Luzerne County Courthouse History

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Luzerne County Courthouse The early courthouses in Luzerne County occupied space in the town square from shortly after the county’s establishment in 1786. The first building was a simple log structure, followed, in 1801, by a Georgian-style building showing the Philadelphia influence. Again, in 1856, a more commodious courthouse was needed, and a prominent New York architect, Joseph C. Wells, was called upon to design it. He chose a round arch style called Rundbogenstil and produced a building, sophisticated for its time, with an early futile attempt at fireproofing.

The demand for a new courthouse began to be voiced in 1892. The Wilkes-Barre Record of April 12, 1892, published a short editorial:

The grand jury recommends the building of a new courthouse. We are glad to hear it. The present structure is not large enough for the business needs of the County, and, besides, is not much better than a tinder box, liable to be destroyed any moment. The County is out of debt and the ordinary receipts are large enough to erect a commodious, fireproof building without increasing the taxes a cent. Why not commence it as soon as formalities permit!

The proposal sounded very simple, and it did not reflect the complexities of taste, politics, or real estate in Wilkes-Barre. However, the machinery had been set in motion. Acting upon the grand jury’s recommendation of 1892, the County Commissioners set about to choose an architect. Seven years, numerous law suits, three architects and two million dollars later, the present courthouse was opened and has since stood as a symbol of the community’s pride and opulence.

The time was ripe for courthouse building in the United States. When the Civil War ended, the states were ready for a display of pride. Thomas U. Walter’s magnificent new dome for the Capitol, completed in 1867, become an inspiration for architects and state officials throughout the country. The functions of the state government were expanding, and more space was needed. The newer areas of the country were ready for their first monumental public symbols. In all, it was time for a wave of construction, and the cruciform domed configuration was foremost in popularity.

As the state capitals grew and developed, so grew the counties and their need for their own symbols, which often followed the lead of the capitals. This need created a demand for specialized professional skills. The large architectural firms, many from the Northeast, undertook commissions across the country. In almost every case, local planners and builders, who often gave themselves the title of "architects,’ deeply resented this intrusion of outsiders. They particularly resented the large fees paid to the visiting experts. That money, they felt, should be kept within the state. This animosity contributed to the problems of the architects dealing with Commissioners who had little understanding of the fine points of aesthetics or construction. As politicians, they wanted to point with pride, both to the symbolic grandeur of the building, and to the low cost. Some of the architects were driven to near bankruptcy by the demands and misunderstandings of their clients.

The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago from May 1 to October 30, 1893, had a marked impact on the courthouse project in Wilkes-Barre. In fact, it was perhaps the most successful and influential of all the world’s fairs in the United States. With few exceptions, most notably, Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building, the fair was designed in the classic revival style already made popular by McKim, Meade and White, and by R. M. Hunt of New York. A Chicago architect and planner, D. H. Burnham, was largely responsible for the "City Beautiful" type of planning which incorporated more open space, parks and boulevards in the cities. This concept had its impact upon Wilkes-Barre in the dispute over the location of the courthouse and the effort to make the public square an open space.

The buildings at the fair were all temporary, built of stucco and painted white to look like marble. This style gave rise to the term "White Cities " The fair brought together the foremost mural painters in the country. These individuals concentrated their talents to make the architecture, along with its decoration, the resounding success that it became.

Luzerne County Courthouse Dome The fair had a tremendous influence on the construction of domed capitols, and, even more, on courthouses. It initiated the "White Cities Movement,’ which was to inspire both marble buildings and landscaped open spaces in cities throughout the land. The architectural style which came out of this movement is often referred to as "Renaissance Style," or "Beaux Arts Style," referring to the many architects who received training in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.

The Standard American Encyclopedia of 1897 described Wilkes-Barre as having a population of 37,718. Furthermore, the area boasted two great railroads, twenty-two churches, seven banks and eight newspapers. It manufactured locomotives, machinery, carriages, tools, rope, and castings. Beneath the ground lay rich anthracite mines, which produced much of Wilkes-Barre’s wealth. The Encyclopedia also lists, as local features, an opera house, courthouse, female seminary and a high school. It fails, however, to mention the rich variety of ethnic groups which contributed to the cultural complexity of the City.

The large number of churches in our area filled the needs of many ethnic groups. A church became a community, speaking and preserving a native language. These church communities brought to Wilkes-Barre architectural elements which reflected their place of origin. They also engaged architects accustomed to building for specific church groups. This enhanced the richness and variety of the architectural life of Wilkes-Barre.

Wilkes-Barre’s proximity to both Philadelphia and New York, and the fact that the leaders of the community had business connections in both cities, provided exposure to outside cultural influences. Some area individuals chose architects, whose work they had seen and admired during their travels, to design their homes and businesses; others commissioned local men who were often influenced by the sophisticated work of the imported architects.

In August, 1894, the County Commissioners selected a site on South Main Street, Wilkes-Barre, for the new courthouse and engaged Elijah E. Myers of Detroit to draw up the plans. Myers was a well-known architect of public buildings, including the capitols of Michigan, Texas and Colorado. Myers prepared plans for a Beaux Arts building, reproduced in Robinson’s book on the courthouse. It featured a slender dome and four square glass covered towers. Law suits were filed and hearings held. The South Main Street site was overruled, and the controversy over the suitability of the Public Square continued.

It is not clear why the Myers plan was not used, but on July 12, 1895, Myers sued the County for $10,000. His suit dragged on for many years and was finally settled out of court in 1924.

Another element of controversy arose over the bidding process. The Wilkes-Barre Record of May 21, 1895, published a lengthy article under the caption WHY THEY DO NOT BID. It says, in part:

Prominent contractors give their response why they are not preparing estimates for the proposed new courthouse…

The fact that only a few Wilkes-Barre contractors are bidding upon the proposed new courthouse is rather significant. In Wilkes-Barre, contractors are as good and capable as any to be found elsewhere, and the mere magnitude of a building would not frighten and deter them from making estimates.


. . . judging from allegations that the courthouse contract has already been practically settled …. Especially are they firm in this opinion since the insinuation has come to their ears that a Western contractor has had plans for the purposes of making estimates for a month over the Wilkes-Barre contractors.

The Wilkes-Barre Record further states that only two sets of plans were displayed in the arbitration room of the courthouse for the use of all Wilkes-Barre contractors and that W. H. Shepard, one of the contractors, stated that the cost would be a million dollars or more.

On May 20, The Wilkes-Barre Record made its position clear in regard to the courthouse, and gave a succinct summary of what was wrong with the project:

The Record, on the other hand, wanted the courthouse built right. Because we favored the improvement, it did not follow that we should lend our countenance to the method adopted by the Commissioners. When this paper saw that these officials began at the wrong end, it wasn’t afraid to tell the people about it and to insist that the blunder be corrected. The Commissioners had no right to employ an architect until they had secured a site. They had no right to pay him $10,000 cash and promise him $10,000 more and 5% of the cost of the building before either they or the architect know what the cost would be, or where the building was to go up. This was the false start to which the Record called attention…

Arguments over the site dragged on.

Luzerne County Courthouse image Finally, in 1899, an architectural competition was held. March 15 was the last day for submitting plans. The Wilkes-Barre Record reports the specifications to the architects as follows:

The building shall be a four or five story, steel frame, fireproof structure, providing offices for all the County officials and providing for one large and five smaller court rooms and also jury rooms, judges’ offices, law library, waiting rooms, lavatories, hygienic closets, ventilation, lighting, and heating…

The building shall be fireproof throughout, walls, floors, partitions, girders, roof, etc. Doors and window frames may be of wood. The exterior shall be of the most durable character. Cornices, finials, etc. where of metal shall be of copper. Galvanized iron will not be allowed.

The cost of the building is limited to $450,000, including all steam and gas fitting and plumbing and electric wiring, mail chute, but not including power plant, heating plant or electric plant and elevators or gas and electric fixtures…

Any set of drawings for a building which shall exceed in the probable cost the limits named by more than 10 percent, may also be excluded from the competition.

In all, 25 architects submitted plans amidst an atmosphere of the greatest secrecy.

The Wilkes-Barre Record delineated some of the rules of the competition. The Board of County Commissioners would select the architect and award the prize money. This decision would follow a consultation with the County Comptroller and an advisory committee of five persons, all members of the bar. The five were: Andrew H. McClintock, John I. Lenahan, William S. McLean, George K. Powell, and Frank W. Wheaten. It further stated that the Commissioners will request the Judges of Luzerne County to confer with them concerning the plans.

The Commissioners awarded the contract to F. J. Osterling of Pittsburgh, an architect little known outside the Pittsburgh area. If the Commissioners had visited Western Pennsylvania in order to see some of his work, as was rumored, they perhaps saw the Fort Pitt Federal Building (1890) or the Washington County Court House under construction.

Although Osterling’s plans had been drawn for the Public Square site, the conflict still raged over the suitability of that location. Some wanted to keep the square as an open space, most did not want any money expended on real estate, and some favored use of the River Common as a site. Finally, on October 1, 1901, a court opinion gave the Commissioners permission to accept the River Common site for the new courthouse and gave the City the power to transfer the site. Again, exceptions were filed and dismissed, and by November 16, the Judges examined the Osterling plans.

The original plans were made for the Public Square location, and now they had to be adjusted to the new site. It is difficult to determine the magnitude of the changes. The architect’s plans, on file at the City Buildings Department, do not include elevation drawings; however, the sectional drawing indicates three bays at the three entrances. As completed, the building has five bays. Some early post cards were issued before the completion of the building, one being post-marked 1906. One shows a building similar to the present one, with a single dome, three bays and sculpture on the roof. The other, also with three bays, shows the space at the crossing partially filled with a square member and a glass-covered dome. This second building is clearly not from Osterling’s hand, but there is no indication of the architect’s identity. Yet another depiction of the courthouse appeared in The Wilkes-Barre Record on June 10, 1899. It is said to be the Myers plan, but clearly it is not the building depicted in Robinson, which relates stylistically to capitol designs characteristic of Myers. This version is not related to the American renaissance, but rather the Victorian gothic of an earlier style. It would be credible as the work of J. H. W. Hawkins, but there is no documentation to this effect. Hawkins was one of the five runners-up on the courthouse competition. Others were Albert H. Kipp, McCormick and French, Davey and Williams, and Hazelburt and Haskel of Philadelphia.

The building, as it now stands, is one of five bays with a clustered dome. The four tourelles grouped around the main dome remind one of the competition project designed by McKim, Mead and White for the Rhode Island State Capitol of 1891.5 However, Osterling added pediments with stained-glass windows connecting the tourelles, and he omitted the roof sculpture of the original design. The Luzerne County Court House continues to stand on its magnificent site proclaiming dignity and solidarity to all who behold it. The following attests this point:

The plan of the building is cruciform, the length of each axis being 200 feet. The rotunda at the intersection of the axis is 53 × 53 feet, and terminates vertically with the dome, the base of which is 100 feet above the first floor. The various offices and court rooms open off the corridor and gallery encircling the rotunda.

The foundations are of concrete, the exterior walls of Ohio sandstone, the floors, roofs and domes are of reinforced concrete, and the roof coverings of terra-cotta. With the exception of the dome, the tiles are nailed to porous brick set in the concrete roofs.

The entire rotunda, including the arches of the penetrations under the dome, is finished with marble. The four piers supporting the dome and the rusticated walls of the first story are of Botticino stone, a buff-colored marble resembling Caen stone in color. The cornices, columns, balustrades and corridor wainscoting are of white Italian marble, and the wainscoting base of Alps green. Statuary finish bronze has been used effectively in the marble cornice of the second floor gallery and main stairway. The elevator enclosures, electroliers and office screens are also of cast bronze. The floors throughout, with the exception of some of the smaller offices, are of Tennessee marble, those of the corridors, gallery and rotunda being laid in patterns.

The interior of the dome is executed in plaster and is colored with the prevailing tone of the Botticino stone. The panels are terra verte, with such portraits and emblems as are used, painted as cameos. Gold leaf is used on the moldings. The pendentives are painted with figures on mosaic backgrounds.

The vaulted ceiling of the rotunda corridor and entrance corridors are treated with Mosaics, the pendentives of the vaults having painted portraits of various people prominently connected with the history of the County. The lunettes along the corridor walls which adjoin the mosaic vaults are painted with subjects apropos of the early settlement of the Wyoming Valley.

There are five court rooms, four of which are located on the third floor; the fifth, or Orphans’ Court room, being on the second floor. The third floor court rooms are similar in design; two are finished in mahogany and two in Circassian walnut. The Judges’ chambers adjoin the court rooms and are similarly treated. The court room floors are covered with rubber tiling, the draperies are of Orsini silk velour and the electroliers of brass, gold plated. Each of the third floor court rooms is embellished with a notable mural painting over the Judges’ bench: "Justice," "Prosperity Under the Law," "The Judicial Virtues," and "The Awakening of a Commonwealth," having been executed by Messrs. Edwin H. Blashfield, Will H. Low, Kenyon Cox and William I. Smedley, respectively.

The Orphans’ Court room is wainscoted with English veined white Italian marble in the form of panels, with stiles and rails of Blanco P. The columns are of Breche violette, the woodwork of mahogany. This room is also decorated with a mural painting, similarly located to those in the other court rooms; the work of Charles L. Hinton, entitled "The Symbols of Life."

The Law Library, stack rooms and Bar Association room occupy the south wing of the second floor, and are finished in dark oak. The base and fireplace faces in the Law Library are of Numidian marble.

Special care was taken to have the furnishings of the building take their logical positions as a part of the various rooms. Special drawings and specifications were made for all the furniture, rugs, draperies, etc.

The elevator equipment consists of two plunger elevators with a maximum load capacity of 3,000 pounds each. The pumps are driven by 25 hp dc motors automatically controlled. The building is heated and ventilated by a fan-blast system, all the air being cleaned by air washer before entering the fans, and the temperature in all the rooms being automatically controlled by a thermostatic regulation system.

Luzerne County Courthouse Elevator image This glowing account does not record the controversy that was concomitant with the building project. Much of 1900 was taken up with an injunction to restrain the County Commissioners from accepting the River Common site. Judge Endlich refused the injunction and dismissed exceptions to his opinion. Finally, early in 1902, the State Supreme Court affirmed Judge Endlich’s decision and Osterling’s modified plans were approved by the County Judges.

The building contract was awarded on July 24, 1902, to Joseph Handler for $597,000, or $102,000 above the amount stipulated in the competition of 1899. This did not include the dome, which was apparently kept out of the bidding; a drawing in the City Buildings Department shows the dome complete and bears the notation that it is to be omitted from the bidding. Furthermore, the figure did not include any of the interior finish. Within two days, Handler had refused to sign the contract, "because he could not get the stone he bid on at a reasonable rate." The contract was then awarded to Wilson J. Smith for $682,000, or $187,000 above the limit. A preliminary injunction was granted to restrain Smith from building the courthouse on the ground that "the amount of money needed cannot be legally raised." The injunction was dismissed, and the contract with Wilson J. Smith was approved on March 9, 1903. Ground was broken seven days later.

Soon problems arose concerning payment. Osterling considered Smith’s charges for changes in plans to be excessive, and the Comptroller was sufficiently uneasy with the situation that he withheld payment. Work was virtually stopped, and Osterling attempted to have Smith fired. There were more investigations, and ultimately on June 10, 1905~ a grand jury report recommended dismissal of the architect.

McCormick and French were subsequently appointed architects on January 17, 1906. In 1899, there were five runners-up in the courthouse competition: First was Albert H. Kipp; McCormick and French were second. The Advisory Board and Commissioner Guinsey had favored Kipp at the time of the selection of Osterling by the majority of the Commissioners. There is no record that Kipp was contacted, but the heart condition, which caused his death in 1906, may have been the reason. Surely a person in poor health would not undertake a job of the magnitude of the Luzerne County Court House. At this time, Wilson J. Smith withdrew from the project by giving his power of attorney to the Carlucci Brothers of Scranton.

McCormick and French were a relatively young firm in Wilkes-Barre. Their first commission was the Nesbitt Theater in 1897. McCormick appears in the City Directory as a "carpenter" in 1893. He is said to have come to Wilkes-Barre to superintend the building of the Grand Opera House in 1892." He continued to be listed as a "carpenter" through 1895. In 1896 and 1897, he is listed as an "architect " In 1897, the firm of McCormick and French appeared in the directory, and the partnership continued until French’s death in 1928. Harry Livingston French received his degree in architecture from Cornell University in 1894. He wrote on his alumni record that he spent the-ensuing year in Colorado "rusticating" and that he worked one year in the office of Missouria Haupt of Wilkes-Barre. However, obituaries in both The Wilkes-Barre Record and the News, as well as in American Architect state that he studied in Europe.

The "White Cities" movement was beginning to make itself felt in Wilkes-Barre. J. H. W. Hawkins’ original plan for the Hotel Sterling in 1897 had been for a red brick chateau-style building. However, after the blue stone foundation was laid, the developers decided that the original plan was too old-fashioned, and Hawkins designed a flat roofed Renaissance Palazzo, using fashionable Inciana limestone. The newer style was soon imitated by Kipp. The classical style of his First National Bank, erected in 1906, is still evident on Public Square. McCormick and French’s Second National Bank (now First Eastern Bank), of the same year, brought to Wilkes-Barre its first skyscraper, with its handsome classical entrance facade and upper stories of pale brick. By 1911, Daniel H. Burnham, the chief architect for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, designed the Miner’s National Bank (now United Penn Bank), using white glazed terra-cotta, which gave the building more of the feeling of the "White Cities Movement." This, the tallest of Wilkes-Barre’s buildings at the time, is the centerpiece of the movement. It was preceded by Welsh, Sturdevant and Poggi’s Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company in 1909 (now Guard Center), with its soaring columns, and one year later by the Springbrook Water Company (now Pennsylvania Gas and Water Company), with its classical details. Burnham’s last contribution to the "White Cities" movement in Wilkes-Barre was the 1913 Lehigh Valley Coal Company (now King’s College Administrative Building). In 1914, McCormick and French added another Renaissance-style bank, perhaps their most successful Beaux Arts building, to the "White Cities" movement in Wilkes-Barre; it was the Wyoming National Bank (now Merchants Bank). The Market Street Bridge, designed by the New York architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings, was the last public monument inspired by the "White Cities" movement. It appears to be based on a drawing, dated 1914, by Wilkes-Barre architect Thomas H. Atherton, who from 1910 to 1914 was a draftsman for Carrere and Hastings.

McCormick and French took over the courthouse commission after the Osterling design was formulated. One of the more innovative features of the building was an early attempt at air conditioning. Washed air was to be circulated throughout the building by high-speed fans. Unfortunately there was no provision for removing water from the air after the washing. k soon became apparent that the dampness was more intolerable then the heat, and it was not until the renovation of the 60’s that air conditioning was finally successfully installed.

In their bank designs, McCormick and French had proved themselves masters of interior design, and the courthouse provided them with the opportunity to display these talents to the utmost. The plan had to be followed, including the major interior spaces and the monumental stairway. They chose fine marble for the interior finish and found the Carlucci Brothers to be able collaborators in developing the designs.

Last Updated: 08/19/06 03:32:09
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