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Fixing hole where rain gets in only half the job

By Robert Baird
Monday, September 30, 2002

Gone are the initials scratched by street gang members and others into the paint on window sills at Henry Hobson Richardson’s landmark Allegheny County Courthouse.

New paint covers the window ledges and walls, vintage lights gleam down the center of the hallways and a handsome wooden bench, donated by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, adorns the fifth floor of the stately 114-year-old masterpiece.

In July, just after county workers put the finishing touches on the painting and plastering, a roof leak during a heavy rain sent water cascading down the walls at the Ross Street end of the building, staining and buckling ceiling tiles.

As a late-night jury deliberated the fate of a homicide defendant, acoustical tiles in the hallway filled with water, then burst like mini-dams, splashing rainwater in the hallway.

Since the damage, the water leak has never recurred.

But the gaping holes in the ceiling tiles remain as silent testimony to what can sometimes happen to the best-laid plans of mice and men.

Visitors to the building might think the unrepaired tiles in an otherwise spotless white ceiling are evidence of neglect.

“It looks terrible,” said Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O’Toole, who was presiding in his nearby courtroom at the homicide trial on the night the rainwater broke through the ceiling in the hall.

He said county workers are probably “waiting to see if it rains again.”

The judge had no idea his speculation was correct.

Margaret Philbin, county spokeswoman, said the public works department fixed the roof shortly after the leak and was waiting for the first heavy, steady rain, which occurred last Thursday and Friday.

“They went up Thursday night and Friday and checked, and found no leak,” she said. “The tiles will be fixed this week according to Tom Donatelli, director of public works.”

The unrepaired tiles on the fifth floor spoiled the effect of the many improvements recently made in the courthouse’s appearance.

Workers have been busy completing a new courtroom on the fifth floor for the summary appeals section, with chambers for Common Pleas Judge Robert Gallo, and offices for other staff members.

While there are other missing ceiling tiles in the building, they appear to have been taken down for “work in progress.”

Meanwhile, just one flight down on the fourth floor near the electrical shop, a stack of used ceiling tiles rests against a wall, alongside an electrical hoist used in replacing the tiles and burned-out lights.

Some courthouse observers suggested that the less-than-perfect tiles could have been used as replacements until the roof leak was checked out. Then, the new tiles could have been used without much chance of further damage.

Robert Baird can be reached at (412) 391-8650.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. © The Tribune-Review Publishing Co

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