|Architect:||Henry Hobson Richardson|
One of the Downtown Pittsburgh’s most significant historic buildings, this incredible stone structure has served as a strong and proud symbol of local government and simultaneously was a looming and foreboding warning for potential patrons of its jail.
The building is the third courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh and was originally built as a replacement for the previous structure which was destroyed by fire. After inviting 100 architects to submit proposals for the building, Allegheny County selected notable Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson because of his ability ”to express in the exterior the character and purpose of the interior, and to rely for architectural effect upon the arrangement of the masses, and the dignity and solidity of the construction.” Richardson is now considered to be in the “recognized trinity of American architecture” along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.
The building is essentially two buildings split in half by Ross Street with the primary facade of the courthouse facing the core of Downtown. With its large windows and 229-foot bell tower, the main facade creates a clear landmark for visitors and grand entrance into the main lobby.
Conversely, with its windowless walls and looming guard towers, the external facades of the jail building create almost a fortress-like appearance. The stark and narrow adjacent streets only accentuate the vertical scale of the high walls. The heavy texture of the sandstone blocks ties the two buildings together visually, but the perception for pedestrians is dramatically different.
The Jail portion of the building was closed in 1995 and renovated to accommodate various functions of the Common Pleas Court. The original prison yards that are enclosed by the exterior walls have been re-purposed as outdoor courtyards and service areas.
The Courthouse and the Old Jail are connected by the “Bridge of Sighs” which borrows its name from a similar structure in Venice, Italy. Its name describes the experience criminals might have had after they receive their sentencing in the Courthouse and are transported to their new home in the Jail.
If You Go:
The Courthouse building is open to the public during business hours, however access will most likely be prohibited beyond the lobby. Experiencing the incredible presence the building’s exterior creates from the surrounding streets is well worth the visit.
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