Allegheny County Courthouse and Old Jail
The most lasting and well-known symbol of Allegheny County is the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail complex, designed in 1883 by Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and built between 1884-1888.
These internationally recognized historic structures reflect Hobson's stature as one the greatest architects in the history of American architecture, and continue to draw visitors from throughout the world who marvel at the buildings' simple style, dignity and strength.
The current courthouse is actually the third in the history of Allegheny County. The first permanent Pittsburgh Courthouse was built in the area now known as Market Square. It was replaced in 1841 by a grand building in the Greek Revival style. This courthouse was built on Grant's Hill, on the site of the present courthouse.
On May 7, 1882, a fire broke out in the rotunda of the second Allegheny County Courthouse, destroying the building. Soon after, county commissioners sent letters to one hundred American architects, asking them to submit designs for a new Allegheny County Courthouse. On January 31, 1884, Richardson was officially chosen to design Allegheny County's new courthouse.
Richardson's design was chosen because of its clarity of design and organization. He said he designed the buildings, "to express in the exterior the character and purpose of the interior, and to rely for architectural effect upon the arrangement of the messes, and the dignity and solidity of the construction."
Construction on the Courthouse and jail complex began in 1884. Work on the jail was completed in 1886. The courthouse was completed in 1888, Unfortunately, Richardson did not live to see his masterpiece completed. He died in 1886.
The architecture is characterized by the classic symmetry of the Renaissance, with Romanesque details, including Syrian arches, Byzantine Capitals, late French Gothic dormer windows and French Renaissance roofs. Among the most impressive features of the courthouse and jail are the Courthouse tower, rising more than 229 feet; the solemn mass of the jail; the picturesque silhouettes of the roof lines, towers and turrets; the soaring arches and dignified columns; and the practical arrangements of windows, which provide an abundance of natural light.
Although there have been innumerable alterations to both the courthouse and jail over the years, these impressive buildings have withstood the test of time and remain powerfully expressive structures enjoyed as architectural masterpieces.
The jail, which was officially closed in 1995, has been masterfully converted into a new combined home of the juvenile and family sections of the Common Pleas Court. The restored and readapted facility has won many national and international design awards.