Menu Contact/Location

Book recounts 100 years of Westmoreland county courthouse

Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewBy Jennifer Reeger
Monday, September 3, 2007

If history had repeated itself, the Westmoreland County Courthouse wouldn’t be ready to celebrate its centennial.
Instead, the majestic domed structure on Main Street in Greensburg would look more like something that came out of the 1970s.

The previous three courthouses built on the same site had been deemed too small and were torn down.

But in the 1960s, when the powers that be were discussing whether to tear down the current courthouse or just build an expansion onto it, preservation prevailed. The courthouse annex was dedicated in 1979.

“Thank God we do have this beautiful building,” said Mike Cary, professor of history and political science at Seton Hill University and an editor of a book on the courthouse’s history. “People remember Greensburg — they remember that dome when they see it from a distance, and it’s somehow inspirational for people.”

The courthouse, completed in 1907 and dedicated in 1908, will be celebrated in upcoming events and a book, “This American Courthouse: One Hundred Years of Service to the People of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania,” scheduled to be released Sept. 14.

The centennial celebration entered its planning stages in 2002, when Judge Daniel Ackerman put a committee of academics, government officials and historians together.

“I thought this was an event that should not be missed,” Ackerman said. “… I can’t think of any (courthouses) that overall are more beautiful than this building. I always have said, ‘It’s like going to work in an art museum.'”

At the heart of the celebration is the book, edited by Cary and Tim Kelly, chairman of the history department at St. Vincent College.

During the past four years, they gathered historic photos of the courthouse and asked local people to contribute chapters to the book.

“It’s really been very much a community effort, probably more so than most books are,” Kelly said.

Of course, one chapter delves into the history of the current courthouse and the four others in Westmoreland County’s history.

The first, in Hanna’s Town, served from 1773 until the town burned in an Indian raid in 1782. For a few years, court was held wherever there was space, until a board-and-log-structure was built in what is now Greensburg in 1786.

By 1794, the courthouse was torn down for a larger replacement that wouldn’t be finished until 1801. Court was held in local taverns in the meantime.

The two-story brick building, which cost $5,000, would be replaced in the 1850s by a larger, Greek revival building with a small dome and columns.

That building, too, proved too small, and in 1901 it was torn down in favor of the current courthouse, which was completed in 1907.

The building, designed by architect William Kauffman in the Beaux-Arts style and constructed of light-gray granite from Maine, cost $1.5 million.

The book delves into that history as well as the history of the jail, which used to be attached to the courthouse.

It also discusses the building’s architect and architecture — which was controversial because some considered it too ostentatious, Cary said.

There are broader chapters on the changing role of judges and the history of the Westmoreland Bar Association. One chapter focuses on the social context of what was happening in the area at the time of the construction.

Another looks into the multiple uses of the courthouse.

Kelly said the book not only delves into the specific history of the building but gives “a broader read of social climate and the lives and the activities of people who came to the courthouse.”

He said the book is complemented by historical photos and modern pictures taken by attorney and amateur photographer Mark Sorice.

“It’s the sort of thing you could thumb through and never read a word and be happy,” Kelly said.

The book will be unveiled at a black-tie optional gala event on Sept. 14 at the courthouse.

Susan Mitchell Sommers, professor of history at St. Vincent College who chaired the courthouse centennial committee, said members of the Bar will offer tours of the courthouse, while judges and row officers will talk about their roles.

The tours will include, if the weather cooperates, the first public access to the courthouse dome in about 25 years.

Guests will be able to stroll through the courthouse and view the opening of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Council for the Arts juried exhibition, “History Through Art.”

The show will run through January, which marks 100 years since the courthouse dedication.

The culmination of the centennial celebration will be a free open courthouse event on Jan. 26.

“We’re hoping to get as many people into the courthouse as we can because I talk to neighbors and other people who you would have thought would have been here at one time or another and they haven’t,” Ackerman said. “It’s sort of a shame that so many people haven’t.”

Jennifer Reeger can be reached at or 724-836-6155.

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633