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Chester County Courthouse


The Chester County Courthouse (10 North High Street) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [1] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

Description

The Chester County Courthouse was originally constructed in 1846, by Thomas U. Walter at an initial cost of $55,343.98. This brick and stone structure measured 62' by 119' plus a 12' portico. In 1893, a 50' by 135' addition of Indiana limestone was erected under the supervision of architect T. Roney Williamson. A modern section has been added in 1966. In degree of architectural importance the original Walter section is by far the most significant.

A most important feature of the Chester County Courthouse has always been the integration of structure and design. In the basement, double-domed brick vaults run cross wise at the east and west (narrow ends). On the first floor, each office has access from the tunnel vault which is the central interior hall. Each office is composed of one or two large vaults. When the offices are double, a broad arch strengthened by an iron tie rod is used as the means of opening the space. The portico door enters a two-story oval hall, almost as wide as the building. To the left, a stairway hugs the ellipse of the south wall as it climbs to courtroom #1 on the second floor. In addition to the stairway, on the east side, is the shaft from which the weights and chains of the belfry clock once hung to the basement. Within the thick outside walls, iron drain pipes once led from a built-in gutter to the sewer line below.

On the exterior, the building was designed with a pedimented pavilion which breaks the surface of the long south side and provides a background for what was once a second entrance. This door was once crowned with a shouldered, corbelled arch which still survives.

On both the north and south sides, antae give a rhythmic effect to the exterior and also suggest the size of the vaulting within. The antae are more pronounced on the more important south side, because the north side at first faced an alley. On the east side, a hexastyle Corinthian portico features columns and capitals of cast iron. The nature of these columns is stressed by the simplification of the components of the entablature. The frieze and architrave are the base for a dentiled cornice and the pediment above. Atop the entire facade is the elongated cupola used as a clock tower. Probably original to the building was the cast iron fence, with anthemion motif, which can be seen in early photographs.

G. Carroll Lindsay, author of a study on Walter's West Chester architecture comments further:

"Unlike the Berks County Courthouse, the one in West Chester had an entrance from the side as well as from the portico. No doubt Walter was well aware of the public furor aroused over which direction the building should face. He neatly compromised the issue by placing the main entrance on the east, under the portico, and a second entrance on the south, sheltered between the projecting pilasters of another pediment. The fact that the north wall of the building was left without pilasters or pediment indicates that the southern entrance was planned in response to public demand. The absence of pilasters and pediment is not noticeable on the northern side which faces a secondary street. The pilasters and pediment to the south, however, lend needed variety to what would otherwise be a plain and monotonous wall surface.

The tall cupola seems to have been an attempt to focus attention on, and to dramatize the function of, the courthouse as the most important public building in the area. The towers of the Berks and Chester County Courthouses were an attempt to translate the Baroque cupola, long an important feature of civic buildings, into something compatible with the Greek Revival Style. He undertook to do so without reproducing the archeological structures that other architects chose for this purpose. The two courthouse towers are examples of Walter trying to think as the Greeks thought, not to do as the Greeks did."

Exterior changes in the Chester County Courthouse have been, for the most part, small scale ones concentrated on windows and doors. With these, the integrity has been affected, but not drastically altered. The apertures have been changed to conform to the interior renovation of the past ten years. The original enframements dictate the size of the new windows and doors. The High Street entrance now has an eared architrave and a pulvinated frieze all of white painted wood. This detail, more characteristic of Buckland than Walter is carried through to the interior woodwork of the first and second floors.

The front stairway in the oval hall now has slate treads. The new walnut handrail is of delicate proportions, but is moulded. The balusters, which exhibit a Greek Revival feeling, seen to be original though some contrary evidence exists. In the basement the size of some of the vaults has been changed by closing certain openings with cinder blocks in order to provide storage space to many offices and organizations. The original construction, however, is still visible. During renovation, the large courtroom #1, which covers almost half of the second floor, was completely redone. The ceiling is now centered with a large dome lit indirectly from its rim.

The large block stone facing, classic in feeling although not original to the building, has been a part of the structure for over 110 years. The building is now one of the three parts of the Chester County Courthouse.

Significance

The significance of the Chester County Courthouse lies, primarily, in the fact that, despite the changes it has undergone since 1850 — from the eclectic of the nineteenth century to the neo-Georgian of the twentieth — it has remained a monument of the time in which it was built; a model of the integration of design and structure.

The Chester County Courthouse is one of several Thomas U. Walter buildings in West Chester. Walter was the architect for Girard College in Philadelphia and was responsible for adding two wings and a cast iron dome to the capitol of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Walter was probably attracted to West Chester as a result of the persuasion of two of its most prominent citizens — Dr. William Darlington and David Townsend.

References

Dickson, Harold. A Hundred Pennsylvania Buildings, Bald Eagle Press, State College, Pa., 1954.

Futhey, J. Smith, and Gilbert Cope. History of Chester County, Pennsylvania, Lewis Everts, Philadelphia, 1881.

Hamlin, Talbot, Greek Revival Architecture in America, Oxford, New York, 1944.

Heathcote, C. W., ed. History of Chester County, Pennsylvania, National Historical Association, Harrisburg, 1932.

Commonwealth of Pa. My Pennsylvania. A Brief History of the Commonwealth's Sixty Seven Counties, 1946.

  1. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, Chester County Courthouse, nomination document, 1971, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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