Luzerne County Courthouse
The Luzerne County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Luzerne County Courthouse is located in the Fourth Ward of the City of Wilkes-Barre, on a plot of ground containing about four acres, which was formerly a part of the River Common. The plot is bounded by River Street, North Street, and the right-of-way of the Pennsylvania and New York Canal and Railroad Company, a part of which is now occupied by the Lackawanna and Wyoming Valley Railroad. A few hundred feet beyond the railroad, and in plain view from the building, flows the majestic Susquehanna River.
A neat and substantial cut-stone retaining wall surrounds the lot, with the exception of the River Street side, which is graded to a level with the street; and the spacious grounds not occupied by the Luzerne County Courthouse building have been beautified by grading and the planting of trees, shrubbery, and flowers
The total cost of the Luzerne County Courthouse building and its furnishings, together with the grounds, was approximately 2 million dollars; and although grand in all its appointments, and far exceeding the original estimated cost, but few persons may now be found to say that it is too great, or too good, for a county of great wealth, area, population and business as that of Luzerne County; while it is evident that the great majority of well-informed citizens look upon the magnificent two million dollar structure, its decorations and furnishings, in all their beauty and usefulness, with pride and admiration, confidently believing that full value has been received by the County of Luzerne for all the moneys expended.
The plan of the Luzerne County Courthouse building is cruciform, the length of each axis being 200'. The rotunda at the intersection of the axes is 53 x 53 feet, and terminates vertically with the dome, the base of which is 100' above the first floor. The various offices and courtrooms open off the corridor and gallery encircling the rotunda.
The foundations are of concrete, the exterior walls of Ohio sandstone, the floors, roofs and dome are of reinforced concrete, and the roof coverings of terra-cotta. With the exception of the dome, the tiles are nailed to porous brick set in the concrete roofs.
The entire rotunda, including the arches of the penetrations under the dome, is finished with marble. The four piers supporting the dome and the rusticated walls of the first story are of Botticino stone, a buff-colored marble resembling Caen stone in color. The cornices, columns, balustrades and corridor wainscoting are of white Italian marble, and the wainscoting base of Alps green. Statuary finish bronze has been used effectively in the marble cornice of the second story, and in the marble balustrades of the second floor gallery and main stairway. The elevator enclosures, electroliers and office screens are also of cast bronze. The floors throughout, with the exception of some of the smaller offices, are of Tennessee marble with those of the corridors, gallery and rotunda being laid in patterns.
The interior of the dome is executed in plaster and is colored with the prevailing tone of the Botticino stone. The panels are rettaverte, with such portraits and emblems as are used, painted as cameos. Gold leaf is used on the mouldings. The pendentives are painted with figures on mosaic backgrounds.
The vaulted ceilings of the rotunda corridor and entrance corridors are treated with mosaics, the pendentives of the vaults having painted portraits of various people prominently connected with the history of the county. The lunettes along the corridor walls which adjoin the mosaic vaults are painted with subjects apropos of the early settlement of the Wyoming Valley.
There are 5 courtrooms, 4 of which are located on the 3rd floor; the fifth, or Orphans' Court room, being on the second floor. The third floor, courtrooms are similar in design; two are finished in mahogany and two in Circassian walnut. The judges' chambers adjoin the courtrooms and are similarly treated. The courtroom floors are covered with rubber tiling, the draperies are of Orsini silk velour and the electroliers of brass, gold plated. Each of the third floor courtrooms is embellished with a notable mural painting over the judges' bench: "Justice," "Prosperity Under the Law," "The Judicial Virtues," and "The Awakening of a Commonwealth," having been executed by Messrs. Edwin H. Blashfield, Will H. Low, Kenyon Cox and William T. Smedley, respectively.
The Orphans' Courtroom is wainscoted with English veined white Italian marble in the form of panels, with stiles and rails of Blanco P. The columns are of Breche violette, the woodwork of mahogany. This room is also decorated with a mural painting, similarly located to those in the other rooms; the work of Charles L. Hinton, entitled "The Symbols of Life."
The Law Library, stack room and Bar Association room occupy the south wing of the second floor, and are finished in dark oak. The base and fireplace faces in the Law Library are of Numidian marble.
Special care was taken to have the furnishings of the building take their logical position as a part of the various rooms. Special drawings and specifications were made for all furniture, rugs, draperies, etc.
Designed by F. J. Osterling in the neo-Classical style, the present cruciform shaped building is the fourth courthouse for the County of Luzerne. Its styling and detailed decorations place this structure among the most ornate of Pennsylvania's county courthouses.
Frederick J. Osterling was an important Pennsylvania architect of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the buildings attributed to Osterling are located in Allegheny County. Some of his most noted buildings include, the Union Trust Building (1915-16) Pittsburgh; 1909 wing, Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail; Fort Pitt Federal Building (1890), Pittsburgh; Iroquois Apartment House (1901-03), Pittsburgh; and the Washington County Courthouse (1900), Washington, Pennsylvania.
The Luzerne County Courthouse, a public building, is an index to the civic character of the people to whom it belongs. A grand and imposing structure, in keeping with the wealth and importance of the community, indicates a progressive and public-spirited people; all of which is complimentary of Luzerne County.
At the beginning of its history, the territory now comprising Luzerne County belonged to Northampton County; but in 1772, when Northumberland County was formed, it became a part of the latter county. In 1776, under the jurisdiction and claim of Connecticut, it was organized as Westmoreland County. In 1786, after the establishment of Pennsylvania's claim to the disputed territory, Luzerne County was formed from Northumberland.
The question of building the present Luzerne County Courthouse began to be agitated by the people of Luzerne County more than 75 years ago. The old one had not been built more than 30 years; but the rapid increase of population and public business had demonstrated to those having business in the building that it was becoming entirely too small to answer its purpose much longer, notwithstanding the fact that subsequent to its erection territory and population enough for another good sized county had been taken from Luzerne.
At the time the Luzerne County Courthouse was built it was amply sufficient in size and capacity for the transaction therein of the official and legal business of the county, and it was considered a model building from an architectural standpoint, and as nearly perfect in its interior arrangement and equipment as a courthouse could be constructed.
When the division of the county took place in 1878 no one would have predicted that 10 years hence the erection of a new courthouse would be advocated, or even thought of, by the citizens of Luzerne County. But in these ten years the population of the county increased until it regained what it had lost by the division, and its business and wealth increased in a still greater proportion; and it was argued by those favoring the project that if the people desired to keep up with the times, and maintain their reputation for progressiveness, they must have a new and modern public building; that the vast mineral wealth of the county, the anthracite coal, was rapidly becoming exhausted, and that from this source of great wealth should come a large share of the cost of a new building.
As is usually the case when an enterprise of this character and extent is suggested, there was considerable opposition to the project. There were some who declared that a new building was wholly unnecessary; that the old one was good for many years to come, and equal to all requirements; and if not, that it could be made so by alterations and additions, at moderate expense.
But the question would not down, and after a few years' agitation the matter was brought before the grand jury at the January sessions, 1894, and that body made the following report:
"That the present courthouse does not afford proper and suitable offices for the accommodation and proper transaction of the public business, that there is no suitable controller's office, no superintendent's office, unsuitable water closets and inconvenient arrangements of the court rooms, and that nearly all the rooms are too small for the purpose intended.
That the grand jury recommend that the county commissioners of the county of Luzerne cause to be erected in the city of Wilkes-Barre a new courthouse suitable for the accommodation of the courts and the several officers of the county and for the reception and safe keeping of the records and other papers in charge of such officers; that further repairs to the present courthouse are in the opinion of the grand jury inadvisable, and that the erection of a new and suitable fire-proof building as hereinbefore recommended is the best economy under the circumstances."
The succeeding grand jury, on April 7, 1894, made identically the same report and both of them having been approved by the court, the county commissioners, Messrs. Thomas Smith, P.T. Norton and Thomas M. Dullard, at once secured an option on what is known as the Ross property on South Main Street, and the Flick lot adjoining it, as a site for the erection of a new Luzerne County Courthouse. The size of this plot of ground was 296' on Main Street and 240' deep, and the price to be paid $83,050. On the 31st of August, 1894, this resolution was passed:
"Resolved, that in accordance with the recommendation of the two successive grand juries and the approval of the court, the county commissioners hereby accept the proposition of Mr. Charles A. Miner, representing the Ross estate, and Liddon Flick, representing the estate of Reuben J. Flick, the terms of payment to be hereafter determined; and it is further Resolved, that the county solicitor be instructed to prepare at once a brief of title of the two above mentioned properties and submit the same to the commissioners."
On the 22nd of February, 1895, the commissioners entered into a contract with Elijah E. Myers, an architect from Detroit, Michigan, for the furnishing of plans and specifications for a "new fire-proof courthouse," to be erected upon the site named in the former resolution, viz: on South Main Street in the city of Wilkes-Barre.
The plans and specifications were prepared by Mr. Myers, and proposals invited by advertisement for the erection of the building in accordance therewith.
But here litigation began. An injunction was sought to restrain the commissioners from purchasing a site for the new building. The citizens who were back of this movement were not all of them opposed to the erection of a new building and still contended that the old one could be repaired and made to answer all purposes for many years.
The commissioners at once realized that they were at the beginning of a long drawn out legal dispute if they persisted in carrying out their proposition of purchasing a site, and they therefore abandoned the idea, and after opening the several proposals submitted for the erection of the building they passed the following resolution:
"Resolved, that the board of county commissioners consider that none of the bids received are satisfactory, and we therefore reject each and all of them."
Following this the injunction proceedings were dropped.
The commissioners than decided to build on Public Square, but on the 3rd of March, 1896, an injunction was again asked for to restrain them from building here; the cause of complaint being that the county had no right or title to the ground for the purpose of erecting a new building thereon.
The local court refused the injunction, and an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court, where the decree of the lower court was affirmed the 19th of June, 1896. Nothing more came of this attempt to build, but architect Myers subsequently brought suit against the county in the U.S. District Court for certain commissions and recovered judgment for $20,000 and interest, which was paid to him in addition to $10,000 which had been paid upon acceptance of his plans.
The next move in this matter was made on the 23rd of September, 1898, when County Commissioners A.D. Hay, John M. Jones and John Guiney passed the following resolution:
"Resolved, that in compliance with and in obedience to the suggestions of the grand jury at several sessions prior hereto, we will proceed to build a new and enlarged courthouse of sufficient size to accommodate the county, upon the location of the present courthouse on the Public Square of the city of Wilkes-Barre."
And on the 13th day of January, 1899, a resolution was passed:
"That we notify the several architects of Luzerne County by advertisement and five non-residents of the county by a personal invitation to submit finished plans and specifications for the proposed new courthouse."
A resolution was at the same time passed which provided certain rules and regulations to govern the architects in their work. The plans were to be submitted on or before the 15th of March, 1899, at noon. Each set of plans was to be numbered, and no mark of any kind was to be placed thereon by which the identity of the architect submitting them could be ascertained.
On the 6th of April, 1899, the commissioners selected the plans numbered 22, which were those submitted by F.J. Osterling of Pittsburgh. But an injunction was now sought to restrain the commissioners from erecting a new courthouse on Public Square for the reason that the recommendation of the grand jury had not been obtained, and that a site could not be legally selected without such recommendation. The injunction was made perpetual by the local court, and the decree was affirmed by the Supreme Court on the 17th of July, 1900.
In the meantime the River Common site was favored by many, and the grand jury also recommended the erection of the courthouse thereon. The City Council had agreed to exchange this site for Public Square, and the commissioners had ordered the architect to revise his plans to conform to this location. On the 16th of March, 1901, the board (now Messrs. Hay, Jones and Finn) took the following action:
"Resolved, that the plans and accompanying specifications prepared by F.J. Osterling, architect, for a new courthouse for Luzerne County, to be erected on the River Common site, near corner of North River and North Streets, Wilkes-Barre, Pa., are hereby adopted and approved."
An injunction had been issued on the 23rd of November 1900, to restrain the commissioners from building on the River Common site, and at this time had not been disposed of; but in 1902 the injunction was dissolved, an appeal taken to the Supreme Court, and the decree of the lower court affirmed.
On the 3rd of May, 1902, the commissioners took this action:
Whereas, By ordinance of the city of Wilkes-Barre and acceptance thereof by the county, the county has acquired the right to erect, construct and maintain a new courthouse on the River Common site, at corner of North River, and North Streets in the city of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and
Whereas, the right to so occupy said site has been affirmed by the Supreme Court of this State, and
Whereas, Plans and specifications for a new courthouse on said site prepared by F.J. Osterling, Esq., architect have been adopted by the county commissioners and approved by the judges of the Court of Common Pleas, and
Whereas, The right of the county to proceed with the erection of said building is now clear; there be it
Resolved, First, That we proceed forthwith to erect a new courthouse on the site above specified and according to the plans and specifications above specified.
Second, That the county controller advertise according to law, beginning May 5, 1902, for bids for the erection of said courthouse, in which advertisement he shall state,
First, Bids to close Wednesday, May 28,1902, at 12 o'clock noon.
Second, Plans, specifications and forms of contract to be entered into, to be open for inspection and examination of bidders in jury room #1, over law library, in present courthouse, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. from May 5, 1902, to close of bidding.
Third, Each bid to be made on form prepared and furnished by county commissioners on request, and to be accompanied by a certified check or surety company bond of $25,000 as a guaranty that the bidder will enter into contract if the same be awarded to him.
Fourth, if the person to whom the contract may be awarded shall refuse or fail to enter into contract and furnish the required building bond within one week after notice to do so, his bid will be rejected and the other bids considered and the contract awarded.
Fifth, All bids to be binding upon the bidders until contract is executed."
For some reason the order to advertise was revoked and another resolution was passed on the 21st of June, 1902, directing the county controller to "advertise for proposals for the construction and erection of the new courthouse under the revised plans, the same to be submitted on or before the 23rd of July, 1902, at 12 o'clock."
The controller advertised in accordance with the resolution, and on the 23rd of July at 2 o'clock p.m., the proposals submitted were opened, and the contract for the erection of the building was awarded to the Joseph Hendler Construction Company of Wilkes-Barre, for the sum of $597,000, this being the lowest bid.
On the 31st of July the commissioners granted permission to the Joseph Hendler Construction Company to withdraw their bid, and the contract was awarded to Wilson J. Smith of Wilkes-Barre for the sum of $617,000; the material to consist of Ohio River rock sandstone. This contract included only a bare building and that without the dome, which was subsequently given to Mr. Smith to construct for the sum of $65,000.
And now comes another injunction. On the 2nd of August, 1902, certain citizens of Wilkes-Barre asked the court to restrain the commissioners and Mr. Smith from proceeding under the contract which had been executed on the 31st of July for the reason that it did not call for a completed building, and for other reasons stated in the petition to the court. The injunction was continued until the 9th of March, 1903, when it was dissolved by the court, the contract approved and the decree signed by all the judges.
Mr. Smith now entered upon the work of carrying out his contract, but the progress made during the next 2 1/2 years was very slow, and on the 10th of October, 1905, he executed a power of attorney, constituting the Carlucci Stone Company of Scranton, Pennsylvania, his attorney-in-fact to complete a part of the work which he had undertaken. This arrangement had been agreed to by the board of commissioners, then consisting of Messrs. Jacob Schappert, Patrick Finn and Thomas Smith, who had taken office the first Monday of January, 1903.
On the first of January, 1906, a new board of county commissioners, viz: George Smith, Walter M. McAvoy and Silas E. Jones, entered upon the duties of the office, and on the 23rd of January contracted with McCormick and French, architects, of Wilkes-Barre, for the furnishing of plans and specifications for the interior, and for the supervision of the construction of the entire building; the foundation and a portion of the first story walls having been laid previous to that time. All additional plans and specifications, including those for the furniture, furnishings, and etc., were made by McCormick and French.
The work was now commenced in real earnest; and although disputes and controversies arose from time to time, rendering progress exceedingly difficult, it was persistently and determinedly continued until the final completion and occupation of the building on the first of June, 1909; all of the records having been transferred from the old courthouse at that time. Thus it will be observed that at the time of its completion more than 15 years had elapsed since the first grand jury recommended the building of a new Luzerne County Courthouse; although the work of constructing and furnishing the same was mostly accomplished during the last three years, the cornerstone having been laid April 5th, 1906.
Whenever it could consistently be done, contracts were awarded to local bidders, of whom the following individuals and firms secured contracts and had part in the construction and furnishing of the building, viz:
Wilson J. Smith - stone and iron work, fire-proofing and wood finishing
Cooke Bros., - concrete flooring and walks
Weiss & Jones - heating and ventilating, also grading grounds
E. F. Roth, generators, wiring, etc.
Voorhis & Murray, furniture
Jonas Long's Sons, Austrian rugs
Williams & McAnulty - draperies, window shades, rubber matting, etc.
Others having contracts were:
Carlucci Stone Company - marble, ornamental plaster, bronze, and cabinet woodwork, metal furniture, also retaining wall
Otis Elevator Company - elevators
Enos Company - electrical fixtures
Messrs. Kenyon Cox, Edwin H. Blashfield, Will H. Low and William T. Smedley, mural paintings.
Pearce. The Annals of Luzerne County. 1866, p.252-59, 244.
Robinson, R. P, Luzerne County Courthouse. Wilkes-Barre, 1912.
History Luzerne County Courthouse. Luzerne County Commissioners.