Mercer County Courthouse
The Mercer County Courthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. 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 Mercer County Courthouse is a red brick and light gray sandstone three-story building, rectangular in form, with a tall bell and clock tower. The carefully symmetrical Classical/Beaux Arts-styled building is located in the center of Mercer, in the middle of the community's "Diamond" or square, on top of a small hill. It is surrounded by main community thoroughfares, which are lined with commercial and office buildings two or three stories in scale. The Mercer County Courthouse has a 180' by 92' footprint, and is in an excellent state of integrity. The north elevation is eleven bays wide, the south elevation has nine bays, and the side elevations have five bays. Alterations include the replacement of the terra cotta roofing on the bell tower dome with aluminum panels, and remodeling on the interior including office partitioning, and the insertion of an additional small courtroom. The Mercer County Courthouse property includes the grounds of the Diamond, on which stands Mercer County's war memorial, a contributing object. Also included as a contributing resource is the old Mercer County Jail, now the South Courthouse Annex, just south of the Diamond.
Location of the Mercer County Courthouse in the Diamond required a carefully finished elevation on each side of the building. The Diamond is roughly a 200' by 500' rectangle with its long length on the north and south sides, and the rectangular footprint of the Mercer County Courthouse is aligned with the Diamond's layout, though the building is set north of the center of the Diamond. The site slopes downhill from north to south, exposing more of the south elevation of the building above grade. The main entrance to the building is through the portico on the north elevation of the building, facing North Diamond Street. Erie Street, U.S. Route 19 (also known as Perry Highway), is immediately west of the Diamond. It is the old main overland route between Pittsburgh and Erie.
Structurally the building was built of masonry bearing walls with steel columns and joists, and poured concrete floors.
The north elevation is organized in three parts: two four-bay wings separated by a projecting three-bay portico. The outer bay is framed by wide stone piers, rising from the stone basement to a narrow stone belt just above the third floor windows; this stone belt matches up horizontally with the architrave panel of the projecting portico. The stone is flush faced, and minimally decorated, with the shaft of the pier stepping in from a flat plinth, and stepping out in two shallow stages in a minimal capital. The connecting belt has two shallow steps as well. The field within the piers is hard-faced red brick laid in American bond and pointed with white mortar. The taller first floor window opening is framed by a stone surround, with a stone surfaced panel connecting the window sill with the stone facing of the basement. The architrave of the window surround has slightly projecting ears, and an appropriate Pennsylvania keystone in the center of the window head. At the top of the first floor there is a thin horizontal stone element that further frames the upper two floors within the larger frame of the stone piers. Within this frame there is a brick secondary frame, with small brick piers with small stone bases and caps, and a similarly scaled stone keystone over the third floor window. The windows within the bay have two rectangular wooden sash, hinged on the outer edge and pivoting in. Aluminum storm sash has been installed over most of the windows. Below the first floor, the basement is clad with smooth-faced sandstone, with deeply recessed windows within the masonry openings. The water table at the top of the basement varies from about six to about eight feet above grade on the north elevation.
Adjacent to the outer bays, the inner three bays are surrounded by the same stone pier framing of the outer bays. The basement of this section, and the portion above the stone belt above the windows, is the same as the description of the outer bays. The three first floor windows are treated in the same manner as the outer bay: flush stone panels below the window, and an eared stone architrave with a carved keystone. The building's two original courtrooms are located against this elevation, one on either side of the portico. The courtrooms are located against this elevation, one on either side of the portico. The courtrooms are two stories tall, occupying the second and third floor space, so the windows of this section of the building are tall. There are six-light window sash, arranged with three tall, narrow lights over three smaller lights of the same width. In place of the center window there is a carved stone panel on a field of brick. The stone panel has a spread-winged eagle clutching laurel leaves above a swag. There is no window in this location because it is directly behind the judge's bench in each courtroom. Large allegorical paintings hang on the wall behind the judge. Below the windows and stone panel are stone stylized two-dimensional swags; there are stone keystones above each opening.
The central element of the north elevation is the projecting monumental portico serving as the main entrance of the Mercer County Courthouse. The visible elements of the portico are stone. The portico features four fluted Ionic columns supporting a pediment, carefully proportioned and detailed. Weathering of the stone, and written history, makes it evident that the columns were constructed in stacked sections. Broad stone steps between rectangular bases rise about eight feet from street level, and fill the area from the inside of the eastern column to the inside of the western column. MERCER COUNTY COURTHOUSE is carved in the stone frieze below the pediment. Dentil courses outline the base of the pediment and the inside legs of the gable. The face of the inside of the pediment is undecorated flush stone. The parapet follows the perimeter of the pediment, stepped back from the outer edge of the pediment.
The face of the building behind the monumental portico has three bays. The central element is the main doorway in the center bay. This element is framed between wide patterned stone architrave legs, topped with consoles, and has a stylized pediment as entablature. This is the only entrance to the building treated this elaborately. The tall pair of oak doors each have a single panel below a single large light. The tall transom over the doors has a radiating starburst tracery pattern often seen on Beaux Arts-era buildings in railings or windows. The tall windows in the outer bays of the portico have the eared stone surrounds of the other first floor windows of this elevation. The second and third floor windows are in smaller rectangular openings than the other windows of this elevation. The bays are framed within the frame of the stone piers by brick piers, like the windows of the outer bay. The windows have two rectangular sash, topped by a transom, and open on ancillary spaces in the courthouse. The third floor windows have a sloping eared stone sill.
The bell and clock tower rises about ninety feet above the roof of the Mercer County Courthouse. The tower is centered over the building and rises from an octagonal brick and stone base. The brick base has elliptical windows, not visible from the street, that were painted over as a security measure during World War II. At the level of the bell opening, four columned projections face out over the principal building elevations, with narrow sections of brick infill angled to connect the main faces. Each projection around a bell opening is done in stone, with a stone plinth on the outer sides, and a stone balustrade at plinth level between and below the columns. There are two pairs of columns flanking the opening. The columns are not fluted, are of the Doric order, and support a full entablature above the top of the opening. Centered above the stone entablature above the bell openings is a flush stone panel that serves as the face of each clock. The stone panel is thick, so the clock face appears to be in the same vertical plane as the face of the frieze above the columns. The outer edges of the stone clock face rise in a curve that ends with a simplified volute. Immediately above the volute two heavy projecting bands of stone curve through a half circle that frames and slightly protects the top half of each clock face. A keystone element is located at the top of the circle arch above the clock. At the outer corner of base of each clock, a small battered stone monument rises from a plinth block, further framing the clock composition. The clock face is translucent glass, marked with Roman numerals.
At the base of the clock level, the tower completes its conversion to a circle from an octagon. At the spring of the arch defining the upper half of the clock face, the capping dome begins. The dome originally was 3,000 custom terra cotta panels, which failed completely twice in 35 years. The tern cotta was replaced in 1948 with an aluminum panel skin between eight aluminum ribs. The ribs alternate between wide and narrow, lining up with the outer edges of the clocks and the narrower brick panels below. The penultimate section of the dome is a louvered element supported by eight stylized consoles, installed upside down, with a simple bracketed top. The cap is a broad circle of sheet metal, drawn upward to a point, and topped with a ball, the lower part resembling a symmetrical Hershey's Kiss.
Historical sources report that the tower was based on the design of St. Paul's in Rome. The paired columns by the bell openings, ribbed dome, and capping element do resemble Michelangelo's design in miniature. Further research suggests that elements also were borrowed from the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota. This Cathedral was designed by noted Beaux Arts architect Emmanuel L. Masqueray, of Paris and New York. The design was considered a masterpiece of Beaux Arts architecture, and was extensively published in 1906. Architect for the Mercer County Courthouse, Charles F. Owsley, studied with Masqueray in Paris in 1904. The Cathedral of St. Paul has a ribbed terra cotta dome, but is of a completely different scale.
The east elevation is one of the five-bay widths of the building. The center three bays of the elevation project, analogous to the porticos on the long elevations. A porch projects from the center bay of the first floor. The recessed outer bays are identical in appearance to the outer bays of the north elevation, wide stone piers framing red brick infill, with a minimum of carved decoration. The outer bays of the three-bay projecting element also are identical to the outer bays in this elevation. The porch projects about twelve feet from the east elevation, and is a rectangular almost cubical, element. It is made entirely of stone, as are the large porticos. The porch roof and entablature are supported on half-column pilasters where attached to the main body of the courthouse. Supporting each outer corner are three columns, arranged in an "L," with a column on the outer corner and one each in line with it towards the courthouse and towards the center of the porch. All the columns are of the Doric order, and are not fluted. The stone stairs rise between two large regular, rectangular stone blocks, forming a plinth for the porch and columns. The entablature features an architrave and frieze identical in appearance and proportionately smaller than the entablature of the large porticos. There is a small dentil course below the cornice, as on the large porticos. Above the porch cornice is a balcony railing element, with wide paneled corners and turned stone balusters. This is a short, heavy-appearing element identical in proportion to the stone railing at the bell openings in the tower. It continues on the side of the porch, returning to the face of the courthouse. The center bay of the east elevation of the courthouse has a large single, tripartite window centered over the porch. The lights are tall narrow elements, with square transom-like lights at the top of the opening. This window is located in the third floor of the courthouse. The entrance beneath the portico houses a pair of doors and is similar to the main entrance on the north elevation, minus the elaborate entablature.
Attached to the plinth-like blocks framing the stairs to the porch are decorative cast iron light standards. These lights date from the completion of the Mercer County Courthouse in 1911.
Due to the downhill slope of Mercer Diamond from north to south, the south elevation of the Mercer County Courthouse stands further above grade than the north elevation. The slope, setback from the south edge of the Diamond and modern traffic patterns make this elevation the most easily viewed. A semi-circular asphalt driveway and parking area occur here. Functionally this always has been a secondary entrance to the building. The easy basement access made this elevation the logical entry for supplies and bulky items: Mercer County Courthouse's loading dock.
The south elevation has three-bay sections flanking the center portico. Above the basement each six of these bays is identical to the previously-described corner bays of the north and east elevations. The basement is furthest above grade in the west section. The basement is faced with smooth-finished stone, and has a double-door entrance in the center bay. The outer bays have tall windows with security screens. The basement openings under the eastern three bays have window openings, two filled with louvers to ventilate mechanical equipment. The south elevation has the same stone-columned monumental portico as the north elevation. However, there is no access to the first floor level of the portico from the exterior. The stone foundation under the portico deck has three tall and wide openings providing access under the deck to the primary basement entrance. The face of the foundation is finished with the same smooth-faced flush stone used throughout the building. The basement openings are carefully symmetrical, located under the gaps between the columns, and have a very shallow arch with a keystone element flush with the stone face, the point of which projects slightly below the center of the arch. Entrance to the basement is through a pair of oak doors with low panels and large single lights, centered under the portico.
Above the deck of the portico the elevation differs from the north facade. The monumental staircase is located at the center of this wall, and the center bay has three wide openings, the upper two of which help to light the staircase. The lower opening has double oak doors providing the only access to the deck of the portico. Each door has a single low panel above the bottom rail and a single large light. The doors are flanked by side lights in a similar pattern. The doorway opening is simple punched brick, unlike the carefully finished stone entry serving the north elevation. The second floor of the center bay has an almost-square window made up of four narrow lights below a transom element. The center light of the transom element extends over both the center two lower lights. The third floor opening is a taller version of the second floor element: four rectangular lights under three slightly shorter lights with a square center light over the middle two bottom lights. This composition is topped by a transom element identical to the second floor opening, producing a stacked, three tier element: 4-3-3 in configuration. Flanking the center stairway openings are paired tall, narrow window openings, lighting bathrooms and ancillary spaces. The second floor windows have a tall light under a shorter, transom-like light. The third floor windows have three stacked elements matching the center window. No stone trim is used in the under-portico section of this elevation. This certainly was intentional, used by the architect to mark this as the minor of the two monumental elevations.
Above the basement, the west elevation is in every way identical to the east elevation, previously described. The basement on the southern corner is further out of the ground than elsewhere, and has a taller window opening. Like every other part of the building, the basement is finished with smooth faced stone.
The interior layout of the Mercer County Courthouse is defined by its entrances, courtrooms, monumental stairs, and central rotunda. The first floor has a wide "T" shaped hallway which connects the main entrance in the north elevation with the side entrances to the east and west. The top center of the "T" is beneath the building's rotunda, and the monumental stairs are located just above the top center of the "T" in the south center of the building. County public records and administrative functions are located in the quadrants defined by the hall and stairway. The northeast corner houses the county commissioners, while across the hall on the south is the Clerk of Courts and Recorder of Wills offices. The Prothonotary is located in the northwest quadrant, and the Fiscal office and Recorder of Deeds is in the southwest section. The offices for the Treasurer, the Tax Assessor, the County Controller, and Voter Registration are in the heavily-remodeled basement.
Above the fast floor the building is devoted to the law. The two original courtrooms are located on either side of the center rotunda. The courtrooms occupy the second and third floors, and extend further south into the building than the first floor hall below, pushing the narrower second floor corridors south, and creating two "L" shaped sections of perimeter offices and ancillary space south and to the east and west respectively of each original courtroom. These perimeter offices house the District Attorney, Public Defender, chambers for judges, restrooms, law enforcement offices, and other court-related functions. Available space on the third floor is limited by the two-story courtrooms. A third courtroom, smaller than the two original spaces, was installed in the southwestern corner of the third floor in 1981. Offices, jury rooms and the law library are also located on the third floor.
Although the careful symmetry and regularity of design that characterizes the exterior are carried through to the interior, the architect took full advantage of the opportunity to introduce materials of high quality in different shapes and color where the courthouse visitor could experience them at close range. Reached through a marble-floored and wainscoted vestibule and short hall ending in a flat arched opening, the central rotunda comes as a surprise because the building does not have the traditional dome associated with such a space. In a direct line south from the main entrance, through a marble-clad flat arch, is the start of the monumental staircase leading to the court functions on the second floor The entire height of the first floor of the rotunda is paneled with flat off-white marble. The offices in the east and west sections of the Mercer County Courthouse are reached through flat arches identical to that leading to the stairs. On the second and third floors of the rotunda are large rectangular openings, framed at the bottom by a heavy-balustraded railing of marble, and on the sides by plaster scagliola columns in antis, crowned with gold-painted or leafed Corinthian capitals. The columns rise to the base of the dome element on the third floor. The railing at the third floor is the same as that used on the monumental stairs, described below.
The top of the rotunda is framed by a cornice, decoratively painted. Leafed consoles form a dentil course for the projecting element. Four arched windows with the same Beaux-Arts-associated tracery pattern used above the main entrance begin the transition from cube to dome. Around the perimeter of the window arch is a heavy molding with the appearance of a bundle of rods bound occasionally by crossed bands. This element is an allegory to the justice sought in the building's courtrooms. The molding represents the Roman fasces, bundles of rods around an ax bound by a red strap. Fasces were carried by a lichtor, who accompanied Roman magistrates and carried out sentences of punishment. The pendentives of the rotunda have allegorical paintings by noted mural artist Edward E. Simmons (see Significance section). The rotunda is capped by a circular stained-and-art glass light in 12-sections. This element has acanthus-like leaves around its outer perimeter, with four small panels framed in the perimeter, aligned with the pendentives, containing the words PEACE, TRUTH, JUSTICE, and LAW.
The Mercer County Courthouse hallways are paved and wainscoted with off-white marble. The original doors from the halls to the offices are oak, paneled to the lock rail, with a light above framed by the stiles and top rail. The doors have transoms. The south wall of the hall on the second floor has borrowed light partitions above the wainscot. Ceilings of the halls are coffered, likely corresponding with the building's structure. On the first floor every second coffer is wider, and is supported by a pair of wide consoles, simply detailed, with a Greek key motif on each exposed end. The coffered ceilings and consoles are decoratively painted and stenciled with a leafy motif. The interior perimeter of each coffer is filled with a crown-molding element including dentil block and egg-and dart molding, decoratively painted.
The offices are finished more functionally, less decoratively, and have been subject to remodelings. They generally have painted plaster walls, wooden chair rail, and unornamented ceilings, coffered by the structural system.
The marble monumental stairs rise in a wide single run south from the first floor to an intermediate landing, split, and rise in two runs north to the second floor. The second to third floor stairs have the same configuration. The stair rails are ornate bronze compositions featuring vertical ovals, twined together with balusters of stacked floral buds. Above and below the vertical ovals are vine-like elements in a repeating serpentine shape. At the top and in the center of every run of railing are a coat-of-arms like section that appears to be a garlands of laurel leaves surrounding a center section. Incorporated in this center section is a relatively small "M" encircled by a larger "C" — for Mercer County. The railing is capped by a oak handrail, sinuously following the course of the stairs. The first two risers extend beyond the railing; their outer edges are semicircular. Prosaically, bathrooms are located off the intermediate stair landings.
The two original courtrooms are tall rectangular spaces, impressively finished, as benefits the majesty of the law. As described above, the original courtrooms occupy the second and third floors, each in the north center of a courthouse wing, separated by the rotunda. The courtrooms are oriented with the judge's bench against the center of the north wall in each room, with the plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys, and audience facing north. Modern jury boxes are located near the judge's bench, set at 90 degrees to the north south axis. The dominant decorative elements of the courtrooms are 10' by 15' mural paintings centered behind the judge: these date from the construction of the building. The allegorical paintings by artists Vincent Aderante (Courtroom Number One) and Alonzo Foringer (Courtroom Number Two) are discussed in the Significance section accompanying this nomination. Also prominent are the original traceried, multi-light skylights in the second from the south of the four east-west ceiling coffers. These were once lit by roof skylights, now out of service. The courtroom walls are paneled to a height of eight feet by dark-stained oak. There are four doors leading to each courtroom.
One in each wall on either side of the judge's bench leading to the judge's chambers and a meeting room respectively, a double door leading to the wide hall around the rotunda, and one centered in the north wall of each room. The three single openings each have wide casing and a consoled entablature containing three-paneled doors, with short horizontal panels at top and bottom. The double door, intended as the primary entrance, is topped with a full pediment. Of the interior furnishings, only the balustraded bar appears to be original.
Courtroom Number One has a heavy, dentiled and bracketed cornice, and a shallow-coffered ceiling, both decoratively painted. Immediately below the cornice the walls are stenciled with tall repeating pattern of urns and fleur-de-lis, with each stylized urn connected by a swag with a heavy pendant or cartouche. A fleur-de-lis stencil also encircles the room above the paneling. A problem with courtroom acoustics immediately after construction of the building required the installation of the square tiles visible on the walls and ceiling of both courtrooms.
Courtroom Number Two has a different stencil pattern and simpler dentil block cornice. This courtroom's stenciling is made up of rosettes connected by vines at the top of the room, with vertical runs of harp and lyre pattern, repeated horizontally along the top of the paneling.
Relatively few alterations have be made to the building over the years. The most visible exterior alteration has been the replacement of the terra cotta roof of the dome. It proved to be nearly impossible to make this type of terra cotta roof completely waterproof, and winter freezing and thawing cracked the terra cotta, accelerating its deterioration. The first terra cotta roof was completely replaced with a similar roof in a year-long project in 1922-23, barely twelve years after it was installed. This roof was repaired intermittently until it was replaced in 1948 with a roof of aluminum panels, colored similarly to the replaced terra cotta. Apparently but for the Depression and World War II, the roof would have been replaced sooner. Architect Charles F. Owsley designed the replacement roof.
Interior alterations have had little effect on the splendid spaces and finishes in the Mercer County Courthouse. A redecorating of the Mercer County Courthouse in 1930 saw a change in the paint scheme, and there have been other repaintings since. The basement and various spaces within larger offices have been remodeled to provide room for the growth in county employment over the years. Courtroom Number Three was added in the southwest corner of the third floor in 1981. This room is much smaller than the original courtrooms, is by necessity low-ceilinged, and is finished with light colored oak. One of the building's structural columns intrudes in this courtroom. The main hallways, monumental stairs, rotunda, and two original courtrooms substantially retain their original appearance. The building is highly regarded by its owners and users, and is well-maintained.
The Mercer Diamond
The Diamond measures approximately 200' x 500' and slopes down from north to south. The Mercer County Courthouse occupies the north central portion of the Diamond. The Diamond has seen a variety of landscaping and special features over the past nearly two centuries. At one time or another it had roaming cows, stone sidewalks, fountains, fences, favorite elm trees, World War I cannon, a gazebo, and special plantings. In 1965 the driveway from south Diamond Street was enlarged; it provides a few parking places and access to the basement for deliveries. Today the Diamond has mature trees of many types, and carefully-tended lawns and plantings. Well-used benches are arranged along the paved walks. Man-made features of the Diamond include a 1987 brick bandstand platform, and in 1988 a series of flagpoles were installed. Both features are east of the courthouse. The bandstand is counted as a non-contributing object. Also east of the Mercer County Courthouse is the war memorial, described in detail below.
On the Mercer Diamond directly east of the Mercer County Courthouse, near Pitt Street is Mercer County's Civil War monument. It was dedicated on November 10, 1897. The monument features plate copper figures and plaques on a granite base. The granite base was made and installed by the Empire Granite Company of New Castle, Pennsylvania. The copper figures include an artilleryman and a cavalryman on the north and south faces, respectively. They stand on fluted barrels of granite. The east and west faces have copper panels depicting battles. The principal figures are mounted on four clustered granite columns whose Corinthian-appearing capitals actually are spread-winged eagles. Standing atop the monument is an allegorical figure of Victory crowning a returning soldier. The panels and figures were made by W.H. Mullins of Salem, Ohio. Inscribed in the stone is "Mercer County's Tribute To Her Soldiers. 1861-1865."
At the foot of the east face of the monument is a granite cradle which once held a shell fired by the United States Battleship Texas at Morro Castle in Cuba in 1898. The shell and cradle were installed in 1900. The cradle has been empty since a World War II scrap drive.
A black granite monument, a tribute to Mercer County's citizens who served in the Vietnam War, was dedicated in 1983. It is just east of the Civil War monument, adjacent to Pitt Street. In 1998 a freestanding bronze plaque was installed just west of the Civil War monument. This plaque lists the individual companies of Civil War regiments raised in Mercer County.
Mercer County Jail (now the South Courthouse Annex):
The former Mercer County Jail is located immediately south of South Diamond Street, facing the Mercer Diamond and Mercer County Courthouse to the north. It was the third jail built for Mercer County. The jail was completed in 1869, and was a companion building to the second Mercer County Courthouse of 1867. The second Mercer County Courthouse and third jail were designed by Pittsburgh architects Barr and Moser. Originally the jail was 67' wide (east-west) by approximately 95' deep. The rear half has been remodeled. The north face of the building is the primary elevation. It is symmetrical, two stories tall and three bays wide. It is built of red brick with sandstone quoins on the projecting piers and center bay of the first floor. As originally constructed, the building had a castellated projecting central tower and corner piers, and more of a Gothic Revival appearance than it does at present. The parapet was rebuilt at an unknown date and the castellated elements removed. The windows are 4/2 double-hung wooden sash, with the top two lights oddly above the spring of the window arch. The top sash likely are replacements.
The outer bays of the jail have pairs of arch-topped windows with arched stone hoods and sills. The double-doored entrance in the center bay has an round-arched opening. The second floor of the center bay has a Palladian-styled window.
The east and west elevations have two round-arched openings per floor in the northern half (the 1869 section).
The rear section of the old jail originally held a cell block. This portion was removed in 1976, and a new office structure constructed on approximately the same footprint. The exterior details of the new addition mimics the old half of the building. Mercer County built a new jail on South Diamond Street east of the old jail in the mid-1970's, rendering the old jail obsolete. The old jail is now known as the South Courthouse Annex, and houses county offices.
The interior of the old jail has a central hall with offices to the east and west. The original plan appears to survive on the first and second floors in the older (north) section of the building, although the offices have been remodeled.
Architects Barr and Moser designed the Armstrong County Courthouse (1860) and jail (1871). The Armstrong County jail is a forbidding, stone Gothic Revival building with a central castellated tower. It is larger than, but similar to, what remains of the old Mercer County Jail. The Armstrong County jail has a front office portion, and rear cell block.
The front section of the Old Mercer County jail building survives in a fair state of integrity, although the missing castellated parapet and tower changes its character.
The Mercer County Courthouse is a physical, architectural, and historical landmark. The building was constructed between 1909 and 1911, and is the third courthouse built by Mercer County on the Diamond in the center of Mercer, Pennsylvania. The building is significant as the seat of government of a Pennsylvania county, and for its architecture and artwork. The period of significance ends in 1948, consistent with the National Register's fifty year guideline as an appropriate frame for the evaluation of significance.
Mercer County was erected from part of Allegheny County in 1800, and organized in February 1804. Between 1800 and 1804 the county was administered from Meadville, Crawford County. The county is named for Hugh Mercer, a Scottish-born American hero of the Revolution. Centrally located in the new county, the borough of Mercer was laid out in 1803 by John Hoge, who donated 200 acres of land for a county seat. Mercer sits on a hilltop, and the key element in the plan was a rectangular town square running east-west, called a diamond by Scots-Irish settlers. Court was first held in a tavern near Mercer, then in a log structure facing the diamond which also housed a jail, and served as a Presbyterian church on Sundays. The first true Mercer County Courthouse, a two story brick building with a cupola, was built in the center of the diamond in 1809. This courthouse burned in 1866.
Mercer County's second courthouse, a substantial piece of architecture for the era, was completed in 1867 to plans drawn by Pittsburgh architects Barr and Moser. The site in the center of Mercer's rectangular diamond required a carefully finished elevation on each side. The tall two-story brick building was done in a Neoclassical style, with tall, narrow, circle-topped windows lighting the courtroom on the second floor; it was capped by a gable roof with an east-west running ridge. Other elements included stone quoined corners, columned porticos under projecting pediments to the north and south, and pedimented gable ends over the east and west elevations, which had minor entrances. Barr and Moser also designed the new jail for Mercer County, sited south of South Diamond Street, facing the courthouse in the diamond. The new jail was complete in 1869, and survives in remodeled form.
The second Mercer County Courthouse had a tall cupola, visible throughout much of the Mercer borough, and for a distance of several miles on the roads radiating from Mercer. The cupola was so prominent that newspapers and local citizens lobbied for the installation of a town clock in the tower. A four-sided clock was ordered in the spring of 1907, and installed in the Mercer County Courthouse cupola in November of that year. On December 15, 1907 the second Mercer County Courthouse was gutted by a fire that apparently was started by the gas lights used to illuminate the new cupola clock by night. Only the four walls of the 1867 Mercer County Courthouse were left standing after the fire.
The county's judicial and administrative functions immediately relocated to the old Mercer Academy building a vacant three-story former school, built the same year as the burned courthouse, two blocks east of the diamond. The old school was a poor substitute for the Mercer County Courthouse, deemed structurally inadequate and a possible firetrap, but it would serve the county until the new building was complete.
It should be noted that before the 1907 fire there was no consensus or groundswell of opinion that the 1867 Mercer County Courthouse was functionally obsolete or hazardous. The old building was updated in the 1890's with the fortunate addition of fireproof vaults, and it was redecorated with paint and wallpaper just a year before the fire. The ultimately disastrous addition of the new clock would not have been undertaken if the building was soon due for replacement.
The decision to build a new Mercer County Courthouse was complicated by two factors. Insurers of the old courthouse proposed to pay for its reconstruction rather than declare it a total loss. After some investigation, political maneuvering, and a lawsuit, the county settled with the insurance companies in 1909 for little more than the cost estimate of reconstructing the burned-out building. In retribution, the Mercer County cancelled its other contracts with those insurers. Immediately after the fire the larger municipalities in Mercer County lobbied to become the county seat. The borough of Mercer was intentionally located near the geographical center of the county. The county's population growth primarily occurred along the Shenango River, site of the Erie Extension Canal, built before the Civil War, and the principal railroad route in the late 19th century. Industry developed along the route of easiest transportation. In 1900, Mercer Borough had a population of 1,803, while Sharon had nearly 9,000 residents, and Greenville's population approached 5,000. Sharon, Greenville, and South Sharon (now Farrell) each made a bid for consideration as county seat. Changing the site of a county seat requires an act of the state legislature, and challenges to a new county building located in Mercer waned with the prospect of a possible years-long legislative battle, during which the county administration and judiciary would be inadequately housed.
Decisions concerning the new Mercer County Courthouse were made by Mercer County's three commissioners and presiding judge. The elected commissioners represented the executive and legislative branches of county government, and the county's presiding judge the judicial branch. Apparently there was a delicate balance of power between the commissioners and judge, who usually was backed by the county bar, over decisions about the courthouse in which they all worked. Of this group, Judge A.W. Williams seems to have had the most influence in the design of the new building for Mercer County.
In January 1908, a month after the fire, the commissioners asked architects to submit plans for a 15,000 to 18,000 square foot courthouse. Eighteen architectural firms submitted plans by February 1, 1908. Meeting the incredibly short deadline, and submitting plans for which there would be compensation only if chosen as project architect, almost certainly meant that many firms were submitting hastily-adapted designs from previous projects. The rectangular site required building with a rectangular footprint, and the commissioners specified that the new building be constructed of hard-pressed red brick and white stone, similar to the burned courthouse and Mercer's existing architecture. Recent courthouses constructed in Pittsburgh for Allegheny County, in Butler, and in Washington, Pennsylvania, had squarish footprints, as did the expensive new domed courthouse for Westmoreland County, coincidentally dedicated in a ceremony in Greensburg on January 31, 1908.
The commissioners and an advisory panel chose a Cleveland architect, W.S. Lougee, to design the new Mercer County Courthouse. Lougee had done work for the county, including drawings of the burned-out courthouse for the county's dealings with its insurance companies. Judge Williams vetoed the selection of Lougee, and the second choice was the firm of Owsley and Boucherle and Company of Youngstown, Ohio. Owsley and Boucherle had designed Judge Williams's home in Mercer. Their plan for the new Mercer County Courthouse was described as the most elaborate and extensive of those submitted.
Since the new Mercer County Courthouse required new local taxes, cost immediately became an issue. The Owsley and Boucherle plan as submitted was estimated to cost $400,000, which the county commissioners quickly found was twice what the local market would bear. The commissioners, more directly accountable to county taxpayers than the judge, reduced the footprint of the proposed building. A maximum expense of $200,000 was announced to the generally skeptical public. Current events provided ammunition for those in favor of a cheap courthouse, and those who favored a larger building that would accommodate county growth. Neighboring Butler County built a too-small Butler County Courthouse in 1885, and was in process of enlarging it expensively and clumsily in 1907-8; the remodeling and enlargement would cost more than the original building. On the other end of the scale, Westmoreland County's brand new Westmoreland County Courthouse cost $1.5 million. Owsley and Boucherle's large new Mahoning County Courthouse in Youngstown, Ohio, also would be delivered for $1.5 million.
Ultimately the deck may have been stacked against the frugality of the commissioners by the power of the judiciary and the soaring rhetoric of the era which often referred to courthouses as "temples of justice" or "temples built to justice." The phrase "temple of justice" is carved in the pediment of Owsley and Boucherle's Mahoning County Courthouse. It is hard to conceive of an economical "temple" built to serve as lofty an ideal as "justice." "Justice" deserved a large, elaborate, carefully designed and masterfully decorated "temple."
Despite the fact that they had not settled with their insurers, who proposed rebuilding the burned courthouse within the standing walls for $32,000, the commissioners ordered the demolition of the remains of the old building in the spring of 1908. By late summer Owlsey and Boucherle's plans were complete, and a painted rendering of a proposed elevation was available. The new building would have a 180' by 92' footprint; a compromise between the 200' building originally proposed, and the 160' long $200,000 economy plan of the commissioners. It would be three stories tall, and the top of the bell/clock tower would be 166' above ground level. It would have two complete courtrooms, in anticipation of growth, for the county was authorized to have only one judge. The accepted new cost estimate was $325,000.
Luyster and Lowe a Dayton, Ohio, firm, was chosen as the contractor in the fall of 1908. Construction began in the spring of 1909. Construction of a very large building in a small town required elaborate staging. The contractor built a stone cutting plant in the east end of town, nearer to the rail line where the material would be delivered. Since Mercer had no central electrical plant, the stone cutting shop required the installation of a steam-driven electrical generator. After losing two courthouses to fire, the commissioners decided that a separate power house would be built for the courthouse, south of the diamond. The power house would generate steam for heat and electrical power; open gas jets would not be used for light in the new building after construction was complete. The cornerstone was officially laid in a ceremony on May 29, 1909. July 1, 1910 was targeted as the date for the Mercer County Courthouse completion and dedication.
Construction of the Mercer County Courthouse would take 30 months, not the 15 originally projected. The county moved into the building on September 1911, and dedicated it on October 12. Missing a construction completion date is nothing new; it took six years to build the Westmoreland County Courthouse. The delay in Mercer may have been due to the small size of the community. It was noted that at one point there were 100 people at work on the Mercer County Courthouse, which seems like a relatively small number in an era when the construction industry was mechanized only in the heaviest of tasks, and then primarily by stationary steam engines. The 100 workers may have been all that could be comfortably accommodated in Mercer.
Mercer County developed (and still has) strong economic ties to Ohio, and officials asked then Governor Harmon of Ohio to speak at the dedication. It is not clear whether Pennsylvania Governor John K. Tener also was invited. Governor Harmon agreed, but had to cancel at the last minute. The featured speaker was Naval Captain Richard Hobson, a hero of the Spanish-American War. Judge Williams and two retired judges also spoke, and several bands performed. One of the judges provided a financial accounting of the cost of the new building — nearly $490,000, well over the $325,000 estimate.
General satisfaction with the appearance, quality, and function of the Mercer County Courthouse apparently mitigated against any quibbling over its expense. A large, opulently trimmed and furnished, electrically lit building with its own elevator must have convinced many in the small borough of Mercer that the 20th century had fully arrived. Local residents came to rely on the courthouse clock, and complained when it malfunctioned.
A tall building on a hill, the Mercer County Courthouse is visible for several miles from ground level, and for many miles from the air, where it became a navigation point for early commercial aviation. In the 1920's the United States Department of Commerce asked the county to paint MERCER on the roof of the courthouse, which was done. A less desirable consequence of the prominence of the Mercer County Courthouse is the occasional damaging lightning strike.
The courthouse has served Mercer County well. In some senses the county grew into its courthouse: a second county judge was not authorized until the early 1950's, though the second courtroom had seen some use from the 1930's. It is a very visible and much-treasured building.
Mercer County built a new jail in the mid-1970's, on South Diamond Street, east of the existing jail. The obsolete 1869 jail was remodeled in 1979 to provide office space for the county, and was renamed the South Courthouse Annex.
Principal designer of the new Mercer County Courthouse was Charles F. Owsley, son of C.H. Owsley, founder of the Youngstown firm of Owsley and Boucherle. The firm was the most prominent architectural practice in Youngstown. It was responsible for the designs of Youngstown's Mahoning County Courthouse, City Hall, three local hospitals, a major library, two Youngstown high schools and numerous other local schools, the YMCA, and many dwellings of Youngstown's elite. In Pennsylvania the Owsleys designed the Buhl Mansion, Kimberly Memorial Nurses Home, and two other large residences in Sharon, and churches, schools, and houses in New Castle, Butler, Greenville, Mercer, and elsewhere.
The elder Owsley emigrated from England, settling near Youngstown in the early 1870's. He received training from two prominent English architects, Sir Gilbert Scott and Sir Digby Wyatt, which "...consisted principally of the building of parish churches and cathedral alterations." He is credited in one publication with the 1876 Mahoning County Courthouse, a multi-gabled Victorian Gothic cube sprouting a tower. A photo album of his work, apparently compiled about the turn of the century, shows a number of large houses and a few schools and churches done in Queen Anne, Stick, or Victorian Gothic style. Son Charles F. Owsley's training came from Atelier-Masqueray in New York, Atelier-Godfrey and Frenet in Paris, and the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1903). He joined his father's firm in 1904, well-steeped in Beaux Arts Classicism. Charles F. Owsley became one of Youngstown's most prominent businessmen, founding Youngstown's Rotary Club, heading many other civic organizations, and advocating comprehensive city planning. Owsley continued to practice architecture until about 1950. In 1947 he was made a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. The lists of architectural credentials published over his career always included the Mercer County Courthouse, as did his 1953 obituary.
Architectural elements of the Mercer County Courthouse apparently are linked to Owsley and Boucherle's Mahoning County Courthouse. The architectural firm received the commission for the large new courthouse in Youngstown in 1907, and the cornerstone for the building was laid in June 1908, while the plans for Mercer County's building were on the firm's drawing boards. The Owsleys could show Mercer County's selection committee the preliminary plans for Mahoning County's building in early 1908, along with a painting of the proposed exterior appearance, and this together with Judge A.W. Williams presumed lobbying, may have secured the Mercer County job for the Youngstown firm. The two buildings are similar in form: rectangular boxes with monumental entrances and central rotundas. The Mahoning Courthouse is longer, wider, and one story taller than Mercer's courthouse, is faced with gray granite, and lacks the clock and bell tower required by Mercer's commissioners. The tight site in Youngstown did not permit the prominent porticos that grace Mercer's building, so the columns on the Mahoning County Courthouse project just slightly from the facade. The designs for both buildings almost certainly were products of Charles F. Owsley's Beaux Arts training; they are not in the asymmetrical and picturesque tradition of the elder Owsley. The two courthouses, designed and under construction simultaneously, are the only such buildings that Charles F. Owsley designed in his long career. Mercer County would invite Charles F. Owsley back for work on the courthouse when the courtroom murals needed restoration in 1937, and when the troublesome terra cotta roof finally was replaced in 1948.
The artists of the allegorical courtroom paintings in the Mercer County Courthouse are tied to the artists who did similar work for Mahoning County's building, discussed farther below. From files of correspondence in the Mahoning Valley Historical Society between the artists for the Mahoning County Courthouse and Charles F. Owsley, it is clear that the architect solicited, directed, and approved the artwork, and it must be assumed he did the same for Mercer County. The younger Owsley was a gifted sketch artist in his own right, and all the artists for the two projects came from New York City, where Owsley apprenticed in the 1890's.
Context: Other Western Pennsylvania Courthouses
Architecturally, Mercer County's Courthouse has no stylistic peers in Western Pennsylvania. Of the surrounding or nearby counties, Lawrence still uses its first Lawrence County Courthouse, finished in 1852 with an addition in 1885. Butler County's Richardsonian Romanesque Butler County Courthouse of 1885 was enlarged by the insertion of another floor in 1907-08, which altered its proportion and purity of form. Venango County has a picturesque, beautifully sited and well-maintained courthouse in Franklin, completed in 1870. It is a marriage of a temple-front Greek Revival building with asymmetrical Italianate towers. Crawford County's courthouse in Meadville is a domed, Renaissance-styled building from 1870 with later additions. Erie County still uses its Greek Revival courthouse, completed in 1855, enlarged in 1890. A new addition was added to Erie's building in 1929. The other major 20th century courthouse fire in Western Pennsylvania occurred in 1932 when Beaver County's 1877 building burned. It was replaced with an Art Deco-styled building by Philadelphia architect David S. Geredel.
Nearby Pennsylvania courthouses completed in the early 20th century include the Washington County Courthouse, finished in 1901 from designs by prolific Pittsburgh architect Frederick J. Osterling. It is a framed building built of stone for a county with a larger contemporary population than Mercer, and cost $1 million when built. Somerset County also has a domed Somerset County Courthouse in Renaissance Revival style with a limestone exterior. The building was designed by architect J.C. Fulton, and was completed in 1904. As previously described, Westmoreland County dedicated its opulent domed courthouse of stone and terra cotta just as Mercer County was deciding which architect would design its new building. As Allegheny County grew it briefly considered adding a story to Henry Hobson Richardson's famous Allegheny County Courthouse, completed in 1888. Fortunately Allegheny County expanded into separate new buildings in downtown Pittsburgh: the City-County building of 1917, and County Office Building of 1931.
An important component of the design of the Mercer County Courthouse is the artwork. It was intended to be an integrated complement to the architecture, not mere decorative afterthought. It is almost certain, given architect Charles F. Owsley's training, that the blank wall space behind each judge's bench in the two original courtrooms, and the underside of the rotunda dome, were specifically reserved to receive historical or allegorical paintings. The courtroom paintings are considered murals, each measuring 10' by 15' and are the dominant decorative elements in the two spaces.
America's many Beaux Arts-trained artists and architects were the spearhead of a movement to introduce to what they perceived to be an uncultured United States a European-style appreciation for fine arts architecture, and city planning. The famous "White City" of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 was an idealized model of city planning and architecture, and the interiors of the buildings were thoroughly painted by mural artists.
Architect Owsley worked with the "dean of American mural painting," Edwin H. Blashfield, on the Mahoning County Courthouse. Although Blashfield did not work on the Mercer County Courthouse, artists he employed did, almost certainly because of Blashfield's relationship with Owsley. Among Blashfield's artists for the Youngstown building was Alonzo Foringer who painted one of Mercer County's courtroom works. Italian-born Vincent Aderante (sometimes Adarante), painted a mural in the Mahoning County Courthouse, and other courtroom painting for Mercer County; he also may have had ties to Blashfield and Aderante and Foringer collaborated on other major projects, worked from the same artists in New York City, and apparently were business partners. A third distinguished artist, Edward E. Simmons, worked on the rotunda decoration for the Mercer County Courthouse. Simmons apparently worked on commission for the Andrews Decorating Company that had the contract for the painted decoration in the Mercer building. He did not work on the Mahoning County project, and was not affiliated with Blashfield.
In 1912 Edwin Blashfield delivered a series of lectures in Chicago on "Mural Painting in America," which was first published as a book of the same name in 1913. Blashfield heaped praise on France for integrating art into large and small public buildings, and described what he perceived to be one of the main benefits, and the philosophical background for the paintings in the Mercer County Courthouse:
"In Athens twenty-two hundred years ago, in Rome eighteen hundred years ago, the man who lacked the power the will or the time to read went to the public buildings to learn history, which he found there painted and sculpted so plainly that he learned without effort. ...The artist is teaching the lesson of intellectual development; teaching it with brush and chisel to the child who has not yet learned to read and the peasant who is too old to learn. ...And if this is good for the uneducated Frenchman, it is good, too for the uneducated Irishman. German, Swede, Italian, who may stroll into some new city hall in our own country. This is the strongest appeal which can be made for public and municipal art, that it is a public and municipal educator."
The painting in Mercer County's Courtroom Number One is Criminal Law by Vincent Aderante. Criminal Law is an allegorical painting showing four female figures: Humanity asking for Justice under Law, tempered by Mercy. Aderante was born in Naples, Italy in 1880. He apparently arrived in the United States early in this century. The outline biographies of Aderante label him a mural painter. His list of works include paintings in the lunettes at the U.S. Mint in Denver, a historical scene on a panel at the courthouse in Youngstown, an allegorical painting for a Youngstown library also designed by architect Owsley, and 11 panels done with Alonzo Foringer for City Hall in Yonkers, N.Y., called "History of Yonkers." Aderante apparently left a body of work in Europe as well, for there is a biography of the artist in an Italian publication. Aderante returned to Mercer in 1937 to restore both his and Alonzo Foringer's courtroom murals, at the direction, of architect Owsley. He died in 1941.
A native of Western Pennsylvania, Alonzo Foringer was born in Armstrong County in 1878 and received training in an art school in Pittsburgh before furthering his art education in New York City. Foringer did murals for the Utah State Capitol, the Yonkers, New York project, and Church of the Savior in Philadelphia. He also worked as an illustrator for Scribner's magazine. Foringer won prizes in competitions for poster art, and is best remembered for the World War I Red Cross poster, The Greatest Mother in the World. Foringer's painting in Mercer County's Courtroom Number Two is Justice hearing a case before the public. Foringer died in 1948
The courtroom paintings were contracted separately from the "decoration" of the building's halls and rotunda. Artist Edward E. Simmons (1852-1931) painted the allegorical figures in the pendentives of the Mercer County Courthouse rotunda. A nephew of poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Simmons was a landscape and mural painter who's fame rivaled Blashfield's. Simmons trained in Paris, worked on murals for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, and won a prize at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. He did murals for the Library of Congress. Massachusetts State House, Minnesota State Capitol, South Dakota State Capitol, Harvard College, and several other courthouses. His work in Mercer is for female figures representing Guilt, Innocence, Power, and Justice.
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