Essential Architecture- the North East

Allegheny County Courthouse


Henry Hobson Richardson, FAIA


Pittsburgh, PA




Richardsonian Romanesque




The Allegheny County Courthouse is a government building of Allegheny County located in the county seat, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 Previous Courthouses
Pittsburgh's original courthouse, first occupied in 1794, was a wooden structure located next to the market place. Land for a new courthouse was purchased in April, 1834. This was a tract of land on the corner of Fourth and Grant Streets, on Grant's Hill. Construction took place between 1836 and 1840. This court house was built with polished gray sandstone, quarried at Coal Hill (present-day Mount Washington), opposite Ferry Street. The building was designed by John Chislett. The Greek Revival design included a domed cupola housing a rotunda 60 feet in diameter and 80 feet high. The building was completed in 1841. Due to corrosion caused by coal smoke, the building deteriorated: the dressed surface of the facade dropped off, some of the cornices near the roof began to fall, and the building had a scaly appearance. Even in its deteriorated state, it was a handsome structure. On May 7, 1882, a fire broke out and ruined the building. Subsequently, it was demolished. The third, and present, courthouse was erected on the same spot.[2]

 The Current Allegheny County Courthouse
Following the destruction of the second courthouse, Allegheny County Commissioners decided to hold a competition to design a replacement. The winner of the competition was Boston architect H.H. Richardson and construction of the buildings was begun by the Norcross Brothers, Richardson's construction firm of choice, in 1884. The jail portion of the complex was completed in 1886, the year of Richardson's death and the entire court house was finished in 1886 by Sheply, Rutan and Coolidge, Richardson's successor firm. The total cost of the project up to that time was over two and a quarter million dollars.

The design of the main building, which Richardson considered to be his finest, was innovative in that the building is built around an interior courtyard, thus allowing natural light and fresh air to reach most of the building. The courtyard is surrounded by four stories in three sides. A tower rises five stories from the courtyard's open side. As was usually the case with Richardson's buildings, the roof is steep with dormers placed at all the corners.

The prison is connected to the main building by the "Bridge of Sighs." The entire complex was built of large rusticated blocks of granite, with the entrance ways and windows toped with wide arches. This gives the building a heavy, stable and dignified appearance.

The design of the Allegheny County Courthouse has influenced buildings in many cities across America.

In 1974, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

^ National Register Information System. National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service (2006-03-15).
^ "A century and a half of Pittsburg and her people," Boucher, John Newton; The Lewis Publishing Company, 1908, prgs. 371, 372
"Pittsburgh, The Story of an American City," 5th edition, Stefan Lorant, Esselmont Books, LLC., Pittsburgh, PA, 1999.
Kvaran, Einar Einarsson, Pilgrimage to H.H. Richardson, unpublished manuscript
Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl, H.H. Richardson:Complete Architectural Works, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984
Van Rensselaer, Mariana Griswold, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works, Dover Publications, NY, 1969, a reprint of the 1888 edition