use of witnesses, and is also handsomely decorated. 

In the northeast corner is located the chamber of Judge J. A. McIlvaine, which is exceedingly handsome. The walls are heavily wainscoted in mahogany panels four feet above the floor, and thence to the ceiling are covered with burlap decorated in tapestry ornaments, after the Renaissance style, in green and russet. The ceiling is colored an olive yellow, with an egg cornice around its edges, picked out in green and gold, and has a handsome antique brass chandelier depending from its center, holding five lusters. The doors and window frames are of solid mahogany, surmounted by elaborately carved consoles.

On the west side of the room is an elaborate fireplace of verd antique marble, having a handsome mahogany mantel resting on two fluted Corinthian columns. 

The first two rooms in the northwest corridor are designated as jury rooms No. 1 and No. 2, and in the northwest corner is situated the grand jury room, which is 22 feet long by 20 wide, and provided with an anteroom. 

The prisoners' room is the first in the southwest corridor, which is followed by a handsome marble-lined toilet room and jury rooms No. 3 and No. 4, while the room corresponding to the anteroom of the grand jury is devoted to the use of the court crier and tipstaves. 

A convenient lawyers' waiting-room, having a handsome red Numidian marble fireplace and antique oak mantel, is on the first room on the southeast corridor.

Next adjoining is a ladies' waiting room, supplied with a toilet and other accessories, while the chamber of Judge J. F. Taylor occupies the extreme southeast corner, and is similar to that of Judge McIlvaine, with the exception that blue is substituted for green in color effect.

On the north side of the corridor on the second floor, and directly over the main entrance, is located the court library. This room has an elaborately carved entrance of polished oak, supplied with heavy doors of the same wood.

The interior woodwork is of Honduras mahogany, and the doorways and windows are surmounted with heavy carved consoles. The walls are surrounded by a sub-base of white marble, above which reaches a three-foot mahogany wainscoting, deeply paneled.

They are sand-finished, the color scheme being green and gold, with the frescoing in the style of the Italian Renaissance. The ceiling is paneled in fawn color, and adorned with 12 old brass and silver electroliers, each holding three incandescent lights.

At each end of the room, which is 48 feet long, 40 wide, and 20 feet high, are placed magnificently carved fireplaces of pure Italian marble. The shelving is entirely of iron, colored a dark green touched up with gold. 

On the south side of the library is situated the librarian's room, the walls of which are decorated in Pompeiian red, having a gilt egg border, and a ceiling of fawn color; while on the north side is the court reporter's room, which is decorated in golden tones, the walls having a graceful Grecian border in plain gold. 

The third floor is reached by two flights of iron stairs, inlaid with white marble, which lead upward from each side of courtroom No. 3, on the west side of the building. 

The corridor on the third floor is really the rotunda on which rests the base of the dome. It is 12 feet wide and 14 feet high, with walls colored in golden tones, above a white marble sub-base, and decorated with a Grecian border in gold. The ceiling is divided into squares with Roman arches, each square having four electric lights. 

The side toward the central area is composed of 12 massive Roman arches, between which extends an ornate scroll-work railing of bronzed iron. 
On the east side of the corridor immediately over the court library is situated the quarters of the bar association. This room is entered through doors of antique oak, which lightly swing in a heavy doorway of the same material. The walls are sand-finished and colored a rich Pompeiian red, adorned with a handsome egg and frescoed border, while the ceiling is of a light ecru shade, from which hang two old brass and silver electroliers, having a cluster of six incandescent lamps each.

At each end are two beautiful fireplaces, composed of Mexican onyx, on either side of which stand two fluted Ionic columns of antique oak, which support a hand-carved mantel of the same material. 

On either side of this room are placed anterooms decorated in the same style. 

Directly across the building on the west side and above courtroom No. 3 is situated a large semicircular room, which will be used by the historical society. The walls of this room are of a dark green graduating into yellow on the ceiling, which is heavily paneled, and contains nine electroliers, each containing three incandescent lamps.

William E. McElroy was a Philadelphia native who wrote this piece for The Observer newspaper, now known as the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., to appear Nov. 17, 1900, the day the courthouse was dedicated. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and took great pains to document the measurements of this grand building, as well as the locations of its bathrooms. It's reprinted here for the sole purpose of creating a digital copy of his take on such a grand, historic building.

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