Our History & Heritage by Bill Kiefer

I have previously mentioned my youthful fascination with the original portion of the Hancock County Courthouse. I will be the first to admit that I have no architectural training. In fact, I went to school in Pennsylvania where the academic year in grades 7-9 required nine weeks of mechanical drawing, and the equivalent of twelve weeks of art. Those subjects were difficult for me. At best I struggled to get B’s. Let’s not mention the rest of the year which was left for shop and music where I was even more lacking. Yet when I started to be observant of my surroundings, I found an appreciation for the lines and the décor of major buildings. These could be schools, churches, movie theaters, and yes, courthouses. In western Pennsylvania few large buildings can compare with the County Courthouses. In ninth grade we had a field trip to government buildings located in Downtown Pittsburgh. I can recall many, many details of the trip. This is so because my mind recalls memories related to specific events.
Most people who were born in 1953 or thereafter can tell you where they were when they found out that President Kennedy had been shot or killed in November, 1963. As for me that was the day of the field trip. All ninth graders took a course in government, so this was a logical field trip. Our first stop was at the Federal Building at the junction of Liberty Avenue and Grant Street. It was a fairly new building, and is still in use today, as is its predecessor on Grant Street and Fourth Avenue. In any event we saw a Room where the U.S. District Court sat. Afterwards we went to the FBI where we heard a lecture on forensics. It was memorable, not because it dealt with profiling, but rather it dealt with more mundane issue like fingerprinting, wiretapping, searches and seizures, identifying bodies that had been in the water a long time and speculation as to what computers might bring to this field. As the lecture was ending, we, 83 eighth graders and some teachers, noticed a gathering of several suited agents at the auditorium door. We were asked to remain seated. Then the local director came to the podium and told us that a few minutes earlier the President had been shot and wounded as his motorcade wound through Dallas, Texas, and that they knew nothing else. I do remember exiting somewhat quietly and moving along Grant Street towards the Monongahela River and walking several blocks in that direction until we made a left turn, crossed Grant and walked the long block to Ross Street, a two lane street between the County Courthouse and the jail which parallels Grant. There we came to a small two or three story building which sits one lot off of Ross and which resembles a small castle. To me the exterior was striking, even if the interior was pretty utilitarian, it was bright and spotless. The building was then the Allegheny County Morgue. It was there that we were told that the President was dead. He had been killed by the gunshot in Dallas. What a location to acquire such knowledge.
That did not end our day. The school had brought brown bag lunches for us. I think we ate them in the cavernous marble lobby of the City-County Building which was the former Federal Building and that lobby was the former Main Post Office for the City. I remember the lunch being quiet, and have no idea of what type of sandwich I ate. But, I do remember spending as hour or so being divided into smaller groups which toured the Courthouse and the adjacent jail. From the sidewalk one cannot grasp the overall immensity of these two structures which take up two complete city blocks separated by Ross Street. The buildings which are five stories high, are built entirely of stone. Minimalizing the size is the entry from the sidewalk on Grant Street. The doors are small, they bring the entrant to elevators straight ahead, or the first steps of a stairwell to the left. If one goes up the stairs a beautiful ornate lobby is revealed on the first floor. It truly took my breath away. We moved through the building seeing courtrooms which were mostly large and ornate. My memory makes it seem as if either the Hancock County Courthouse or the Brooke County Courthouse could have been fit in just two of those courtrooms. The architect behind the project was Henry Hobson Richardson. Construction of the two buildings took from 1884-1888. Keep in mind that when built, the buildings were serving a county with a population of approximately 500,000 people. Hence the need for the massive complex. By comparison our little courthouse served 6,500 residents when built and at that time the state totaled around 750,000 residents.
Other dramatic features were the murals on the first floor, a 100 foot tower, and the “Bridge of Sighs” crossing Grant Street to connect the jail and courthouse, (based on a similar bridge in Venice Italy.) One of our group didn’t get it and asked why call it the Bridge of “Size” as it wasn’t very big. It was politely explained to my fellow student that it was named for the homonym “sighs” where after a sentenced convict might “Sigh and say it could have been worse I only got five years.”
I found most interesting the uninspiring tunnel like entrances from Grant Street at the Main entrance compared to its more impressive rear entrance from Ross Street with its 20 steps up from street level, not to mention the impressive lobby one story up on the Grant Street side. The reason relates somewhat to the 1750’s battle of Grant’s Hill where the French and their Indian Allies handily defeated a segment of Forbes and Bouquet’s forces send ahead to reconnoiter. The courthouse was built on top of Grant’s Hill. However, in 1912 with growth in the City and need to expand the Downtown Business District and ease traffic flow, the hill was removed. As a result one enters the courthouse in a way that its great architect did not intend. For the last 108 years the main entrance has been through the original basement. Thus the casual entrant misses the most striking parts of Richardson’s original lobby.
I apologize for making this such a personal column. I had intended to write about the Kennedy death earlier but I hate to use that topic at Thanksgiving as it certainly is not something to be thankful for. Second, the memories while personal are vivid. I do believe that they sparked a lifelong interest in public, religious, and education building design and architecture. Lastly, I have finally decided to leave my home as little as possible for the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic. That decision limits my research sources to personal books and the internet.