Originally built in 1875, the Blair County Courthouse was designed by architect David S. Gendell to be in “the modern Gothic style of architecture with the Italian treatment.” The historic structure’s stone walls featured a cut stone facing and was renowned for its carvings including over 50 sculpted human heads. A notable feature of the Courthouse was its five-story clock tower which remains to this day.
The Hon. Jeremiah S. Black, the first presiding judge of Blair County and later Secretary of State for President James Buchanan, stated at its dedication that the Courthouse was “the most perfect structure of its kind in this country – simple in the abundant wealth of its beauty.”
In 1906, an addition to Courthouse was constructed under the direction of architect William Plack. He faithfully copied the original materials and style, making the addition seem an integral part of the original construction with its elaborate stonework in arches, cornices and string courses.
Despite its stately appearance, time, weather, invasive alterations and decades of neglect had taken their toll on the Courthouse. Water damage was so prolonged and extensive that the Commissioners were advised in 2014 that in two years’ time demolition and reconstruction of a replacement courthouse at a cost well in excess of $20 million would be necessary. The other option which was selected by the County Commissioners was committing $5 million for restoration, thereby extending the useful life of the building 100 years with ongoing maintenance.
The condition of the historic courthouse had also reflected poorly on Blair County across the state. As an example, the 1970 alterations to the 1875 courtroom were described in Oliver Williams’ 2001 book on Pennsylvania’s courthouses as:
“… one of the more insensitive butchering jobs in this part of Pennsylvania, …The desecration is obvious in the front. Above the paneled box that juts into the room one can see the top of a Gothic arch. Originally there was an elaborate Gothic niche, 25 feet high, behind the bench, elaborately decorated.”
County Courthouses of Pennsylvania. Williams, p. 45 (2001).
This all led to the current multi-year restoration project proposed by Commissioner Terry Tomassetti in 2015. Subject to the final approval of the County Commissioners the restoration effort has been developed and monitored by the County’s Courthouse Preservation Oversight Team which has meet every two weeks since the Fall of 2015. The Team members include conservator John A. Rita, Professional Associate of the American Institute of Conservation, architect David B. Albright, of the Albright Studio, (A.I.A., LEED AP), County Director of Public Works Rocky Greenland, retired President Judge Jolene Grubb Kopriva, County Administrator Helen P. Schmitt, and Commissioner and Team Chair Terry Tomassetti.
Exterior work on the 1875 Courthouse was tackled first. This phase included the elimination of the water infiltration, removal of falling plaster, repair of selected rotting exterior window frames in danger of falling, restoration of two leaking front tower roofs and cresting, recreation and repair of missing and damaged stained glass windows, documentation of all hand-carved architectural sculptures, and restoration of the missing chin and gold leaf detail of the statue of Lady Justice.
The work continued with elimination of destructive water leaks damaging the 1906 courtroom and the Lawyers Lobby and mitigation of priority public safety conditions on the clock tower. The tower work included addressing loose and broken masonry, some of which had fallen from the tower, removal of 400 pound stone filigrees in immediate danger of falling, removal of trees growing on the tower and installation of flashing to prevent future vegetative growth and displacement and falling of tower masonry.
The project continues now in 2018 with several projects including the 1875 Courtroom, the 1906 Lawyers’ Lobby and the repair and restoration of the remainder of the badly-deteriorated 1875 Courthouse windows. This Courtroom and Lobby work includes removal and replacement of the failed HVAC system over the entire second floor of the building, improved courtroom lighting and audio, restoration of the more efficient original 1875 courtroom layout, restoration of 13 windows inclusive of their ornate walnut filigrees, and restoration of the ceiling and walls of the Courtroom and Lobby to their respective original Italian Gothic and American Renaissance treatments.
In 2017 the County was awarded an $80,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the restoration of the Lawyer’s Lobby in the 1906 courthouse addition. In 2018 the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art named Blair County as the recipient of the Museum’s Award for Architectural Excellence at their annual Night of Distinction ceremony for the County’s exterior and interior historic courthouse restoration project.