The histories of Doylestown Borough and the Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown are inextricably linked. Bucks County's courthouse and its seat of government have occupied the same tract of land at Main and Court Streets in the heart of downtown Doylestown since 1813. Since then, three different courthouses have stood on the site, each one larger and more modern than the last, reflecting the growing and changing county.
On April 9, 1812, groundbreaking ceremonies were held on the site for the first Doylestown courthouse. Three previous courthouses had been located farther south in the county. But as the population of the county grew and crept steadily northward, the need for a more centrally located courthouse became apparent.
Although many of the events surrounding the groundbreaking for that first Doylestown courthouse have been forgotten, records show that a labor dispute delayed construction until workmen were guaranteed wages of $1.25 per day. The first court was held in the building on May 11, 1813.
By the late 1860's, Bucks County was rapidly outgrowing its courthouse. On October 3, 1877, State Attorney General George Lear turned the first spadeful of earth for a new courthouse on the same site. The completed building was highlighted by a clock tower that rose high above the rest of 1878 Doylestown.
In addition to the clock tower and the surrounding park, another memorable feature of this second courthouse was its dramatic courtrooms. One was a high-ceilinged amphitheater which could hold as many as 500 spectators in tiered seats. It was in this ampitheater that the first grand jury was convened in the newly finished courthouse.
By 1940 the population of the county had doubled since the 1878 courthouse opening. By 1958 the population had doubled again. The year 1958 also saw the opening of the United States Steel Corporation's giant Fairless Works in Falls Township. There were numerous predictions of explosive growth to come in the county that brought on another groundbreaking for a new courthouse in Doylestown.
This time the demolition of an old courthouse to make room for a new one did not occur without a certain amount of controversy. The clock tower had become a familiar and historically significant sight to many who lived and worked in Doylestown. But the cost of trying to find and prepare another location for a new courthouse building, approximately $1 million, made other options virtually impossible. Other ideas of adding on to the existing structure proved inadequate.
In the end, financial feasibility prevailed. On June 24, 1958, John T. Welsh, who was then chairman of the commissioners and had been involved in much of the planning for the new courthouse, and then-President Judge Edward G. Biester each placed one hand and one foot on a silver shovel and turned the first earth in Courthouse Park for what would become the new Bucks County Administration Building. Less than two years later, the old courtroom was razed to make room for the judicial wing of the building.
James Gemmell III, who is now chairman of the Bucks County Conservation District, worked for Colony Bulldozers Inc. at that time. Colony had contracted to do some of the work on the new courthouse, in particular digging the enormous hole that would become the basement of the administration building. Large areas of ground in Courthouse Park had remained undisturbed since the early 1800's.
"We dug up a lot of old wooden sewer pipes," said Gemmell. "On the Court Street side of the lot we uncovered cubicles about 20 feet underground that had been filled in with dirt. I remember someone telling us that they were cells left over from an old jail that had once been there."
Gemmell also got a taste of the controversy that surrounded the excavation, which entailed clearing and digging almost all of Courthouse Park. "One day," recalled Gemmell, 11 there were a lot of young ladies, one of whom was the wife of a judge, wrapping themselves around a sycamore tree, trying to keep us from tearing it down." Gemmell said no one was hurt. "Things were different back then," he said. "We just kept working and eventually they moved."
At one point during the excavation a DA Dozer Cat, the biggest of its kind at the time, disappeared completely in a cistern hole. Gemmell remembers working through the night to free the machine.
Despite the pitfalls and hardships, the administration building was completed in 1960. The judicial wing was completed and opened in 1962.
Today's courthouse serves the residents of Bucks County in many ways. From fishing licenses to voter registration, it provides a multitude of services.
SOURCE: Doylestown: 150 Years (1838-1988)
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