February 1, the newly restored lawyers lobby and 1875 courtroom ceiling were revealed at the Blair County Courthouse. The project was made possible in part through a grant from the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission and the 2018 Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art’s Excellence in Architecture Award.
The restoration shows great craftsmanship of the original artisan and architecture.
The restored lawyer’s lobby was originally designated as such in 1906. Now, it is used for separate seating of witnesses and parties from opposition party and witnesses in more emotionally charged cases, which are usually domestic relations and child custody related, according to Blair County Commissioner Terry Tomassetti.
The ceiling restoration was completed in the original 1875 courtroom.
These areas of the courthouse had significant water infiltration damage. The restoration was completed order to bring the courthouse to the condition to that of when it was built.
Commissioner Tomassetti said, “There been no enhancements to make it look better, just to reflect how it was when the buildings were constructed.”
The lawyers lobby is now complete with the exception of a few remaining smaller items. The restoration in the 1875 courtroom is ongoing, with the plastering of damage to and painting of the walls and detailed arch behind the judge’s bench.
Tomasseti said, “There is also water infiltration plaster damage and cracked scagliola door framing that presents public safety concerns that need to be repaired in the 1906 courtroom which is the back courtroom. We will also be repairing the badly deteriorated and water damaged windows and roof on the 1906 building this year.”
In addition to the restoration projects, the courthouse will also undergo a complete HVAC system replacement for the 1875 courthouse and 1906 addition this year. The last system was installed 30 years ago, and is no longer working. One judge reportedly had to wear a jacket and a blanket in the courtroom during a proceeding because the heat was so weak in the wintertime, according to Tomassetti.
Internal improvements and repairs will continue for several years.
When asked why the restoration project is important, Commissioner Tomassetti said,
There are two reasons: one is financial and one is is preservation of our history. Regarding the first, we were advised before the project started several years ago that the building would basically ‘melt away’ if the water damage was not taking care of immediately. This would have been another financial bomb for taxpayers in Blair County is the cost of replacing the building just in equal foot space would have been over $25 million dollars in addition, the cost of demolition and renting other space for a year and a half time so demolition and reconstruction could take place. Additionally there would be all the confusion of half of the courthouse located elsewhere.
“As for the preservation of our heritage, this building is the most important building historically in Blair County as it remains the site of government and justice for our community since 1875. It is the equivalent of our ‘Independence Hall’ and is an architectural gem by any objective standard. To the extent it is financially prudent, it is our duty as commissioners, at least in my opinion, to preserve this building for future generations.”
Tomassetti related that two of those involved in the project, architect David Albright and conservator John Rita, are both of the opinion that the repair work should extend the life of the building a minimum of 75 years and likely 100 plus years.