Visiting the Courthouse
Although this is an active courthouse, visitors are welcome. Most of the courthouse is a secure area, however, and visitors must pass through metal detectors to gain admittance.
I highly recommend that any visitors first visit the information office before starting the tour. This office is located off the tunnel driveway leading from Forbes Avenue into the inner courtyard. The people working in this office are extremely friendly and helpful and have lots of free literature that will enhance your visit.
Please note: Cameras are allowed inside the courthouse, but photography is prohibited in any of the courtrooms and may be restricted in other areas.
From a sign outside the courthouse:
”Chislett’s Courthouse 1841-1882
In 1841 the second Allegheny County Courthouse was erected on Grant's Hill, a more prominent site than the Market Square location of the first Courthouse and appropriate for a city expanding eastward. The Greek Revival building was designed by John Chislett (1800-69), a native of Bath, England, who became one of Pittsburgh's leading professional architects. Chislett's Courthouse burned in 1882.
Henry Hobson Richardson was among the architects who received an invitation in 1883 to design the Allegheny County Buildings, he did not respond. Five architects were chosen to submit a design: Andrew Peebles of Pittsburgh, John Ord of Philadelphia, W. W. Boyington of Chicago, Elijah Myers of Detroit, and George B. Post of New York. When Post withdrew, Richardson was approached again, perhaps at the urging of his Harvard classmate, Pittsburgh businessman John Ricketson, this time he accepted. The competition drawings were exhibited in Pittsburgh in early January 1884 and Richardson's design was chosen on January 31, 1884. Construction began in 1884. The Jail was completed in 1886, the Courthouse in 1888.
Courthouse and Jail: The Significance of the Plan
The Courthouse plan provided a central courtyard ensuring natural light on both sides to the courtrooms and offices arranged around it. Stairways in each corner of the courtyard and the Grand Staircase in the base of the tower provide easy access to upper floors.
The architect's plan for the courtyard was not followed. He intended that it be paved in brick with a horse fountain in the center. It was paved in asphalt and over time became a congested parking lot. In 1976, $64,000 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation enabled the County, assisted by Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation, to create the park and fountain seen today.
Courtroom suites consisted of a 27-foot-high courtroom and adjacent two-story judge's chambers with jury deliberation rooms above. Natural light from street-side and courtyard-side windows lit the courtrooms, with additional light provided by elegant brass chandeliers. Courtroom ceilings were constructed of brick arches (plastered and painted) supported by a great iron girder. Woodwork and furnishings were light oak. Courtroom 321 has been restored to its original appearance.
The "nostrils" at the top of the tower were designed to admit air into the building. Fans were to circulate the air through the basement to expel it from the twin towers overlooking Ross Street. This system was adapted from one installed in the House of Parliment in London.
The base of the tower contains the Grand Staircase and once housed the Law Library, while the upper portion was intended for records storage.
In 1888, visitors to the Courthouse walked up a few steps from the original Grant Street level and across a broad terrace to enter the main doorways
When Grant Street was lowered in 1912-13 (as much as 16 feet at Grant Street and Fifth Avenue), the terrace became the landing of a grand staircase above three new ground-floor entrances.
When Grant Street was widened between 1926 and 1929, the grand staircase was demolished. Visitors entered on the ground floor and climbed a new interior stairway to the lobby. The original doorways became windows, high above the ground.
The Courthouse wears Romanesque ornament interpreted through Victorian eyes. The designs are mostly of flower and leaf forms and they owe as much to English naturalism and its desire to depict botanical forms as they do to Romanesque architecture.
The rounded arch - perhaps the best known element in Richardson's work - is adapted from the Romanesque architecture of the early 11th century.
As was common building practice at the time, some of the materials and many of the workmen came with the architect. The contractor was Norcross Brothers of Worcester, Massachusetts. The stone carvers were employed by Evans & Tombs of Boston. The granite for the exterior walls was cut in Massachusetts quarries and sent to Pittsburgh. Foundation walls were sandstone from Beaver Pennsylvania; roof tile came from Akron, Ohio; and iron and glass came from Allegheny County. Davenport & Company of Boston provided the furniture. The Courthouse and Jail were erected for about $2,400,000.
The Jail was completed June 1886 and first occupied in September 1886. In 1904-08 the Jail was enlarged. Two cellblocks were doubled in size, a new cellblock was built, and a new wall erected along Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Pittsburgh architect Frederick J. Osterling succeeded in making his addition harmonize with the older building.
The Jail is simple and dignified, its massive granite walls almost without decoration.
The main entrance on Ross Street led to a large eight-sided tower; it is a rotunda from which three cellblocks extended to form a "T".
The Bridge of Sighs is modeled on the 18th-century bridge by that name between the Doge's Palace and the city prison in Venice, Italy.”
The Vincent Nesbert Murals
In the second floor lobby of the Courthouse you will find 5 murals painted by artist Vincent Nesbert in the 1930s. An article by Anita F. Morganstern on the artist’s life describes the history of the murals:
”It was during that same decade [1930s] that the Courthouse murals were executed. “Justice” was begun in 1933. The Federal Art Program paid a token $300 for its design and the county financed materials. Although further financing was not forthcoming, Nesbert continued to work on “Justice” without pay, “in the hope that the mural will encourage a love of art among Pittsburghers.” At its completion, commissioners McGovern and Barr were so pleased that they each rewarded the artist with $100 personal contribution and then approved a county honorarium of $2,500 for the execution of “Industry” and “Peace”.
In 1938, $4,500 was appropriated for the commissioning of “The Battle of Grant’s Hill” (which took place at the site of the Courthouse) and "Fort Duquesne" (later named Fort Pitt). In all Vincent Nesbert's "labor of love" consumed five years, during which time his familiar figure perched on a scaffold, in a kelly green smock, stimulated widespread attention and notoriety."