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Courthouse centennial – Westmoreland County Courthouse escaped wrecking ball; stands tribute to esteem for law

Thursday, January 31, 2008
By Rick Shrum,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It stands on a bluff, four stories of opulence with thousands of stories to tell.

The panorama from its celebrated dome, 175 feet above street level, is striking — but rivaled by the view of the building from all entrance points to the city.

Granite, marble, stone and the law are the foundations of this place, which was unveiled during the Teddy Roosevelt administration. And which means the wheels of justice there have turned almost as long as the wheels of cars.

Unlike Joan Rivers, however, this stately edifice in Downtown Greensburg has had only one facelift. And it was well done.

The Westmoreland County Courthouse, at the convergence of Main and Pittsburgh streets, is celebrating its centennial today. Inside and outside, it is one of most beautiful county seats sites chronicled in the National Register of Historic Places.

And to think … it nearly was bashed by a wrecking ball.

During the mid-1970s, the county commissioners were planning to level the crumbling courthouse and rebuild. They found that wasn’t a financially sound resolution, though, and sought national historic status — which would merit funding for rehabilitation.

That designation was conferred and restoration began in 1980. This was not a massive undertaking.

“The building didn’t change much, just subtle changes,” said Lou DeRose, an attorney who has worked in the Westmoreland courthouse since he was in law school in 1968.

“All in all,” he said, “it probably looks as good as it did in 1908.”

The good looks include a marble staircase that opens upward to twin spirals on the next floor, marble walls in public halls, 15 wall and ceiling murals painted in the early 1900s by Frenchman Maurice Ingres, floor and ceiling mosaics, outside walls faced with light gray granite, and chandeliers and decorative plaster laurel wreaths enhanced by gold leaf in the courtrooms.

And, of course, there is the central rotunda that rises four stories to the dome ceiling.

The cupola, measuring 85 feet across, was done in Italian Renaissance style and designed by the original architect, William Kauffman.

Light from four semicircular windows at the base of the dome is reflected throughout by the rotunda.

Daniel Ackerman, president judge from 2002-07, has been working in the courthouse since 1980. He remains enamored of the environment.

“Courthouse renovations became popular across the state,” Judge Ackerman said. “But few had the advantage of starting out with a building like this.

“It’s a great place to come to work.”

He was speaking of the courthouse, but it could have been his courtroom. It is an ornate blend of new and old, one of the showpieces being spectator benches that had been in the previous courthouse as early as 1901. They have been restored to their original hue, having once been blackened by countless coats of varnish.

John Blahovec, Judge Ackerman’s successor as president judge, is enamored of the surroundings as well, adding that they reinforce the concept that this is a place of business.

“If it looks like a courthouse,” he said, “people are more likely to act the way they should in a courthouse.”

“I think the advantage of holding court here,” Judge Ackerman said, “is that it makes the impression that things of importance will take place here.”

There are nine courtrooms in the building, up from the original four. The 1980 renovation may not have been an overhaul overall, but it made better use of space.

“We used to have things tucked into every nook and cranny,” Mr. DeRose said. “The files for the ‘Kill for Thrill’ case alone are incredible.”

One courtroom was fashioned out of what originally had been a jurors dormitory.

In the early 20th century, when the automobile was new and roadways were primitive, those summoned for jury duty from faraway Westmoreland towns such as Monessen or Donegal could not easily commute between home and the courthouse. So they slept over in the building where they determined a defendant’s fate.

Actually, this is the fifth incarnation of the Westmoreland courthouse. It began in Hannastown, a two-story log house, about 4 miles away, after Westmoreland County was formed in 1773.

When Greensburg became the permanent county seat in December 1785, a new courthouse was planned. A log house, erected on the current site, had its first court case 13 months later.

Three courthouses followed, opening in 1801, 1854 and 1908.

A few years ago, Judge Ackerman and Mr. DeRose spearheaded a drive to commemorate the upcoming centennial. The celebration began in September and ended with an open house Saturday, in which the public — at no cost — toured the courthouse.

Participants were allowed to go through the dome to the roof outside.

There, they stood on a bluff, four stories high, atop a distinguished landmark.

Rick Shrum can be reached at or 412-263-1911.

First published on January 31, 2008 at 12:00 am

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