HAIL TEMPLE BUILT TO JUSTICE
COPYRIGHT 1994 BY
Hail Temple Built to Justice began as an exhibit project at the Mercer County Historical Society which was originally scheduled for completion in three months. During the course of research for the exhibit it became clear that I could not hope to relate a detailed history of Mercer County's Court Houses in the context of a museum exhibit alone. Thus the idea of a companion text was born and what was to be a three month project eventually took over a year and a half to complete. The research for such a project cannot help but be dependant on the assistance of many people, some of whom I would like to acknowledge here.
First I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Mercer County government, including Commissioners Fragle, Lazor and Reznor and their helpful staff for help with research as well as artifacts; Jack Gilbert and the Micrographics Department for access to the County Archives; Director of Maintenance Louis DeJulia for the use of the original Lougee and Owsley blueprints as well as the Third Court House specifications; and Ambrose Rocco in the Purchasing Department for research materials on the Court House artwork.
At the Historical Society the entire staff of employees and volunteers helped immensely in the completion of this project through their attendance to some of the day-to-day operations of the Society which allowed me the freedom to pursue research and writing. I would also like to thank President David Miller for his encouragement, Treasurer Jerry Johnson for his insights and Secretary Mark Brown for allowing me the use of his private scrapbooks. Dr. Robert Olson, chairman of the Society's Publications Committee, also deserves special mention for his efforts in editing this manuscript.
Members of the community of Mercer County were also of valuable assistance in the completion of this manuscript and the exhibit. These include Jerry Albert, Dr. Richard Fithian, Gail Habbyshaw, Dorothy Morris, Dr. Walter Powell, James Stokely, Carl Swartz, Steve VanWoert, Wendell August Forge and Randy Zigo. I hope that I have not omitted any of the people who contributed to this project.
Last, but not least, I would like to thank my wife Barbara and son Christopher for their support over the eighteen plus months that I have worked on Hail Temple Built to Justice. As Christopher was born shortly after the research for this project began, he has grown with it and time spent watching him grow and learn provided the best relief from work on this project.
As with any work such as this, I alone am responsible for any errors of fact or omissions.
Researching a subject such as a county court house leads the researcher to many specialized sources as well as more common primary and secondary materials such as letters, diaries, newspapers, county histories and the like. This manuscript utilized additional sources such as the Court Sessions Dockets which contained the presentments of the grand juries who regularly visited the county buildings and reported on their condition. Also the County Commissioners Minutes provided information on the opening of bids, the awarding of contracts and the payment of warrants for work completed. In addition, original bid specifications, blueprints and court papers were consulted for information.
However, in the case of Mercer County gaps in many of these records prevented documentation of many aspects of the history of the court houses. One of these gaps was the missing volume of Court Sessions Dockets covering the year 1840 when the First Court House was supposedly enlarged and improved. The lack of a complete run of newspapers from this period also hindered documentation of this work so that the exact nature of the improvements and the contractor who completed them is unknown.
The one other primary source that would have helped in documenting not only the 1840 improvements but much of the history of the First and Second Court Houses was also lacking. Sadly, it appears that the County Commissioners' Minutes from 1811 to 1907 were lost in the fire that destroyed the Second Court House. The minutes from 1803 to 1810 were saved by chance although they were in private hands outside of the county until the 1930s. It is primarily through these early minutes that the building of the First Court House is documented. Also missing are the Commissioners' Minutes from 1908 to 1916 although the fate of these is uncertain. These minutes would have been very helpful researching the choice of architect and other matters related to the building of the Third Court House.
Although these missing records made some aspects of the research very frustrating, other sources proved to be gold mines of information. Owing to the fact that the court houses have always dominated Mercer Borough, the local newspapers often times noted even the most mundane happenings at the buildings in their local news columns. Also, the diaries of Reverend John Duncan provided some insight into the Second and Third Court Houses as well as the use of the Mercer Academy building as a temporary court house from 1907 to 1911.
In addition, illustrations and photographic materials also proved very helpful in discovering when certain changes or improvements were made at the court houses. Unfortunately no photos showing the entire First Court House were discovered even though it is known that a photographer was active in Mercer at least eleven years before the fire of 1866. A newspaper copy of a photo showing returned veterans of the 39th Pennsylvania Volunteers (10th Reserves) exists that is purported to have been taken at the First Court House, although this shows only a brick wall and shuttered windows. Without further evidence the illustrations from the 1843 Historical Collections of Pennsylvania and the 1855 Mercer Borough Map are our only clues as to the appearance of the First Court House.
Finally, since this site is the history of a site and the buildings that occupied it, visits to the present Court House and the park were essential to understanding what the records revealed. Comparing the original blueprints of the present Court House to its floor plan today revealed a great deal that wasn't reported in the newspapers or written into the bid specifications for any given improvement. Another important aspect of a visit to the present Court House is that feeling that such a building conveys to the visitor. The larger then life artwork, the massive original Court Rooms and the Imposing rotunda all combine to instill a feeling of awe that can help one easily understand the pride in Mercer County that led the Commissioners, Judge Williams, the Advisory Committee and the citizens of the county to erect such an imposing Temple Built to Justice.
Just as the U.S. Capital Building and the fifty state capital buildings symbolize the endurance and strength of the governments that they house so too, on a smaller scale, does each county court house in the United States symbolize the endurance and strength of its county government and agents of justice. In Mercer County this symbol has been threatened and consumed by disaster more than once but each time has been resurrected in a new form designed to meet the needs of a growing county administration and justice system.
But a county court house is often more than just a building or symbol of county government. It has traditionally been a place for gatherings such as church services, public and organizational meetings, Teacher's Institutes, Red Cross sewing projects and even Ku Klux Klan meetings. In Mercer County each of the court houses has served the county community in this way. In addition, the Court House Square has provided a pleasant park for both visitors to the Court House and residents of Mercer Borough to enjoy.
The story of Mercer County's Court Houses provides an insight into the county's administration, the pride of county residents in their community and the impact of growth and development of the county over nearly 200 years.
Mercer County was formed on March 12, 1800, out of part of Allegheny County and was administered until 1804 from Meadville, Crawford County. In February of 1804 the first court session in Mercer County was held at Joseph Hunter's tavern on the banks of Mill Creek just east of present-day Mercer Borough. This building was described by John Pearson who traveled through the area in 1803.
Hunter's is a tolerable good house but covered with boards which let the water through when it
Authorization for this work came through legislation entitled " An Act for Establishing and Confirming the places for Holding the Courts of Justice, and for Erecting the Public Buildings for the County of Mercer." In it the Trustees of Mercer County, William McMillan, John Findley and William Mortimore were empowered to survey and lay-out the town of Mercer and designate no more than five acres for the use of public buildings and to sell the remaining lots at public sale. The proceeds of these sales were to be used to erect a jail and court house. The first home of the Court in Mercer County, which was erected under the authorization of the above act, was a hewed log structure located on North Diamond Street, just east of present-day Mellon Bank on the western half of lot seven, as identified on the original plot of Mercer Borough.
Besides serving as a court room the upper floor was also used by the First Presbyterian Church for services. The use of the public buildings for religious services would continue for many years in Mercer County and would figure in the first court house fire.
Despite the versatility of the building it soon became clear that it was less than satisfactory as a court house. This was demonstrated during a case presided over by Judge Jesse Moore sometime before 1807. During the session, Thomas and Hugh Bingham were roofing a structure next door to the jail/court house and disturbed Judge Moore with their noisome hammering. The judge sent his tip staff to tell the brothers to desist in their noisemaking but was ignored. Judge Moore sent the tip staff back to arrest the Binghams who, seeing his approach and supposedly guessing his purpose, pulled their ladder up with them and thus avoided Judge Moore's anger. It is not recorded if Judge Moore ever meted-out any punishment to the Bingham brothers.
Besides problems of noise from outside, the building itself was apparently not of the best construction. In the Commissioner's minutes from November 6, 1806, contracts were entered into with John McCurdy, carpenter, for court house repairs and with John McCauley, mason, for repairing the chimneys and hearths and for daubing the court house. In April 1807 the Commissioners made a further agreement with Sam Thompson and John McCauley to take down and rebuild the chimneys for the sum of $148.00. The next month further work was authorized in an agreement with Richard McElwain for "closing the floor and roof " for $35.00.
Even after the court vacated the building its maintenance continued to be a burden for the county. A notation in the Mercer County Auditor's Book for 1812 indicated the auditor's doubts regarding a contract with Hugh Bingham for further repairs on "the Old Court House and Jail" which included a new floor and partitions in the jail apartment and a stairway to the old court room "where a Jail Room is to be erected for the reception of prisoners". The auditors expressed their view that the repairs were unnecessary and, although they audited the first $50.00 of the repairs, they recommended that the further $150.00 for the repairs "would be as well in the Treasury of Mercer County."
In 1807 the County Commissioners began the process of erecting Mercer County's first true court house. After calling for proposals at their April 13th meeting they met with Joseph Smith and John McCurdy the next month and entered into an agreement to erect the building for the sum of $7116.00. Even with an agreement in place it wasn't until August 31st that the Commissioners met to "fix the center of the diamond for the place of building the public buildings," and it wasn't until September 23rd that they "staked out the ground in the diamond for the court house and public offices."
It is assumed that work may have started soon after the staking-out of the ground, but documentation of the construction is very scant. It is believed that at least part of the lumber used in constructing the court house came from John Uber's sawmill in Liberty Township, however, no specific origin of the bricks used has been found. From the Commissioner's Minutes of 1808 we know that an additional agreement concerning the court house's construction was entered into with Smith and McCurdy on August 18, 1808. In December 1808 warrants were issued for paying James Miller $3.27 for glazing the court house windows and $.87 1/2 to Hugh Bingham for hanging the court house doors and altering the doors on the jail.
By fall of 1809 the building was nearing completion as warrants were issued to pay Jonathan Cochran for moving the bench and chairs from the old court house to the new court house ($1.50), to pay David Courtney for bringing the court house bell from Pittsburgh ($8.00) and to pay William Clancy for caulking and laying stones for the court house.
Descriptions of the first court house generally agree that it was a two storey brick structure with a cupola and one storey wings projecting from the east and west sides. The first floor housed the court room, and the second floor had three jury rooms. The wings were used for county offices. In 1840 the wings were taken down and the structure enlarged to better accommodate county offices at an approximate cost of $1500.00.
A somewhat confusing description of the first court house comes to us from a newspaper account of the cornerstone laying of the third court house. Citing William S. Garvin, whose manuscript was posthumously used as a basis for the 1888 Mercer County History, the article says that no offices were in the first court house but that the Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts occupied a
...small building in front of the court house ...and another in the rear of the building, used by the
Could it be that the 'wings' referred to in the 1877 History were actually these small buildings? The only possible documentation of these buildings that was found consists of the illustration of the Court House from the 1855 map of Mercer Borough which shows a small building at the southeast corner of the Court House park and a presentment of the grand jury in 1860 which recommended
...that the building immediately west of the court house is a nuisance in the shape that it now is (in),
While no records exist that describe the interior of the first court house, advertisements from local newspapers after the 1840 remodeling provide a few clues about the arrangement and use of the building. As early as 1841 and at least as late as 1859 space in the court house was used by local attorneys whose advertisements indicated their offices were " in the public buildings, next door to the Register's office" (R.C. Rankin), "opposite the Registers and Recorder's office " (Kintzing Pritchette), "office in the court house, above the Prothonotary's" (T.S. Cunningham), "in...the Registers and Recorder's office (James Galloway), "next door to Sheriff's office, nearly opposite the Registers and Recorder's office" (N. W .Cunningham), "...in the Commissioner's office" (John D. McGill), "...same occupied by the Sheriff" (S.R. Mason), and "upstairs in the court house, southeast room, the same occupied by the County Treasurer" (A. McDermitt). " Also in 1852, Joseph Hill, daguerretypist, "... again opened his gallery in the court house and would be happy to have a call from any and all who want pictures."
Unfortunately none of the County Auditor's annual reports from this period indicate if the county charged any type of rent for this space (although rent of the house at the jail is recorded). Regardless, it is a reminder that in that day and age elected officials were not required or expected to be in their offices every working day, and thus the space was available for other uses.
Throughout the remaining life of the building a number of minor improvements were suggested through the Grand Jury Presentments of each session of the Court, and, apparently, a number were adopted and completed. Because of the incomplete nature of the surviving documents we are surer of what was proposed than what was actually done.
The Grand Jury Presentments that survive provide an insight into the needs of the Court House and the people who worked there. In 1846 and 1847 the Jury recommended improvements ''as to make (the Court Room) more convenient for the Court, the jurors, the bar, and the citizens in attendance and thus facilitate and render business more comfortable." In April of 1847 an additional specific recommendation was made to carpet the grand jury room in order to lessen the disturbing noise that emanated from the room, which was directly over the Court Room. The Jury that convened at the end of 1847 was obviously impressed with the work and complimented the Commissioners but not without adding a suggestion of its own:
(we)...take great pleasure in complimenting the County Commissioners for their chaste and cheap
Over the next few years the Grand Jury Presentments are fairly quiet on the state of the court house save to recommend a sloping cellar door in 1850 to prevent flooding, a lock on the Grand Jury room and roof repairs in 1856 and unspecified changes in the Prothonotary's office "(in) which the counter (is) too much crowded for convenience" in 1859. Four years later further improvements were planned that apparently provided for major changes in the interior arrangement of the building, however, the only detailed reference to this is a Grand Jury recommendation that advises the Commissioners to changes their plans for remodeling and repairing the Court House by adding six feet to the length of the Court Room by deducting the same from the adjoining jury room.
No evidence was found to confirm if this work was ever carried out however the presentment of the Grand Jury that met in January 1866 seems to indicate that perhaps the remodeling was never done.
The Grand Inquest of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania inquiring in and for the county of Mercer
This recommendation would be acted on sooner than any of the Grand Jury members probably thought possible. On Sunday morning February 25, 1866, fire broke out in the Court House. It was first discovered in the cupola and was thought to have started through stove pipes that had been rearranged the week before to accommodate cooking stoves brought into the building for some type of festival that used the Court House. Apparently someone forgot to return the pipes to their original configuration, and when the stove was lit to heat the building on Sunday for church services the fire broke out.
The Sharon Herald's account of the fire included this comment:
When first discovered it is thought a little exertion might have extinguished it, but the citizens
The above quote alludes to the retention of the court house in Mercer Borough. A minor fracas concerning the court house and the location of the county seat had been much discussed just prior to the fire. In Greenville, at that time one of the most prosperous areas in the county owing to it being a railroad hub, a number of citizens felt that their town was a more appropriate site for the county seat. Given that the present Court House was in need of replacement or extensive remodeling, it seemed an opportune time (autumn of 1865) to begin a drive to affect that change. Accordingly an effort was mounted in Harrisburg to provide for a county-wide referendum on the subject, but the efforts were unsuccessful in reporting the bill. Shortly thereafter the Court House burned, and work on its replacement begun.
The Sharon Herald report of the fire also refers to the concern for the safety of the public records stored in the Court House. This would be a recurring theme over the next several years, however, one is almost tempted to read into the quote that the writer felt that the citizens of Mercer deliberately used the excuse of saving the records as justification for not fighting the fire more strenuously thereby guaranteeing the construction of a new court house.
The Court House fire of 1866 had one other long term affect, and that was to deprive Mercer Borough of fire-fighting apparatus for nearly six years. The borough's fire engine had been purchased after a petition drive in 1824 that followed the destructive Union Church fire. The engine, which was said "to have been a superior piece of equipment", was lost when "some persons under the influence of liquor crowded the machine into the basement (of the court house)... and caused it to be burned Up." A slightly different version of the destruction of the fire engine was related to the Mercer Dispatch in 1934 by former Mercer resident Garrett S. Sykes.
Following the fire the Commissioners worked quickly to get the ball rolling on building a new Court House. To allow the Commissioners to proceed with the task without the requisite two successive presentments of the grand juries, both the Senate and the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth enacted legislation on March 16, 1899 to allow the commissioners to
erect, immediately, by contract, or otherwise,
as they may deem proper, a new court house, on the
This act also enabled the Commissioners to levy a tax of up to five mills on the dollar and/or to borrow up to $50,000.00, at no more then eight percent interest, to finance the new building. Although no documentation of the process of drawing-up specifications or advertising for bids is known to exist, it is clear that the Commissioners were determined to move the project along quickly. By the end of November the local newspaper was able to report:
The brick work has stopped, the frame of the cupola is partly up, and the
roofing has been
Besides this account of the building's progress, precious little is known about the process of its construction. The architectural work was preformed by the Pittsburgh firm of Barr and Mosser who would also design the new jail and second United Presbyterian Church in Mercer (present-day Bethany Church). The actual work was done by individual paid laborers who were
superintended by William Maskrey of Clarksville, brick and stonework, Oliver Alexander of Mercer, carpentry, and William M. Gibson of Mercer, glass and finishing work including painting. While no record was found that indicated where the Court and county offices were accommodated while the new building was being built, it is assumed that possibly one of the local churches was used for Court sessions and the offices were located in one or several of the local hotels.
Speaking at the laying of the cornerstone of the Third Court House, the Honorable S.S. Mehard, retired Mercer County judge, made mention of the occasion when the same task was performed for the Second Court House. He related that no formal ceremonies accompanied the event which consisted of placing a cigar box with "a few articles" (including a tintype of Mehard which, thirty-three years later, he called the most valuable item) in the stone. It was not determined if the artifacts from this stone were ever recovered.
The building seems to have been used quite some time for court sessions before completion as is witnessed by the November 21,1867, grand jury presentment which "heartily endorse(d) the well earned eulogy by the President Judge to the County Commissioners for their services in the erection of this noble building the Court House." The supposition that the rest of the building was not finished at this time is based on the fact that the local newspapers didn't carry reports on the completion until almost a year later when in October of 1868 the Western Press printed a rather lengthy and detailed description of the building which is presented in abbreviated form here:
The new building is placed in the center of the public square, and hence the architect,
The passage from east to west is termed the corridor-that from north to the corridor is termed the
The court room is 51 x 61 feet including gallery, and 21 feet between the floor and
ceiling the bar of
The reported cost of the Second Court House was $98,000.00 although no official documentation such as the County Auditor's Report for 1867 or 1868 was found to substantiate this figure. A different figure was published in a newspaper story dealing with the architect's fees for providing drawings of the building in 1908. At that time the architect did not submit a bill for his services, and the county's solicitor advised the going rate was two percent of the cost to erect the building or $1,340.00, which would indicate the cost was $67,000.00, the cost associated with the second jail. The $67,000.00 figure for the jail, though repeated in all three county histories, is shown to have been just over $41,500.00 in the Mercer County Auditor's Report for 1868. It is probable that the jail construction expenses were reported over two years which could certainly allow for a total of $67,000.00, meaning that in 1908 the architect was under-paid by over $600.00 if the much-published $98,000.00 figure for the Second Court House is accepted as true.
Regardless of the cost and the glowing newspaper accounts of the new building the gram n
That they examined the Court House in all its parts and found the building
generally convenient and
Unfortunately there is no account of what, if any, steps were taken to correct this problem. The fact that no further mention of the problem was made in any succeeding presentments and that the County Auditor's report for 1870 included over $1000.00 for 'Court House expenses' would seem to indicate that some solution was found.
The next several years saw a number of grand jury presentments recommending numerous improvements and changes at the Court House including changes in the Prothonotary's office, repairs to the south balcony which was deemed "unsafe" new floor coverings and repairs to the lead water tank in the basement. Most importantly, however, were two recommendations that came through the grand jury that met during the first Court sessions of 1881.
No original plans or specifications exist that tell us what the original heating arrangements were. An engraving from the 1877 History shows approximately ten chimneys on the structure which might indicate individual stoves located throughout for heating the building. While the need for a new heating system may well have been justified, it seems that the fire of 1866 didn't leave as great an impression on the commissioners as did the desire to more efficiently heat the building. Although more recommendations were made relative to the needs of the county's records over the next several months no steps were taken regarding the further safe-keeping of the county's records. However, in August of 1882 the commissioners did award the contract for a new heating system for the Court House.
Another improvement. On Tuesday the commissioners awarded the contract for putting steam
The entire apparatus to be put in will be of the most improved style and first class workmanship. The
The new heating system was in place on time and "proved very satisfactory," but this was only part of some major improvements and expenditures for the building in 1882. In May the basement of the Court House had been paved by Daniel Moyer of New Hamburg, who also performed the same work on the main corridor at the Alms House and on the walks at the east and west ends of the Court House square. In November the interior was frescoed, a project that also included the addition of painted life size figures of Justice and Liberty flanking the Court Room's bench and the coat of arms of the Commonwealth above. Unfortunately the artist of this work is not known.
At the same time the frescoing was in progress the Court Room also received further attention including revarnishing of the seats and desks which made "the Court House, in every particular,... look better, be more comfortable and more convenient than at any time since it was built." Nor was the exterior forgotten. Ceilings were installed in both the north and south porticos (which had been in an unfinished condition since the Court House was built) and a floor put in the south one as well.
Even with all these improvements the Grand Jury's recommendation concerning better arrangements for safeguarding the county's records from fire was ignored. No action was taken in the Clerk of Courts Office and what improvements were made in the Prothonotary's Office to protect their records came only through what arrangements and work the staff itself did-and this two years after the original Grand Jury Presentment.
Last week Prothonotary Simonton and his efficient deputy J. C. Miller, had a general "redding up"
The prediction concerning the ability of the vault in the Prothonotary's Office to absorb six more years of records turned out to be just a bit optimistic, for in 1887 it was found necessary to provide more vault space for that office at the cost of $525.00, and the Clerk of Courts' Office had its own vault installed for $1,502.07. Unfortunately no report was found on the character of these vaults, but subsequent events indicate that these steps taken to protect the records were inadequate for a growing county administration.
Over the next eight years the local newspapers and Grand Jury Presentments are very quiet concerning the Court House, but in 1895 and 1896 major improvements were undertaken that would change the floor plan considerably and make-up for any deficiencies in prior steps to safeguard Mercer County's records. In 1895 the jury rooms were re-configured to provide for an attorney's consultation room and a new office for the County Superintendent. At the same time the Prothonotary's Office was considered for enlargement and the Court Room was extensively changed in its arrangements. The Sharon Herald described the new Court Room setting in September:
The Court Room has undergone many alterations during the summer vacation. In
the past juries have
The Court Crier's right to a comfortable seat like the "large easy chair" mentioned above Must have been a traditional right of the office. In 1903 Judge Miller related an incident when he had attended court in Mercer and an earlier unnamed Judge occupied the bench.
I attended one day ...a session of the court at which this judge presided. The Court Crier was a very
His snores, of course, disturbed the proceedings of the court. The judge displayed great
"Crier Boles," he said in a loud voice, "Crier Boles, someone is snoring."
The Crier awakened. He started to his feet. "Silence," he exclaimed, "there must be no snoring in
The 1896 improvements at the Court House finally included an overall plan to ensure the safety of county records from fire. Newspaper advertisements asked for sealed proposals for contracts for "repairing of offices and construction of vaults" and informed potential contractors that they could view the plans at the Commissioners' Office or in New Castle at the office of C. C. Thayer whom Mercer County had hired as project architect. Later in the same month the firm of Huey and White of New Castle was awarded the contract on its bid of $4,900.00 and provided that the work should be finished by December 1st.
Although none of the original specifications or invoices from this project survive, newspaper accounts as well as the annual County Auditor's Report make it clear that the renovations included fire-proofing the Sheriff's, Recorder's and Prothonotary's Offices as well as removing the large circular counter of the latter office to the Clerk of Court's Office. At the same time contractor Huey was doing his work new metallic fixtures ( probably the typical narrow standing files which were, and still are, used to store folded Court papers) were to be installed in the Prothonotary's and Recorder's Offices although their installation was delayed due to problems at the factory. At the same time many of the offices and corridors were repainted and re-papered. By December 18th (17 days later than the contract specified) the Commissioners made their inspection of Huey's work which had been finished earlier that same week.
The Auditor's Report for 1896 indicates that the total cost of the fire-proofing work was $5,015.75 (less than $200.00 over budget) with an additional $250.55 for architectural fees. The cost of the metallic fixtures which were finally installed in late January of 1897 was $2,121.00 giving a total of $7,136.75 for both contracts, making this work one of the most expensive projects concerning the Court House up to that time however, as the local press pointed out
...the expense of making two offices fire-proof is small, as compared with the irreplaceable loss that
Even with this endorsement there were still improvements to be made to the improvements.
The recent improvements are being somewhat improved. What was intended to be used as a vault
These last changes marked the end of major alterations at the Court House until after the turn of the century. Through its first thirty years the building had shown itself adaptable to the needs of a growing county administration and remained an attractive structure that dominated Mercer Borough and the surrounding countryside. At least one photographer found it an ideal perch from which to record the town near the century's turn, and the building itself was often the subject of both amateur and professional lensmen.
Through the first few years of the new century the Court House demanded little attention in the way of costly repairs or improvements. A leak in the boiler in January 1905 upset the general routine of the Court House as numerous Reznor gas stoves were brought in to heat the building, and the lights were left on at night to help prevent water pipes from freezing. Judge Williams felt compelled to hold Court in the Law Library "being unwilling to risk an attack of pneumonia by sitting in the Court Room." A major repainting and re-papering project was mounted by William Stansbury of South Sharon (now Farrell) in 1906, and the Grand Jury Presentments recommended only minor improvements such as new carpeting in certain areas and cementing the men's room floor.
Another minor event of note was the debut public telephone at the Court House in 1906.
The County Commissioners have given the Bell Telephone Company permission to place a toll
The wording of this notice suggests that at least some county officials had telephones in their offices, however, it is not clear when this innovation was added to Mercer County government.
One long awaited and recommended improvement finally was made in 1907 and it would have dire consequences. As early as 1876 a Grand Jury recommended that the Commissioners place a town clock in the tower of the Court House. In 1880 talk in the local newspapers indicated that everyone (in the view of the newspaper editors) would love for Mercer Borough to have a town clock mounted in the tower of the Court House. Again in 1899 another Grand Jury recommended this improvement and further agitation appeared in 1906 in the Mercer Dispatch.
The County Commissioners are being urged to purchase a large clock to be installed in the Court
Just fourteen days later the Grand Jury's Presentment for the October Quarter Sessions of Court appeared in the same paper and recommended "that a suitable clock be placed upon the ( Court House)". Given this recommendation the slow wheels of government began to grind so that by the time six months had passed the Dispatch could report
The County Commissioners on Wednesday purchased a large clock which will be placed in the
Throughout the summer of 1907 items in the Mercer Dispatch's "About Town" column recorded the progress (or lack thereof) of the clock project. At the end of May the platform for the clock had been completed in the cupola, but in late June the Howard Clock Company reported that problems at its factory would make the July 1st target date for installation unattainable. Finally in late September the company reported that the clock was complete and undergoing factory tests.
The last report gave some hope that the clock would be in place some time in October, but further " About Town" items show that this was a forlorn hope. On October 11th it was reported that "part of the clock ...has arrived from the factory," but not until November 15th did the complete unit make its appearance. Even so the actual installation had to wait for the arrival of an "expert from the factory" and wasn't completed until November 25th, nearly five months after the original installation date.
The tower clock was actually part of a three clock system that consisted of it and two smaller timepieces, one in the court room and another in the Commissioner's office, both of which were regulated by the main clock. The entire system was powered by electricity, however the dials of the tower clock were illuminated by gas lights " so that the timepiece will be of use every hour out of 24."
The completion of this installation was most welcomed by the local press, but the enjoyment of this new addition to the Court House was short-lived. On the night of Sunday, December 15, 1907, for the second time in just over forty years, fire again visited the Mercer County Court House.
The Western Press reported the discovery of the fire as follows:
Boston, of Findley, was in Mercer Sunday night, and his best girl had pointed to
the parlor clock,
The Reverend John S. Duncan of the First Presbyterian Church of Mercer (burned January, 1928) recorded in his diary: "about 10:30 at night as I was sitting in my study [when] the fire bell rang. Went out and found that the Court House was burning. A high wind prevailed and soon the fire was beyond control. Water supply was short. Building was destroyed, only the walls being left. The fire, it is thought, was caused by an explosion of gas."
Opinions differed as to who first spotted the fire and how it started. A special to the Mercer Dispatch dated December 16th offered this report:
exact cause of the fire is not known and the reasons assigned are conflicting.
Despite the above report it is generally held that the arrangement for the gas piping to the lights that illuminated the clock's dials was somehow faulty, and a build-up in gas was ignited by a spark from an unknown source which resulted in the conflagration. Regardless of how the fire started all accounts agree that brisk winds helped fan the flames and low water pressure prevented any effective counter measures. The Sharon Herald reported that the firemen's hose could only throw a stream twenty feet. The call went out to the Greenville Fire Department for assistance but was withdrawn when it became clear that there was no hope of containing the flames. With that realization the volunteer firemen turned their attention to saving the records from the non-fireproofed Clerk of Courts Office.
Despite these efforts to save the county's precious documents Judge Williams refused to let anyone try to save materials from his second floor office which included papers from pending court cases and his collection of law books. The Bar Association's Law Library was also destroyed and was, like Judge Williams' law books, uninsured. Also destroyed were numerous "old records" stored in the attic which had provided excellent fuel for the fire. Probably among these were the county's early tax lists and the Commissioners' minutes. Luckily, the bulk of the county's records were saved by the fireproof vaults and other measures that were part of the 1896 improvements. Fortunate circumstances also allowed for saving the records from the Clerk of Courts Office which, although not fireproof, was located on the ground floor. As was mentioned above, when it became apparent that the fire could not be contained with the means at hand the volunteer firemen turned their attention to saving these records, which they accomplished before the fire reached the first floor. Additionally, the building's relative isolation at the center of the Court House Park, along with the blanket of snow that covered nearby buildings, prevented embers that were blown by the brisk wind from igniting further blazes which could have led to an even greater calamity.
By daybreak the picture of destruction became clear. All that was left of the Court House were the exterior walls surrounding debris and the fireproof vaults that had saved the county's records. That Monday must have been a somber day in Mercer Borough though a busy one too.
Naturally Judge Williams cancelled the December term of Common Pleas Court, and the Commissioners took steps to find temporary quarters for the county's offices and the court. On Tuesday the Commissioners entered into an agreement to lease the Mercer Academy building for two years or until a new court house was ready. The Academy building's chapel on the third floor would serve as court room, and the elected officials were dispersed on the first and second levels. Judge Williams' office was located in a rented room in the First National Bank building, on virtually the same spot that the first jail/court house had been located. The county's auditors took their work to the Hotel Humes, and the Sheriff conducted his business from the Jail. Prior to the selection of the Mercer Academy Building, it was originally thought that the County Commissioners would lease the Second Presbyterian Church located on East Market Street for use as the temporary court house. The Western Press supported this choice for two reasons: the Academy Building had only recently been declared unsafe for school purposes, and the Second Presbyterian Church had itself been a "free tenant of the Court House at different times for years. " Ultimately, however, the Academy Building was chosen because it was better arranged for the purpose.
As busy as the county officials were, making arrangements for conducting the government, the local press was just as busy with their campaigns concerning just what kind of building should replace the burned court house and where it should be located. But even while these issues started to dominate local news columns the Western Press' sardonic editor Charles Whistler couldn't resist indulging his own brand of humor and philosophy in regards to the fire. The first issue of the paper following the fire contained these comments:
Some Mercer people never take a drink except on the occasional burning of the Court House.
A County Seat without a County House- The play without the character of Hamlet.
One of Whistler's comments was aimed at the Court House janitor, John L. Merchant, who it seems he thought gave "to public affairs the attention which others have been elected to give them." Whistler often referred to Merchant as "The Little Commissioner" and had this to say about him and the burning of the building in his charge:
The Little Commissioner is out of a job. It was hardly worth while to fire the Court House to this end.
Editor Whistler's comments were not limited to his remarks concerning the Court House janitor or the fire itself. Handicapped by the Western Press being a weekly sheet that came out on Fridays, he was forced to wait five days to respond to other county papers' calls to change the location of the seat of Mercer County's government. Two days after the fire, Tuesday, December 17, the Greenville Evening Record was repeating the call of 1865 when that town was campaigning for removal of the county seat to Greenville. Shortly thereafter the same newspaper reported that Sharon was interested as well in hosting the county government and the Court. Whistler's reaction to these and other calls to move the county seat consisted of this typical response:
Sharon, South Sharon (now Farrell), Greenville and Grove City may indulge their little pleasantries in
South Sharon, which obviously had a reputation of being somewhat rough and tumble ( at least in Whistler's view ), received additional column space in the same issue of the Press.
South Sharon thinks she would like to have the Court House. Good! We agree that South Sharon
While Whistler's comments about South Sharon contain more sarcasm than outright humor, such was not the case when the Press addressed the possibility of the new court house being built in New Hamburg.
New Hamburg. On the strength of the Court House coming here people are moving into the burg.
Agitation for moving the county seat was short-lived as it soon became clear that, as in 1865, it would require an act of the state legislature to change the county seat. The additional delay that such a step would involve was contrary to the general desire to begin work on a new court house as soon as possible.
The Mercer Academy building was built in 1867 to replace the original Academy building located on North Otter Street. With the dedication of the new school building on East Butler Street in 1901 the Academy Building (by then known as the Mercer Central School) was vacated. That same year Mercer clothier Herman Frankel bought the building which he sold in 1902 to the Mercer Academy and School of Music, of which he was a trustee. How long the Academy and School of Music used the building is unclear as it was declared unsafe for school purposes sometime before the fire.
The occupancy of the Academy Building by the County offices and the Court was for the most part uneventful although certain concerns about the building's safety made their way into the local press and various Grand Jury Presentments. Also, one of Mercer County's most notable trials of the early Twentieth Century was tried in the Academy.
The most commonly voiced concern about the safety of the Academy Building was that the building was not in any way fireproof and that the County's records were at considerable risk. Beginning in January and throughout all of 1908 there were occasional inserts in local newspapers concerning this subject including this one from February:
There was considerable excitement at the Academy Building, the temporary Court House, Monday
In late 1908 a report circulated that the County offices and the Court would vacate the Academy Building for better quarters in the King Block on South Diamond Street (apparently all or part of the building at the southeast corner at the intersection of South Diamond and Erie Streets). The Academy Building, it was said, was "inconvenient ..., unsafe and ...the county records are in constant danger from fire." Commissioner Gill indicated that the report was without foundation and nothing ever came of the story.
The Grand Juries that convened in 1909 and 1910 also had their say about conditions at the temporary Court House. Specifically, their presentments recommended that the Commissioners " use every precaution to guard against accidents from overcrowding of the Court Room ...for the reason that the appearance of the building suggests structural weakness" and that the "attention of the Factory Inspector of this District be called to the attention of the fire escapes on the building now used as Court House."
The aforementioned warning about overcrowding of the Court Room may well have been in anticipation of one of Mercer County's most famous court room dramas, the Billy Whitla Kidnapping Trials. At 9:30 AM on March 18, 1909, eight year old Billy Whitla, nephew of steel millionaire F .H. Buhl of Sharon, was called out of school via a note supposedly sent by his father, James Whitla. When Billy did not return home for lunch his mother began inquiring into his whereabouts. Her suspicions that all was not well were shortly confirmed by a letter delivered by a mail carrier. The letter was in Billy's own hand and ended in a foreboding postscript:
We have your boy and will return him for $10,000. Will see your advertisements in the papers. Insert
Billy's kidnappers, James Doyle and Anna McDermott received their ransom and released the boy but were shortly apprehended in Cleveland. Eventually the pair was returned to Mercer County where they were tried separately.
Boyle's trial was convened first, on May 6, 1909. In less than a day Doyle was tried and convicted. The crowded courtroom gallery was treated to not just one trial for Judge Williams immediately began the proceedings against McDermott, although only jury selection was completed that day. By May 8th closing arguments had been heard, and the jury took only two ballots to convict McDermott as well. Diarist Rev. John Duncan spent all of May 6th in the crowded gallery observing the proceedings.
The little boy was interesting on the stand. In an artless and convincing way he told his story,
Another observer was young Mary Filer, whose father was a member of the bar. He took Mary out of school so she could watch the proceedings from a seat in the attorney's row. Mary's recollection years later was that the court room was so crowded "that you could almost see the walls bulging."
The local press gave little attention to the temporary Court House following the Whitla trials, however, the installation of telephones by the Bell Company in March 1909 did receive notice since it marked the first time since the fire that telephones were available in the seat of justice.
The Commissioners took the first step toward a new court house in mid-January when they invited architects to submit plans for the new building. General specifications called for a structure of between 15,000 and 18,000 square feet. The first floor would house the Prothonotary's, Commissioners', Treasurer's, Clerk of Courts', Recorder's and Sheriff's offices as well as "liberal toilet accommodations". The second floor would house two court rooms of a minimum 2,500 square feet, "properly apportioned with reference to convenience and acoustic properties." Also on this floor would be the judge's chambers, attorneys' rooms and law library. The third storey would contain the Auditor's, Superintendent's and Pension Examiner's offices as well as the jury rooms (grand and petit). The structure would be surmounted by a dome which would have provisions for a large bell and town clock.
The competition amongst the architects was to be entirely voluntary and without compensation. The County Commissioners, assisted by the advisory committee (made up of local attorneys Beriah Magoffin, Quincy A. Gordon and Judge Williams), reserved the right to select the winning plan and to hire the submitting architect if they felt the firm was " competent and otherwise qualified." Eighteen architectural firms, including Sharon architects E. E. Clepper and E. J. Weaver, submitted preliminary plans for the new Court House by the February 1st deadline.
By early February it seemed to the County Commissioners that they had found a competent and qualified architect whose plan met their specifications and with whom they had already done much business. W .S. Lougee of Cleveland had worked for numerous boards of Mercer County Commissioners on such projects as bridge designs and the like as well as drawing the plans of the burned court house as per the requirements of the insurance policies held by the county. It is from his January 1908 drawings and floorplans of that building that we know the internal arrangement of the second court house at the time of its destruction.
Lougee's plans for the new court house reportedly completely satisfied the Commissioners however, Judge Williams vetoed the Commissioner's appointment of Lougee as project architect on the grounds that certain unnamed (at least in the local press) aspects of his design did not satisfy him. With that action the selection process went back to a review of previously submitted designs. When this review was completed the choice of project architect was the Youngstown firm of Owsley and Boucherle and Company. The Mercer Dispatch reported that Owsley and Boucherle's design was the "most elaborate" and was expected to cost $400,000.00 as submitted.
It is worth noting, as did the newspapers at the time, that Owsley and Boucherle had been the architectural firm who had designed Judge Williams' house on West Market Street in Mercer just a few years previously. The senior member of the firm was Charles H. Owsley (c.1847-1935) who had been born in England and learned architecture while working for Sir Gilbert Scott and Sir Digley Wyatt. Owsley lived for a time in Sharon before moving his practice to Youngstown in 1878. In 1904 his son, Charles F. Owsley (1880-1953), joined the firm after stints with Atelier-Masqueray of New York and Atelier-Godfrey and Frenet of Paris. In Mayor June of 1909 the firm's name changed to Owsley, Boucherle and Owsley.
Nothing was discovered about Owsley's partner, Louis Boucherle, and it seems that Mercer County's new court house was chiefly a project of the father and son team. Between them, the two men designed a number of notable Mahoning and Shenango Valle buildings including the F. H. Buhl Club, the C .H .Buhl Hospital and the F. H. Buhl mansion, all in Sharon. They were also responsible for the Grove City Hotel, the Mahoning County Court House, the Peter L. Kimberly Memorial Nurse's Home, Sharon, and numerous residences including ones for a Mrs. M. Bachman and G. H. Boyd, both also in Sharon. Even after the Third Court House was completed the Owsleys would continue to provide professional services to Mercer County, often times preparing plans and specifications to alter their own original design.
After the selection of an architect the next issue regarding the court house that would receive a lot of attention was the cost of the building. Just days before the death of Commissioner Ewing M. Hosack, the Board of Commissioners was in Sharon and announced that they had instructed Owsley and Boucherle to revise their plans for the new Court House so that the cost would not exceed $200,000.00. In accordance with this instruction they directed that the size of the building should be reduced from 200 to 160 feet in length, with the width proportionately reduced as well. It was reported that this action was decided upon after the Commissioners received numerous protests from taxpayers against the expenditure of a larger amount. Also announced at this time was that pressed red brick with stone trimmings would be the primary exterior construction material.
In accordance with state law, Judge Williams quickly filled Hosack's seat on the Board of
In their letter the Commissioners also defended the Advisory Committee, whose appointment by the Commissioners had been criticized for consisting only of lawyers. In their defense they stated that the Bar Association had a legitimate interest in the new Court House but that they would welcome a similar committee made up of "businessmen, farmers or mechanics." In closing their letter the Commissioners added the following:
What we want, is to build a court house that will be dignified and worthy of Mercer County, but at a
The issue of the cost. of the proposed building would not be put to rest. Owing to the lost Commissioners' minutes from this time period we cannot say with any certainty how the debate on this subject proceeded however, newspaper articles do mention an estimate of $325,000.00 in August of 1908.132 When the contract was finally let in October the Western Press took its un-named competitors to task for "insincere caviling" regarding the cost issue. Within that article seems to be the answer as to why a higher cost was finally allowed for.
The Western Press pointed to the example of Butler County which had erected a $250,000.00 court house only a few years before in what was called a case of false economy. Already, in 1908, Butler County was forced to make alterations and additions to its court house at nearly the cost of the original structure. The article further stated that other counties such as Fayette and Washington had recently spent $500,000.00 for their new court houses and that Mahoning County, just over the line in Ohio, was presently building theirs for $1 million. Offered for further comparison was Westmoreland County's new Court House which cost a cool $1.4 million.
Beyond the comparative cost of these other structures the Press also justified Mercer County spending more money by indicating that the Commissioners and the Advisory Committee "had in view the wants of the county for the next seventy-five years." In closing, the article asked that the Commissioners be allowed to proceed with the business of letting the contract and that the "marplots" put an end to their foolish talk.
Even with the selection of an architect and the realization that the building would cost more than $200,000.00 the building of a new court house was still somewhat in doubt owing to the trouble the Commissioners experienced in settling with the companies who held the insurance policies on the old building. The insurance on the building, amounting to $53,000.00, was held by various companies, all of which balked at deeming the Court House a total loss (it was partially due to this situation that the County incurred the expense of having architect Lougee draw plans for the destroyed building).
In April of 1908 the insurance companies indicated that they wanted Mercer County to rebuild the old Court House (the walls of which were still standing) at a cost of $32,000.00, the work to be performed by Wallis and Carley of Sharon The Commissioners rejected the idea and set April 25th as the deadline for the insurance companies to pay the full value of the policies. Upon their failure to do so the County brought suit for the full value of the policies and court summons were issued to the twenty companies involved.
The suit dragged on for nearly a year before a settlement was made. In March of 1909 Mercer County was awarded $36,500.00 for settlement of loss with interest and costs. The Western Press' account at the time of settlement indicated that the lesser amount awarded was due to some error "either by the old Board of Commissioners or their Attorney, in bringing the suits." At the same time that the settlement was announced the Commissioners also announced that the County would be canceling all of its insurance policies with the companies involved in the suit, which amounted to nearly $70,000.00 worth of insurance divided amongst the Alms House, Jail and the temporary Court House's contents.
Even while the suit was slowly working its way through the courts, the Commissioners decided to continue with the job of building a new Court House. The first step was to dismantle and clear away the ruins of the burned building which was done under the direction of Frank McCain. Throughout May and June the work continued with much of the debris being carted off for use elsewhere. It was reported the many people were getting "jags" of stone from the site to patch their sidewalks or to use as fill. A fellow named Newt Robinson was said to have hauled away several loads of finely cut sandstone to use in the foundation of a chicken coop he planned to build, and Prothonotary Fowler lost a valuable hone which was so severely injured hauling stone to the railroad depot for shipment to Sandy Lake that it had to be destroyed.
As the job of removing all traces of the old structure neared completion work on surveying the ground and excavating for the new foundation began. A serious problem was thought to have developed when soft ground was encountered at what would be the southeast corner of the new building. As luck would have it, further examination and tests revealed a firm bed of clay twelve feet down upon which the foundation could safely rest.
During the summer, as the cleanup and surveying work continued, the architects were busy completing the detailed drawings necessary for potential contractors to base their bids upon. By late August the plans were complete and provided for a building 180' x 92' which was a compromise between the original specification of a 200' length and the reduced 160' length the outgoing Board of Commissioners had suggested. The structure was to be topped by a dome 166' high and was expected to cost $325,000.00. On September 18th, 1908 it was reported that Owsley and Boucherle had sent out forty copies of the plans and expected thirty contractors to submit bids which were to be opened on September 21st.
In typical Western Press tongue-in-cheek fashion, editor Whistler offered an entertaining front page account of the opening of the bids. In it he poked good-natured fun at numerous members of the Mercer County Bar including " Attorney Baker, (who had) an alarming predisposition to baldness" and " Attorney Campbell, rotund and oleaginous, (who) rolled across the bar."
Besides his written caricature of the worthies in attendance, Whistler did find space to list the bids for the superstructure, plumbing, heating and electrical wiring. Sixteen general contractors submitted bids for the superstructure, ranging from $324,100.00 to $391,924.00 - the lowest bidder being the firm of Luyster and Lowe of Dayton, Ohio. In addition, nine bids were received for the heating portion of the construction, seven for the plumbing and five for the electrical wiring. The new Court House drew bidders from as far away as Chicago and Indiana as well as companies from Cleveland, Columbus, Philadelphia, Altoona, Pittsburgh and New Castle. Three general contractors from Mercer County were also contenders -Wallis & Carley, William McIntyre & Sons and F. J. McCain. Whistler's account ended in typical fashion:
Zahniser found himself in possession of certified checks payable to his order-as
Accompanying the story of the opening of the bids, The Western Press included a five column illustration of the proposed building, based on E. Eldon Drake's rendering (copyrighted by Owsley) which today hangs in the Court House rotunda.
On Saturday, October 3rd the County Commissioners awarded the contract for the superstructure to the lowest bidder, Luyster and Lowe, of Dayton. It was reported that the Commissioners, the County Solicitor and a representative of the Advisory Committee had journeyed to Dayton and had satisfied themselves that the senior member of the firm, W .W . Luyster, "was ...an up-to-date builder in every respect." By the end of October the contract was closed with Luyster furnishing an $80,000.00 performance bond. His company's work, as well as that of the other contractors (J. W. Byers for plumbing, American Warming & Ventilating for heating and ventilating and Iron City Engineering for the electrical work), was bonded through the Title Guaranty and Surety Company by way of the McClellan Agency of Scranton.
The rest of 1908 passed with no mention of the new court house in the local newspapers. On New Years' Day of 1909 the Dispatch reported that no work would be done on the new building until spring, "this course having been decided on with the consent and approval of the Court, Commissioners, architect and advisory committee. " The same article referred to "numerous rumors" which had circulated about Mr. Luyster all of which his attorney (W.W. Moore) branded as false. It would seem from the article that the rumors may have had something to do with the apparent lack of progress to that point which was explained by the weather. Mr. Moore assured the Dispatch that ''as soon as the weather will permit the dirt will begin to fly."
Although dirt didn't "begin to fly" right away, other essential work was completed throughout January, February and the first part of March 1909. During this time work proceeded on the erection of a stone cutting plant in the East End, possibly on the large lot owned by Newt Robinson at the foot of East Butler Street. Robinson was proprietor of the Mercer Marble Works, and it is known that his foreman, William M. Montgomery, performed stone dressing work on the Court House, including cutting the "1909" on the cornerstone. Luyster's stone cutting machinery required special foundations, and the plant included an electric light plant "so that work may be done day and night. In late March Luyster's preparatory work was rapidly coming to a close.
Active work on the construction of the new Court House was commenced Friday, when contractor W.
The beginning of April marked the start of work on the footings for the building. The Dispatch was careful to mention that rapid progress could not be expected since the south and west sides of the building required very thick footings owing to the presence of soft ground to a considerable depth. By the middle of the month the west side was still giving the contractor some trouble but work on the other sides was progressing to the point that the bricklayers could begin their task.
As the spring waned further events at the construction site were noted in the local press. Included among these were the first two accidents at the site. On May 25, 1909, one of the laborers, who was only identified as being an Italian, fell from the top of the foundation wall while wheeling a barrow load of bricks. In the course of his fall he struck a projection from the wall and was quite bruised and shaken up. Despite the fall it was thought that he would be incapacitated only a few days. The next day, Wednesday the 26th, one of the large cranes broke while carrying a large load of cement. Luckily no one was injured in this second incident, however, these accounts serve to remind us that work sites in the early 20th century were places of great potential danger.
In late May 1909 the local newspapers carried notice that the Commissioners were considering plans from their architect for the construction of a power house to serve the new Court House. This structure would be erected near the jail and would also serve as a stable for that building. While this addition to the project was being considered the Diamond in Mercer hosted what would be the first of many formal occasions at the Third Court House.
On May 29, 1909, many of Mercer County's dignitaries gathered to lay the cornerstone to the new Temple of Justice. Reverend John Duncan, who reported the day as "glorious" in his diary, opened the ceremonies with a prayer which was followed with speeches by a number of attorneys and judges including presiding Judge A. W. Williams, attorney S. R. Mason (then the oldest member of the Mercer County Bar), retired Judge Samuel S. Mehard and attorney Q. A. Gordon.
Gordon's remarks included an interesting perspective on the cost of the new Court House that may have helped put to rest the criticism the Commissioners and the Advisory Committee had taken over the bill for the new building.
...the laboring man who is assessed only with an occupation will be required to pay five cents a year for
The tax that Gordon referred to was specifically designed to established a sinking fund set up by the Commissioners to finance a bond issue that would partially finance the new building. The issue, in the amount of $360,000.00, was in denominations of $500.00 and $1,000.00 bearing interest of 4 percent payable semi-annually. The bonds were to mature in twenty years (1929) although the Commissioners reserved the right after two years to redeem annually a specified number of unmatured bonds, after providing legal notice by publication.
When the bonds were put up for sale in June, the Cleveland firm of Hayden, Miller and Company won the bidding with a bid of par plus .89 of one per cent premium, giving Mercer County $363,201.00 in hand as a result of the transaction. On the 18th of June Hayden, Miller and Company's advertisement of these bonds began in the local newspapers in which they offered 3.75% interest on an investment they termed "absolutely safe, tax exempt ...particularly suited to Western Pennsylvania investors."
As the bonds went up for sale the work at the building site ebbed and flowed through the summer and fall of 1909. A breakdown of the stone cutting machinery in June stalled efforts and caused many of the bricklayers to be laided-off for a time as the erection of stonework couldn't keep up with the pace of the bricklayers. In July the foundation and first floor walls were nearly complete and the structural steel was rising for the second floor. By October it was reported that the influx of workers for the new Court House had seriously impacted the already tight rental market in Mercer, and Luyster and Lowe were even then advertising for more carpenters and laborers to help put the project back on schedule. In November it was reported that the building was progressing but not at the hoped for pace and that the contractors were working feverishly to get the structure under cover for the winter.
Along with the work on the Court House itself, 1909 saw much newspaper space devoted to subjects related to the Court House, especially the Court House Power House. In July the Commissioners bought land across from the Jail on Strawberry Alley on which to erect the Power House. It was to be a vitrified brick structure forty-two by fifty-four feet and, like the Court House, was designed by Owsley and Boucherle. The final plans dropped the idea of also using the building as a stable for the Jail.
The Commissioners advertised for bids on the Power House at the end of July and awarded the contract to Wm. McIntyre & Sons, Sharon, on September 18th. The contract price for the building was $5,971.00, not including the plumbing, a gas engine to operate the ventilating system and the boilers. Work began soon after the contract was awarded and, despite the collapse of the roof while its re-enforced concrete was setting, was completed by the time installation of the machinery began in January. The machinery was supplied by the American Warming and Ventilating Company of Pittsburgh at a cost of $19,915.00
In the meantime, changes in supervising personnel at the construction site also grabbed some column inches in the local press. It was reported that L. H. Green, who had been superintendent of the site for Luyster and Lowe since that firm began its work, would be leaving to assist with the supervision of his firm's work for the U. S. War Department on the Fort Sill Reservation near Lawton, Oklahoma. Replacing him would be Mr. Luyster who would be assisted by Findley Moore who had been the labor foreman. Before Green left Mercer the workmen at the Court House presented him with " a beautiful signet ring and an indestructible trunk. "
As 1909 came to a close inclement weather slowed work at the Court House and it was impossible to get the structure under roof before the more intense cold of the new year visited Western Pennsylvania. However, a break in the weather did allow the bricklayers and stone masons the opportunity to resume their tasks in late January, and by the end of February the brick and stone work on the wings was nearing completion as was the roof on the building's east end.
Even with all the progress that the local press was reporting it was becoming increasingly evident that the original construction timetable, which called for completion in the summer of 1910, was much too optimistic. As late as September of 1909 the County Commissioners were discussing plans for the dedication of the building on July 1, 1910, and it was hoped that Pennsylvania Governor Edwin S. Stuart would agree to speak at the ceremony. However, by April of that year the completion date, despite the efforts of over one hundred workmen, had been pushed back to the fall or even the end of 1910.
Throughout 1910 work continued with little mention in the press regarding the slow progress, but other events that warranted mention included accidents, the bids and contracts for interior details and furnishings and the continued sale of the Court House Bonds.
The three accidents reported in 1910 included a worker named Paul King falling from a scaffolding, the fall of a 1400 pound stone from the parapet of the cupola which crashed through the roof, and a small fire set by a spark from the engine of one of the hoisting machines. Luckily all of these accidents were without serious consequence. King's injuries were minor as were those of a copper worker hurt by a flying plank when the stone block created the impromptu skylight. The only loss in the fire was one of the basement window casings.
From May through the end of the year the Commissioners continued to advertise for and receive bids on the interior furnishings and details of the building. D. H. D' Asceazo Studios of Philadelphia secured the contract for the art glass in the skylights ($2,650.00), the hardware contract went to Fruit-Ohl Hardware of Sharon ($4,091.61), the decorating contract was awarded to the Andrews Decorating Company of Clinton, Iowa ($15,000.00), a bid from the Walleager Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin won the contract for the oak and mahogany furniture ($12,163.50), C. H. Yeager of Sharon took both the contract for floor coverings and shades ($3,375.00 and $142.70) and the American Seating Company of Pittsburgh captured the contract for the basement auditorium seating ($1,462.50). In addition, the Art Metal Construction Company of Jamestown, New York, who had supplied metallic fixtures for docket storage to the County in the past, won the new contract that would provide twice as much storage space. Their bid of $7,000.00 included repainting those fixtures in use at the Academy building to match the new cabinets they would deliver to the new Court House.
Regarding the Court House Bonds, the trustees of the Peter L. Kimberly estate purchased $100,000.00 worth of the securities in May from Hayden, Miller and Company. Kimberly, who was a successful Sharon businessman, passed away in 1905 after amassing an estate worth from $4 to $5 million. The Mercer Dispatch and Republican indicated that this substantial purchase by the Kimberly trustees demonstrated that the Court House Bonds were indeed " a good investment." The Kimberly trustees may have been influenced in their choice of an investment in that one of their number, John C. Owsley, was the brother of the Court House architect.
August and September 1910 marked major steps in the construction as work commenced on the landscaping of the Court House Park (which was overseen by the J. Wilkinson Elliot Landscape Architectural firm of Pittsburgh) and on the reinforced concrete and terra cotta covering for the dome which was finally put into place. Diarist Reverend John Duncan noted that on the morning of September 19th he watched the workmen install the ball on the top of the dome. About the same time the interior plastering work was nearing completion so that the decorators would soon be able to begin their task.
As this interior work progressed it seems that the embarrassment of the missed completion date might have led the County Commissioners to push for completion of at least part of the building so that it could be used. In December 1910 the Commissioners specified that the firms working on the floor and seating of the basement auditorium must have their work completed by the start of the Teachers' Institute meetings which were scheduled to begin on January 2, 1911. Unlike other target dates, this one was met, and the Institute was held accordingly in the first week of the new year. No later than the next month the auditorium saw more use as it hosted a stereopticon lecture on the Northwest presented by the Great Northern Railroad.
Even as 1910 ended and the auditorium saw some use, the Mercer Dispatch and Republican called attention to that part of the Court House plans that specified that the new building was to be illuminated by gas. In addressing this issue it was pointed out that if the building was to be protected from the incendiary ending that befell its two predecessors then electricity was by far the better choice over gas illumination. It was conceded that the Power House's internal arrangements would have to be reworked but that such an additional expense would likely save money in the long run.
The next mention in the press of this issue came in early February 1911 when it was announced that the County Commissioners had awarded a contract to the American Warming and Ventilating Company of Pittsburgh for additional equipment to be installed in the Court House Power House which would provide for electric illumination of the new building. The amount of the contract was $8,860.00 for a 194 Horse Power Babcock & Wilcox boiler, a Ball steam engine, a Westinghouse generator and all the accompanying piping and wiring work. It was reported that this installation would "have sufficient capacity to heat and light both the Court House and Jail (and) light the grounds about the Court House, with considerable force in 'reserve." Lower bids had been received on systems that depended on gas engines rather than steam but the Commissioners opted for the steam apparatus instead.
With this decision made, work at the Power House proceeded but not without its share of setbacks.
Ed and Frank Thompson and George Adams narrowly escaped serious and perhaps fatal injuries
Just one week later another accident at the Power House crushed the foot of worker James Campbell, and in June "a heavy explosion" occurred when the engineer, a Mr. Lyle, tried to light the gas under one of the boilers. Luckily no one was injured and the damage was minimal.
Despite the accidents progress continued to be made on the new building even though the ornamental ironwork that would decorate the stairways and the rotunda walkways was delayed for a number of months. Not until July would regular deliveries of this material enable workers to take substantial steps towards completion. In the meantime two further unforeseen occurrences, one an act of nature, the other an accident, would require that some finishing work be redone, again slowing the building project.
On June 25th a rain storm visited Mercer which was accompanied by thunder and lightning. Lightning struck the dome of the new Court House, shattering the ball at the apex and damaging some of the dome's terra cotta tiles. However, repairs to this area were not as troublesome as could have been the case since the construction scaffolding was still in place. In addition to the lightning strike, an incident just five days later caused more damage and probably would have caused injuries to workers had it not occurred at night.
The clock in the Court House tower, though still telling time, is no longer striking the hours. Shortly
An idea of how this last accident affected the progress of the building comes to us from the Commissioners' receipt records for the Court House which indicated that payment to D' Ascenzo Studios for repairing the art glass wasn't requested by Owsley & Boucherle until August 26th, 1911.
As the summer of 1911 slowly slipped away an end to the construction was finally in sight. With the last shipment of ornamental ironwork in August, finishing work finally moved into its final phase. The marble setters and the decorators rapidly moved their tasks to completion, and the first floor was expected to be ready for occupancy in late summer and the rest of the building by October.
The day for finally moving the county's offices from the Academy Building to their new digs on the Diamond was set for September 19, 1911. As would be expected the local press reported that things were "somewhat torn up," however, the county officials were "already realizing how much more comfortable and convenient the new quarters are." Despite the fact that the building was finally available for public use the Commissioners decided to hold off the dedication ceremonies until October so as not to conflict with area fairs.
In addition to reporting on moving day, the Mercer Dispatch and Republican also recorded for posterity the first transactions at the new temple of justice.
The honor of receiving the first marriage license granted at the new Court House was accorded to
In the Clerk of Courts' Office, the significance of the first business in the new facility was recognized by someone on the office staff who wrote in the margin above marriage license number 11839 "First in New Court House."
With the building finally occupied and with only the most minor finishing touches to be completed the gala ceremony that would officially dedicate Mercer County's new Court House was all that remained to wrap up the project. During the course of construction many notables had been mentioned as possible speakers at the event, including then Governor Stuart in 1910 and later Governor Tener and Governor Harmon of Ohio. No further mention in the local press was found regarding Pennsylvania Governor Tener's invitation to speak however, in late September it was reported that Ohio Governor Harmon had accepted his invitation and would be joined at the podium by three of Mercer County's judges, A. W. Williams, who currently held the bench and the honorable S.S. Mehard and S. H. Miller, both retired. In addition three bands and a local chorus under the direction of Professor F. A. Walker would furnish music. With these details decided the date for the ceremony was set for Thursday afternoon, October 12th, 1911.
As the day for the ceremony approached the locals were disappointed to learn that Governor Harmon would be unable to attend due to his presence being required at a session of the U.S. Supreme Court.183 Harmon's last minute replacement was to be Captain Richmond Pearson Hobson, U.S.N., young hero of the Spanish-American War who was then on the lecture circuit. Hobson's claim to fame was that he tried to bottle-up Spanish Admiral Cervera's fleet in Santiago Harbor by sinking the collier Merrimac under the guns of Morro Castle. Although unsuccessful in his mission the shear audacity of the act earned him the respect of the nation.
On the day of the dedication, amidst bunting and flags, about 2,500 people crowded around the north portico of the Court House to hear the speeches and music. The Dispatch and Republican's report on the ceremony remarked that the weather was "unfavorable," a fact borne out by photos of the scene which showed most spectators in long coats. The program was opened by the Sharon Eagles Band and was followed with an invocation by Dr. R. S. Borland of Mercer.
Following more music Judge Williams gave his speech which alluded to the cost of the new building. Not surprisingly, since he was a moving force in its construction via the Advisory Committee, his remarks defended the cost.
wonder ...is not that your building has cost so much money, but that you have
received such a
Judge Williams was followed by Attorney S. R. Mason, the oldest member of the Mercer County Bar who recounted the dedication of past Court Houses. Hobson's address, whose theme was Americanism, came next and stressed the necessity of upholding the majesty and supremacy of the law. The Greenville Band then provided a musical interlude before retired Judges Miller and Mehard spoke.
S. H. Miller's talk included a detailed list of the cost of the building, provided to him as a preliminary summary by the contractor. The total for the entire structure, including furnishings and the Power House installations, totaled $487,666.56-over $000,000.00 over Luyster and Lowe's original estimate. Ex-judge Miller surrendered the podium to ex-judge Mehard who recounted the history of the local courts and the men who had presided over the Bench. The last speaker, 28th District Congressional Representative Peter M. Speer of Oil City, said, in part "... in no county of the State is there a Court House to compare favorably with yours." A vocal musical selection, "Hail Temple Built to Justice" and a piece by the Grove City Band preceded the finale of the chorus and audience singing " America."
The dedication ceremony was followed the next Monday, October 16th, by the opening of the first Quarter Session of the Court in the new Court House. The session began in the morning with a reading from Scripture and prayer by Reverend Austin J. Rinker. Following Reverend Rinker Judge Williams spoke, urging all that had business in the Court to uphold its dignity and maintain order and decorum. A number of local attorneys also spoke in the same vein. The only business conducted in the morning was the decision to no longer signal the beginning of Court by ringing the Court House bell-a prudent decision since the County Commissioners had agreed with Mercer Borough Council earlier in the year to the use of the bell as the town fire alarm.
In the afternoon the Grand Jury was selected and put to their tasks which included inspecting the new building. Foreman Cy Perrine reported that the jury gave special attention to inspecting the new Court House and " declar(ed) that it is a credit to the county and that they feel entirely satisfied with it."
What was so special about the new building? A number of features, which were common place at the time, set it apart from today's utilitarian structures. The incorporation of decoration and design whose only purpose was to create a beautiful edifice and which added greatly to the cost of such a structure, are a testament to a time that demanded stately dignity in governmental buildings.
exterior, dominated by the 166 foot white terra cotta dome patterned after St.
With all the awe that the new building's exterior evoked, it was the interior that elicited the most praise. The hallways were marble and came from the four compass points to meet at the rotunda, off of which the grand stairway rose to the second floor. The tardy brass plated ornamental ironwork proved to be worth waiting for. Flowing up the stairs in a floral pattern it featured intertwined M's and C's for Mercer County. On each hallway's ceiling and on many wall panels were wreaths and laurel-Iike decorative stencils which gave the building an elegant neo-classical look. On the dusty rose walls there grew decorative brackets featuring gold leaf trim, as did the decorative molding of the recessed ceiling panels. The entire building was lit by ornate brass electric light fixtures and brass spittoons completed the halls.
For all this finery the most striking features of the interior of the new Court House had to be its artwork. Both court rooms featured large murals (10 x 15 feet) by respected artists. In Court Room Number One Criminal Law by Vincent Aderante (1880-1941) dominated the room from behind the Bench. This work features four figures depicting Humanity asking for Justice under Law tempered by Mercy. Alonzo E. Foringer's (1878-1948) Civil Law, likewise located behind the Bench in Court Room Number Two, shows Justice hearing a barrister argue his case as citizens look on.
Complimenting the court room artwork are the four rotunda panels by noted New York artist Edward Simmons (1852-1931). Rising from eight scaglia (false marble) columns the panels each featured a figure depicting an aspect of the Law-Guilt, Innocence, Power, and Justice.
No specific details on the selection of these artists was found. However, it seems that architect Owsley was instrumental in bringing Aderante and Foringer to the project and that Simmons was associated with the Andrews Decorating Company. In the surviving receipts from the Court House construction Simmons is paid via vouchers submitted under the Andrews Company name. Owsley's ties to the other two artists are related to the Mahoning County Court House in nearby Youngstown, Ohio which he designed and which was built at the same time as Mercer County's new Court House. For that building Vincent Aderante executed a 9 x 28 foot panel mural and the primary artist for other work was Edwin H. Blashfield, who worked often with Alonzo Foringer as his assistant. It is surmised that Blashfield possibly recommended Foringer to Owsley as an artist for one of the Court Room murals in Mercer County.
All three artists had well respected bodies of work and would go on to add to them. Aderante listed over twenty-seven murals in his resume by 1937 including work at the U.S. Capitol; Foringer's work ranged from murals to currency design to his most noted work, The Greatest Mother in the World, a World War I era Red Cross poster; Simmons' legacy can be seen in the Library of Congress and the Minnesota and South Dakota State Capitols. Their works in Mercer County helped make the new Court House something the people of the county could point to with pride and the settings Owsley designed for them added to their ability to dominate the Court Rooms and the rotunda in such a way as to say that this new temple of justice was truly the home of the Law in Mercer County.
One aside to the completion of the new Court House is associated with the fate of the general contractors. As was noted by Judge Miller in the dedicatory ceremonies, the total cost of the building exceeded the estimate by over $100,000.00. While not all of the cost over-runs were directly borne by Luyster and Lowe the traditional story indicates that they ruined the Dayton contractor financially and caused them to go out of business. Research failed to confirm this however it was discovered that the firm disappeared from the Dayton city directories after 1911. The completion of the building of the new Court House marked only the end of a chapter in its history. Over the next several years many projects and improvements were undertaken to constantly update and modify the structure to ensure its ability to meet the county's changing needs. One of the first such improvements came in August of 1912 when eight individual offices at the Court House were equipped with Bell Telephones. It seems that prior to this improvement that only a central telephone was available although there may have been separate ones in the Commissioners' Office or the Judge's Chambers.
The next year saw a major acoustical problem in the Court Rooms that must have caused some embarrassment to the architect although the newspapers never mention if it did. In April of 1913, at the request of the Bar Association, the Commissioners began to review proposals from Joseph Mazer, a Pittsburgh acoustical engineer, to correct the problem, which, it was said, had always been bad. By late Maya contract to correct the problem (though only in Court Room number one, which was then the only one being used) had been signed with the specific stipulation that the work would not alter the decoration of the Court Room and that payment, in the amount of $1500.00, would only be made upon satisfactory completion of the contract.
By November Mazer's work was completed and ready for inspection by an advisory committee consisting of Judges A. W. Williams and S. H. Miller (retired) and attorneys Q. A. Gordon and Beriah Magoffin. By placing large panels of felt and canvas on the walls and ceiling Mazer corrected the problem of reverberations that had plagued the room. The new panels were reportedly decorated to match the original work done by the Andrews Decorating Company and the entire project was deemed a success.
Through the next decade the Court House required little beyond routine maintenance until a major problem developed with the terra cotta dome in 1922. In early summer of that year it was reported that large chucks of the terra cotta and its concrete bedding were scaling off onto the main roof. Sharon architect E. E. Clepper was called upon by the Commissioners to begin the process of completing specifications for the repairs which were successfully bid on by another Sharon firm, Hanna & Taylor. Besides repairing the terra cotta the contract also called for the entire structure to be examined and repointed as needed.
The local press was fairly quiet on the progress of this project until late September when the time came to remove the crowning ball and its base from the top of the dome. The Dispatch and Republican reported that "time and again the watchers (on the ground) thought he (the workman removing the ball assembly) would slip or overbalance himself and ...be hurled to the ground." Fortunately the ball was removed without incident and work removing the rest of the dome covering could proceed. At the same time that this report was printed it was also reported that the new terra cotta tiles would be crafted by the Conklin-Armstrong Terra Cotta Company of Philadelphia. The uniqueness of the design required that each of the 3,000 pieces of terra cotta be individually cast.
The balance of this project required just under a year to complete as the scaffolding only came down in October of 1923. At that time the appearance of the new terra cotta, along with fresh paint on the clock dials, once again gave the twelve year old building a fresh look. The entire project amounted to $16,319.38.
Beyond the refinishing of the exterior of the building 1923 also saw another less evident change as a complete change of locks, both inside and out, was necessitated when custodian Robert E. Lytle's master set of keys was lost or stolen. The change in locks enriched some local locksmith by $32.40.
Throughout the next several years the County Auditor's Reports and occasional newspaper articles indicate that more than normal maintenance was going on at the Court House however , details on the work are sadly lacking. Even the minutes of the County Commissioners' meetings are largely silent on these projects that sometimes consumed up to a few thousand dollars. Without documentation one is left to wonder whether these expenditures were for repairs or remodeling.
Despite the lack of documentation of many of these undertakings, four major pre-World War II projects were at least partially documented. These involved more exterior repairs, electrical adjustments, a major re-decorating of the building and repairs to the Court Room artwork. Beginning in 1926 the exterior of the building again needed attention which included more repointing of the stone and brickwork as well as cleaning the dome and repairing the wooden window frames. It was while engaged in this last task, on August 23, 1926, that one of the carpenters employed by William McIntyre and Sons was seriously injured when he fell thirty-eight feet from scaffolding erected under the south portico. Porter B. Smith of Sharon suffered fractures to his left leg and right arm as well as his skull above the left eye. Smith was taken to the Mercer Cottage Hospital and by early September the Dispatch was able to report that he was expected to recover.
The only other notable incident during the exterior repairs occurred in September of 1926 when workers from McIntyre and Sons somehow turned the tower clock hands back fifteen minutes. The importance of the town clock was demonstrated in that the Dispatch reported several people missed their bus connections and appointments and that "the time of the town (was) out of joint for several hours."
At the same time as these exterior repairs went to bid the County Commissioners had also asked for bids on redecoration of the interior of the Court House as well. Comments in the local press also seem to indicate that it was also planned to correct the acoustics of Court Room Number Two at the same time. However, given the more necessary exterior repairs (which were contracted for $19,790.00) and an extensive remodeling project at the County Jail, the Commissioners opted to reject all the bids on the interior work which started at just over $10,000.00.
In 1927 a substantial amount of work was performed on the electrical system of the Court House by the A. F. Beil Electric Company. At least part of the project, which Beil won with a bid of $5,195.00, included updating the Court Room lighting.
Nineteen twenty-seven saw more sparks than just those generated by the electrical update. In May of that year the Mercer County Auditors discovered that sometime over the preceding eighteen years the county had overpaid $4,500.00 on redeemed Court House bonds. An audit of the bond redemptions showed that, besides interest, when the last outstanding bond would be redeemed the county would have paid out $364,500.00 rather than the $360,000.00 face value of the bonds.
Upon completing their investigation the Auditors filed a special report with Judge McLaughry that declared that former Mercer County Treasurer John F. McConnell had been paid twice for $4,500.00 worth of bonds in fiscal 1918 and 1919. In part the report said
...nine bonds numbered 80 to 88 for $500.00 each were paid in the fiscal year 1918 and stamped
In addition the report indicates that an "auditor's stamp" that appeared only on the bonds redeemed in 1919 did not appear on any of the other bonds in the entire series of 450 nor did any present or past auditor ever remember using such a stamp. The report clearly stated that former treasurer McConnell had received payment for nine bonds on two separate occasions and owed Mercer County $4,500.00.
The report did not go so far as to assign criminal guilt to McConnell who had been invited to attend a meeting with the auditors but had sent a letter instead. McConnell's letter denied any wrongdoing and warned the auditors that their investigations had no basis in law nor would he stand for any writing that would reflect in the slightest on him.
The crux of the matter stemmed from the redemption date of bonds 80 through 88. January 4, 1919 was the last day of fiscal 1918 so that bonds redeemed in that year would be covered by the auditor's report for 1918. When the same bonds were redeemed just 5 days later they would have then become subject to the audit of 1919 which would have been performed in 1920. Since the bonds themselves were presented to the treasurer and he submitted a blanket warrant for the payment of a number of bonds at once, it is conceivable that someone in the treasurer's office devised this rather simple means of defrauding the county and avoiding detection.
However, in the opinion of District Attorney L. R. Rickard, whoever perpetrated this double payment had not actively concealed the fraud (but rather depended on the inherent lack of safeguards in the accounting process) and thus was safe from prosecution in 1927 because the statute of limitations had run out. Accordingly, no criminal action was taken against former treasurer McConnell (which appears to have been just as well given the circumstantial nature of the evidence) however, the commissioners did issue instructions to their solicitor J. W. Nelson to "take active steps to recover the alleged shortage of money." Apparently nothing ever came of the attempt and with no prospect of criminal or civil action the Court House Bond Scandal quietly died.
In 1930 the re-decorating of the Court House again was proposed and was put out for bid along with some other repairs, including more work on the dome. The contract for the re-decorating brought a familiar name back to the Court House, the William G. Andrews Decorating Company of Clinton, Iowa. This was the firm that had provided the decorating services when the building was first erected and had also submitted a bid just four years before when the Commissioners had decided against re-decorating because of cost considerations.
Although the Andrews Company was not the low bidder, it did receive the contract based on three considerations. The first was that the Iowa firm's bid of $9,980.00 was only $105.00 more than its nearest competitor, F. A. Pascarella of Youngstown, Ohio. In addition, the satisfaction that the company provided in the original decorating work reflected favorably on their chances. The deciding factor however, was that the Andrews company had maintained an ongoing relationship with "the artist who executed the mural paintings" and could assure in writing that he would be employed in the retouching of his work.
The contract with the Andrews Company also stipulated that the work was to be done in sixty days and that the work to be done in the Court Rooms would not be undertaken simultaneously so as not to interrupt the workings of the Court. Physical evidence today suggests that at this time the acoustical properties of both Court Rooms were brought into uniformity through the use of acoustical tiles mounted on the ceiling and walls. These tiles have the decorations painted directly on them and would seem to have been installed and decorated at this time.
Besides the change in the wall decorations in the Court Rooms the hallways also received a new look in that the stenciling on the ceilings of the halls was changed to a less classical style. The ceilings of all three floors were so treated but only the decorations on the first and third floor survive today. Those of the second floor's ceilings were painted over probably in the 19505 and at the same time any wall decorations such as stencils were also covered over. Unfortunately no photos of the ceilings circa 1930-1940 are known to exist that might allow for restoration of the ceiling decorations.
The re-decorating project went forward with no reported problems and was finished in just over the sixty days scheduled. Following the completion of the decorator's work the building's custodian G. S. McElheny brought in a force of trustees from the County Jail to give the entire building a complete cleaning. The local press reported that the decorations were "in perfect taste and in most respects are being much admired." That the Andrews Company's work was admired is also reflected in the fact that they secured an additional contract in the area, this one to decorate the First Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church on Kennedy Square in New Castle.
The last major work done at the Court House prior to World War II occurred in 1937 when the two Court Room murals were taken down and restored by artist Vincent Aderante. The Grove City Reporter-Herald indicated that Judge George H. Rawley was anxious that the paintings be restored to go along with the other recent rehabilitations of other Court Room fittings, although no specific mention of what these rehabilitations might have been was found. Architect Charles Owsley wrote the specifications for the removal and rolling of the murals and the shipping crates they were to be placed in prior to transport to Bayside, New York, the site of Aderante's studio. Aderante himself supervised the removal and accompanied the canvases in late October after signing a contract promising to return them by December 5th, 1937. Besides retouching areas of paint loss the restoration project allowed for the design and installation of new mounting frame for the artwork that would protect them from moisture associated with the outside walls on which they were mounted. It is assumed that the need for retouching was due in part to the moisture problem. Architect Owsley also wrote the specifications for the new mounting frame.
The removal and re-hanging of the murals was attended to by Wallis and Carley Company of Sharon who, along with Aderante, were awarded the contracts by resolution rather than by bid since the work was deemed emergency in nature. Wallis and Carley also constructed the special shipping containers.
One curious aspect of this project was a statement in the County's contract with Charles F. Owsley which indicated that Aderante was being given the contract to retouch both his and Alonzo Foringer's work because of "the original Artist of (the) mural painting in Court Room #2 being deceased." Aderante's explanation of the allegorical themes in both paintings, which he attached to a resume of his work, indicates that he was a "close friend and associate" of Alonzo Foringer. What is curious about both these statements is that Alonzo Foringer was very much alive in 1937 and didn't die until December 9, 1948, eleven years later. One wonders just how close Aderante and Foringer really were.
Regardless of this curious situation Aderante's work was deemed satisfactory when the paintings were returned to Mercer in late November. For his efforts Aderante received a $3,000.00 fee for which he also assured that the paintings would last as long as the building stood.
Beyond these major projects prior to the war, several smaller undertakings and events are of some note. In December of 1927 a new automatic Otis elevator was installed (it being assumed that the original elevator had an operator). Announcement of this was followed a few months later by this warning:
Court House elevator not for play. School children and others not having business in the Court House
Also of note in the local press was storm damage that occurred in 1929 and 1934. The earlier damage resulted in the loss of a point of interest on the dome-a rooster weather vane. On April 4, 1929 a "vivid and vicious bolt of lightning" struck the Court House tower and nearly toppled the weather vane from its perch. Several people in the building felt the shock and County Treasurer McQuiston, who was using the telephone at the time, received a "rude jolt." Although no earlier mention of the bird was found the reports of its damage and subsequent removal lead one to believe that it was a long-time fixture.
Now they have taken the old rooster off the Court House weather vane and we feel lost. "Why more
Just five years later another violent storm struck Mercer that again damaged the Court House. This time it was the western clock face on the tower that was the victim and the residents of that side of the borough complained about the delays in fixing the clock that they relied upon for the correct time. Eventually repairs were made in June of 1934 and a general overhauling of the entire clock mechanism was done at the same time.
The few remaining years before the war saw additional newspaper column inches devoted to the Court House as events, ranging from the bizarre to the mundane occurred. In 1936 a "Human Fly" attempted to scale the building and Court Room Number 1 got new lights; in 1938 the clock was again off of the correct time and even the north dial often didn't agree with the other three; nineteen-forty saw the basement receive some much needed attention as the main hallway and restrooms were reconditioned; and 1941 marked more repairs to the dome and the construction of an evidence vault under the basement stairway, which the District Attorney used for storing gambling devices and illegal liquor seized in raids. This last item featured a bank-type security door with a heavy wooden door and steel screen on the inside.
With the onset of the Second World War funds for capital improvements and any but essential repairs were largely nonexistent. Through the war years it seems that no major projects or improvements were undertaken at the Court House although that is not to say that there was no mention of the building in the local press. In early 1943 the mysterious stoppage of the tower clock baffled the building custodian and disrupted the offices because all other clocks in the building were tied into the master tower clock. Upon examination of the mechanism in the tower it was discovered that two small pigeons had fallen into part of the works and prevented the timepiece from running. Removal of the birds seemed to do the trick however the Dispatch added a hasty postscript to its account of the incident just before it went to press: "P. S. 6:00 P. M. Thursday: Pigeons don't give up that easy-The clock stopped again at 5:10!"
Also during World War n the necessity of maintaining a blackout required the elliptical windows in the rotunda be painted over. Prior to the installation of electric lights for the Simmons murals it was primarily these windows that shed light on the artwork. The paint job was necessitated by the difficulty involved in reaching these windows which otherwise might have been shaded.
Related to the
blackout issue, which reflected a fear that seemed very real at the time, was a
No evidence exists that indicates that the suggestion to blackout the terra cotta dome was seriously considered but, as the Dispatch said
(blacking out the dome) will be just one more count to ring up against Hitler
and one more reminder
The above statement, made at a time when Mercer Countians saw their country's way of life threatened, speaks not only of a spirit of defiance in the face of aggression but also portrays that undercurrent of pride in Mercer County which the Court House represents. In this light, this statement says much about the way the people of the county felt about their home.
After the war, as the veterans returned and things gradually got back to normal, further projects aimed at improving the Court House were undertaken. In 1948 a more permanent solution to the recurring problems with the terra cotta dome, which was again shedding pieces onto the roof, was sought. The solution entailed the removing of the terra cotta and replacing it with an aluminum alloy covering. Again architect Charles F. Owsley was responsible for the plans and specifications. Sharon contractor Paul W. Glenn submitted the only bid, in the amount of $70,409.00, and was awarded the contract in late July. No major incidents or problems were encountered during this project but the Dispatch, in a front page photo of the dome, took pains to literally point out with arrows small shrubs which were growing in the terra cotta. By late fall the new aluminum covering was in place and all signs of the highest garden in Mercer County were gone.
The remainder of the 1940s and the 1950s saw mostly minor work performed including repairs to the exterior stairways, the parapet, the Court Room skylights and the basement assembly room. Also sometime in the '40s and '50s the flagpoles were removed from the peaks of the north and south porticos. Just when this was done is uncertain but a photograph published in the Youngstown Vindicator in 1946 showed no pole on the south portico. However, it was reported as late as 1950 that the Commissioners had hired Carl Decker of New Castle to apply a new coat of 23 caret gold leaf to the eagle (presumably the one on the north portico). By November of 1956 a photograph published in the Dispatch showed no pole on the north side. It is assumed that the flagpoles were removed for safety reasons as the eagles, with their four foot wing span, acted as sails and rocked the forty foot poles back and forth so that over the years the poles were considerably loosened.
Also in the 1950s (or perhaps into the 1960s) it is assumed that the Court House walls were again repainted and at this time certain of the decorative stenciling details were lost. The stencils on the second floor have been completely obliterated and, so too were any wall decorations that may have been painted by the Andrews Decorating Company in 1930.
One other minor change about this time involved the window awnings. Early photos of the Third Court House show retractable striped canvas awnings on many of the windows (particularly on the "sun side"). Sometime near the middle of the twentieth century these awnings were replaced by ones of translucent green plastic mounted on rigid aluminum frames. Although functional these replacements were anything but aesthetic. They were removed in 1993 as part of an exterior renovation project and will probably be replaced with sun-filtering materials attached directly to the window glass.
The one major project in the 1950s entailed the enlargement of the third floor Law Library in 1954. The addition consisted of adding more shelving on a second level and cost a total of $8705.00. The general contractor for this project was Kenneth Struthers of Coolspring Township, Ivor Lee of Sharon installed the heating system and Morgan Electric of Sharon handled the wiring
The next decade saw only a few noticeable changes in the building. In 1965 a new driveway arrangement was completed for the south portico entrance which allowed for better access to larger delivery vans and helped alleviate traffic congestion on South Diamond Street. In reporting on this project it was also noted that a new set of steps had also been installed on the approach to the south entrance and that these steps were under laid with heating pipes to keep them free of the winter's ice and snow. In mentioning this fact it was also noted that the steps approaching the building from the other three compass points were already similarly equipped, although no other specific mention of this improvement was found through research.
In 1968 a major project was undertaken to better accommodate the County's two judges and their support staff. The area between the two court rooms on the north side of the building, which had been the attorney's room, was remodeled to provide a central stenographic area and the chambers of Judges John Q. Stranahan and Albert E. Acker were also reappointed. The contract totaled just over $41,000.00, the bulk of which went to contractor Paul Glenn (who also handled the above mentioned driveway) whose firm worked to the plans and specifications of architects Hunter, Beiges and Associates. This remodeling necessitated shifting of some other offices and room assignments but added to the efficiency of the Courts.
The 1970s saw major remodeling projects inside the Court House including the conversion, in 1974, of the basement assembly room into office space to alleviate overcrowding due to the expansion of County government. This project, which was awarded to Preston and Williams of New Castle and cost $119,447.00, left a much smaller assembly room on the west end of the basement.
In 1975 the Commissioners' office area was the subject of work which entailed enlarging the individual Commissioners' offices, installing drop ceilings in them and replacing the original service counter in the public access area. The general contract was awarded to Johnston and McIntyre of Farrell and Axtell Plumbing of Sharon won the mechanical portion of the project, the agreements being signed on March 3. The total contracted price amounted to $18,921.00, the work to be completed in sixty days.
One unforeseen by-product of this project was the preservation of part of the decorative ceiling stencils which can still be seen above the drop ceilings installed in the Commissioners' offices and the small conference room. These stencils consist of a stylized representation of the Court House dome which were placed in each corner of the original recessed ceiling panels. Apparently these decorations were throughout the entire office but the original ceiling which is still visible in the public area was painted over some time after the office remodeling. It is believed that these stencils were part of the 1930 decorations executed by the Andrews Decorating Company.
At the beginning of the next decade the Court House was visited by a team of architects who were part of the Court Facilities Study of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This study was primarily designed to evaluate the older county court houses in Pennsylvania in relation to the needs and service of the courts and to make recommendations to better accommodate that function of the building. The team that visited Mercer indicated that certain changes in space allotments would serve to ease some of the problems they discovered and that a regular preventative maintenance program would be most desirable. One of the problems that was discussed in the report, the need for a third court room, was already past the preliminary planning stages.
The need for a third judge to help handle the expanding judicial needs of the county was answered by the election in November, 1981 of Francis J. Fornelli. Accommodating a third judge required moving the Controller's office from the third floor to space on the basement level and eliminating an old jury room. The new court room (to be known as Court Room Number 3) was designed by architect John Gruitza of Sharon and Dell Builders of the same place won the contract for the general construction. The total price tag for the new court room (which included judge's chambers and secretarial space) amounted to $147,644.00. The room was officially dedicated on March 15, 1982 in a ceremony that featured remarks by Judge William F. Cerone, President of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Mercer County President Judge John Q. Stranahan accepted his new digs with this statement:
To the hundreds of people who will stand before this bench seeking justice, it is to you that we
Although considerably smaller than the two original court rooms, Judge Stranahan also noted that the new room was built with the dignity and importance of the Court to be held in it as a guide.
The years between the installation of the third Court Room and today have seen more work at the Court House, much by nature being routine maintenance. Small changes in offices and arrangements as well as the installation of new equipment has marked the County Courts and Government's constant need to adopt to changing technology and the needs of Mercer County's citizens. In 1986 an architectural survey of the building identified some problem areas, most serious of which was the "vastly over stressed" floor of the Law Library addition.
Bids to correct the floor problem, based on the design and specifications provided by Hunter, Beiges, Sabo, Douglas, Rogers of Sharon, were opened in summer of 1986. The project was awarded to Gene Mills Construction of Brookfield, Ohio on a bid of $27,276.00. At the same time that the floors were strengthened new carpeting and lighting was also installed.
Also in 1986 the historic nature and needs of the building were formally recognized by the formation, at the instigation of Commissioner Bill Reznor, of a Court House Preservation Committee (originally called the Court House Square Advisory Committee). Since its inception this committee of interested citizens has met monthly to advise County government on steps taken to preserve the structure and ensure that its historic nature survives through the changing needs of the County's Government and Courts.
In 1989 this committee also advised on the cleaning of the Court Room murals. Garland Guild, a professional art conservation firm from Indianapolis, Indiana, spent part of August cleaning, repainting areas of loss and applying a protective coat of matte varnish to both Criminal Law and Civil Law. The project's cost ran to $2,850.00 for both murals. The county paid an additional $600.00 to Garland to inspect the rotunda murals however, no contract for cleaning or restoration was ever completed.
Some of the projects this committee has advised on include the restoration of the Civil War monument, new flagpoles in the park, replacement ornamental light standards, replication and replacement of the original five sets of exterior doors, the cleaning of the ornamental hardware in the Court House, repairs to the ever troublesome tower clock and the exterior restoration project begun in 1992. This last project will correct delamination problems with the sandstone and ensure proper re-pointing of all brick and stonework. In the future the committee will continue to act as citizen watchdogs for the Court House.
While the majestic dome of Mercer County's Court House dominates the skyline of Mercer Borough, to the people who have lived in the town over the last 190 years and to those who have visited the Court House for one reason or another, the square that surrounds the building has been a welcome spot to enjoy entertainment, share some gossip or just stroll through. "The Diamond," as the area is known (which also includes the store fronts along North and South Diamond Streets), has been the site of numerous public gatherings and events over the years.
The earliest referenced public events related to the Diamond were horse races that supposedly took place during the period 1820 to 1850 on a three-eights of a mile course that circled the Court House grounds. The source for this information, a Mercer Dispatch and Republican sidebar entitled "Through the Years With Mercer" sponsored by the First National Bank of Mercer, reported that the "undisputed champion" of these races was a horse named Ziv. According to the story, Ziv regularly defeated rivals from other Western Pennsylvania communities and many from eastern Ohio towns as well. Ziv was later sold to a group of Meadville men who continued to race him. While no further supporting evidence for these races was found, the reference to a particular horse and his career gives the story the ring of believability.
Other references to the Court House grounds before the 1870s are sparse, but those found included an 1881 notation concerning a well that had been dug in the "east end of the Court House yard ...about fifty years ago" and the Mercer Borough ordinance enacted in 1846 to provide for a town scale. The ordinance stated that "there shall be erected and built-on the diamond, in the borough of Mercer, scales, for weighing hay, coal, etc.." The location of this scale was confirmed when it was noted in 1882 that it had been taken up (to make room for a walkway) and moved from the east end of the Court House yard to a spot near A. J. McKean's drugstore along East Market Street.
Sometime in the later part of the nineteenth century the park was the scene of a practical joke perpetrated by a group of young rascals led by Will Whistler who visited a local monument shop (probably Newt Robinson's on South Pitt Street) on a Saturday night and carried off numerous thin marble slabs which they set up in the park in cemetery fashion. Upon each slab they wrote the names of prominent Mercer men with epitaphs such as "Choked on a Falsehood" and "Died Laughing." Reportedly a number of the "deceased" saw their names the next day as they made their way to church.
The Centennial Celebration in 1876 marked a decided increase in the number of references to the Court House yard or park. In May it was noted that "Captain" Moore, J. P. Porter and James Murphy planted four maple trees furnished by Moore in the park to commemorate the nation's 100th birthday. The report of this event made specific reference to exactly where each tree was planted and invited other citizens to follow this example and promised that " a record of them (each tree planted) will be kept for future reference." Unfortunately the remainder of 1876 saw no other reports of plantings.
Also in 1876 a new stone walkway was laid from the Court House door east to Pitt Street which was 185 feet long and 6 feet wide. C. T. Bortz had the contract for the sum of $250.00 which the Dispatch called "cheap." After the work was finished the newspaper urged the Commissioners to lay similar walks to both the south and west gates.
The above reference to gates was the first specific mention of the fence surrounding the Court House park. However, each known illustration of the area shows a fence starting with the 1843 engraving from Sherman Day's Historical Collections of Pennsylvania. But it seems that by as early as 1881 the fences may have been dispensed with as a report in the Dispatch complained:
practice of allowing cows to run at large on our streets is one that should be
stopped. The Court
Perhaps the local cows had good reason for favoring the Court House yard as a grazing choice as just two years later the following notice appeared:
All speculation as to the value of the hay grown on the west end of the Court House yard can be easily ended by examining the minutes of the board of Commissioners for this year, where it is recorded that it shall be the duty of the Janitor to keep the grass in all parts of the yard closely mown down.
Regardless of complaints about cows and the length of the grass, the Court House park did see further improvements in the 1880s. In 1882 walks were laid along the east and west ends of the park by Daniel Moyer of New Hamburg, and in 1885 J. S. Stamm, also of New Hamburg, won the bidding for stone walks to be laid along the north and south sides of the park. No amount for this contract was reported, however, Stamm's bid was put in at 15 1/2 cents per square foot for walks six feet wide and not less than 3 inches thick.
The remainder of the 1880s apparently saw no more major changes to the Court House grounds, but in 1891 a program of work was underway to improve them that included one major addition reported in the local press. In July the Mercer Water Company offered to supply free water if the County choose to install fountains in the park. Apparently the Commissioners liked the idea as two were ordered for placement directly east and west of the Court House. The cast iron pedestal fountains arrived in late August and were in working order by September. The Dispatch deemed them "dandies." Besides this information the only other facts about the fountains that are known are that they were surrounded by octagonal planters and were covered over during the winter. After the Second Court House burned in 1907 the fountains were removed and one was bought by Commissioner Hassell who placed it in the yard of his Mercer home. After leaving office he returned to the family farm and took the fountain with him. At this writing it is still there serving as a planter. The fate of the other fountain is unknown.
One other minor reference to the park in the 1890s was a report that a stairway at the southeast corner of the park was removed and replaced by a graded walk. The stairs had apparently been "a source of annoyance to pedestrians" for some time.
The late 1890s did see one other major addition to the park besides the fountains. This was the establishment of an area dedicated to memorializing the service of Mercer Countians in the armed forces of the United States. In 1897 the Commissioners appointed a committee to select a design for an appropriate soldiers' monument to be placed directly east of the Court House. In May the committee met to review nearly thirty designs and settled on one submitted by former Mercerite George W. NolI, proprietor of NolI's Marble Works, New Castle. The design called for a granite base to be constructed by the Empire Granite Company which NolI represented. The lower tier of the base would feature figures representing the cavalry on the south face and the artillery on the north. Surmounting the entire structure was a two figure group of Victory crowning the returned soldier, represented by an infantryman. The lower part of the base's east and west faces were also decorated with panels of battle scenes. On level with the lower figures, cut into the stone was the inscription "Mercer County's Tribute To Her Soldiers. 1861-1865." The entire memorial would cost approximately $7,000.00.
The contract for the figures and panels was given to W. H. Mullins of Salem, Ohio who assured the Commissioners and members of the memorial committee who visited his studio in July that the plate copper figures would retain a bronze-like appearance. At this same meeting the visitors approved the models being used for the figures as being" exceedingly life-like."
Work on the monument's base was pushed to completion through September and October, and the Dispatch reported that the few workmen on the job were making satisfactory progress on the masonry end of the project despite the great many sidewalk supervisors who gathered each day to watch and critique their work. By the end of October the monument was complete and ready for its November 10, 1897, dedication.
As work on the monument was proceeding the Mercer Grand Army of the Republic Post, Number 169, began the process of obtaining two 32-pounder naval cannon barrels for placement on either side of the monument. The origin of these cannons, weighing a combined 8,400 pounds, was only identified as New York. The only expense the G. A. R. post incurred to obtain them (and twenty cannonballs) amounted to $20.14 shipping, leading one to assume that the cannons were government surplus pieces. J. M. Albin was hired by the post to construct cast iron supports for the barrels, and they were displayed as planned, although the cannonballs aren't apparent on postcards or the memorial area
Another war relic took its place near the memorial and the cannons in 1900 when a shell that had been fired from the battleship U. S. S. Texas at Morro Castle in Cuba and which had failed to explode, was presented to Mercer by a Major John Chance of the Fifth U. S. Infantry. Chance's identity is open to some speculation, but the local press refers to him during his visit to Mercer in such a way that one is led to believe that either he or more likely his wife was a former resident of the borough. It is known that he served some time at Morro Castle following the Spanish-American War , and it was probably during this assignment that he obtained the shell.
The Texas' shell was mounted just in front of the Civil War memorial facing East Market Street. The mount consisted of a heavy granite base upon which was a smaller piece of marble, hollowed out to cradle the shell. On the south side was inscribed "Shell fired from United States Battleship 'Texas', Morro Castle, Santiago, Cuba, July 1, 1898. Weight 850 pounds." On the north face were these words: "Presented to the Borough of Mercer by Maj. J. C. Chance, Fifth U. S. Infantry."
The placement of the Texas' shell was not accomplished without some drama and a near tragedy. An examining of the shell shortly after its arrival revealed that not all of the explosive charge had been removed prior to shipment. The "boys" on the scene (which is the extent of their identity in the Dispatch) decided to remove the remainder and had accumulated a small pile when Commissioner A. B. Merchant happened upon the scene. The good Commissioner announced to those present that he feared some of the boys would get hurt and that he would set fire to the powder to dispose of it.
The first application of a match failed to produce any results and when Merchant repeated the attempt he was rewarded with a small explosion that flashed in his face. Luckily, aside from singed eyebrows and mustache, Merchant was unhurt by his pyrotechnics. The incident would have been almost funny except for the realization that Merchant could very well have been blinded or otherwise hurt by his good intentioned efforts.
The war memorial and relics on the east side of the Court House were joined many years later by two additional pieces in the west yard. In 1929 the local American Legion post began the process of obtaining two World War I era artillery pieces to be placed in the park. The process took considerably more time than had been the case with the G. A. R. sponsored cannons, and it was five years before the two fieldpieces arrived.
Contrary to a story that sometimes circulates about these artillery pieces, they were not captured German ordnance from World War I but rather British rapid-fire breech loaders that had been at the government's proving grounds at Arberdeen, Maryland probably since just after the war. The difficulty in securing these relics was somewhat alleviated by Congressman Thomas C. Cochran who intervened in cutting through the red tape.
Even with the pieces secured there was a minor flap over the matter as some residents of the borough opposed the placing of the war relics. It seems most of the opposition stemmed from the perception that the County had funds to expend on the relics but would not spend money to fix the tower clock which had been damaged in a severe storm earlier in the year. Eventually it was made clear in the press that such was not really the case as the Legion asked that the $30.00 shipping be paid by the County out of funds already allocated for the use of patriotic organizations in observing Memorial Day. In addition, the cost of the concrete bases for the pieces was paid for out of Legion funds, and the post financed the painting of them as well.
One other sentiment concerning the artillery pieces was recorded in the Dispatch which certainly reflects an attitude of aversion to things military, even as the War to End All Wars receded in memory.
Relics of War. The Corner (the local affairs column) has been asked to protest
against " cluttering
Unfortunately for students of public opinion no further evidence of this sentiment was found. It can only be speculated that perhaps the impersonal nature of the artifacts and the fact that they had no special connection with the U.S.'s war effort led some local residents to find them distasteful. Or, perhaps, those who opposed the guns' placement had lost family in the war and did not wish to be reminded. Regardless of the opposition the guns were placed.
To briefly follow the war memorials discussed thus far, a visitor to the Court House park will now note that of those placed before World War II, only the Civil War monument is still present. The 32-pounder naval cannons, the Texas' shell and the British artillery pieces all disappeared in the fall of 1942, casualties of another war's voracious appetite for scrap metal. The Civil War monument suffered damage at some unknown time when the artillerist figure lost one of his hands. Luckily the hand was saved and used as a model for a replacement in 1988. At the same time other parts were reproduced, and the green patina was removed from the statues and bas relief battles scenes. After the patina was removed the metalwork received a protective wax treatment that is repeated every two years. On the eve of Veteran's Day, 1988, the monument was re-dedicated, and one of the principal speakers was Judge John Q. Stranahan, following in the footsteps of his great uncle James A. Stranahan who spoke at the original dedication. At the same time the memorial was rededicated new light standards on the approaches to the porches and porticos were installed to replace the deteriorated originals. The cast iron replacements were obtained from Pic Electric of Farrell and cost $43,220.00 for the six light standards.
While the man-made additions to the park were certainly of special note during the first part of the 20th Century, the native fauna also received a lot of attention as well. The squirrels in particular were the subject of reports from time to time that indicated that they were as much a fixture of The Diamond as the Court House itself.
Diamond and the Court House has been " all agog" this week over the
new arrivals in the colony
owning a black cat living in the vicinity of the Court House had better keep the
pet housed up,
one of the pet squirrels of the Court House park, was killed by a passing
a certain "set" around the Court House a fur coat is a must. The tame
squirrels who occupy the
The popularity of the squirrels is evident from the above quotes, but just as popular and appreciated were the homes of these nut gatherers- the trees. As was noted earlier the local press reported the planting of four maples to celebrate the nation's centennial in 1876. Since those plantings numerous others have been recorded in the borough's newspapers as have interesting facts about the trees.
In 1928 the local Burbank Club voted to plant a white pine in the park as a permanent community Christmas tree and planned to raise the funds by popular subscription. No further report on this effort was found but just four years later the Club was again planning to add a notable tree when they obtained a seedling from the famous Washington Elm Tree. It was noted at the time that the Club had received the 214th off-spring of the tree which were being distributed throughout the country to honor the country's first president. This tree survived until 1977 when it fell victim to Dutch Elm disease. A new elm tree, immune to this blight, was planted by the Greenville Burbank Club in 1978 to replace the original seedling.
What was probably the most popular tree in the park, an elm tree that was believed to antedate all three Court Houses, received attention in 1938 when a storm severely damaged it. The tree, which was located southeast of the building, was re-enforced with chains and had the attention of a tree surgeon the next year. Just when it gave up the fight was not discovered, but it may have been removed sometime during the 1940s.
In another tree-related matter, it was remarked in May of 1940 that the large horse chestnut tree in the park had bloomed once again. It was noted that for the preceding twelve years (at which time someone thought to keep a record) the tree had never bloomed on the same side in consecutive years.
These anecdotes concerning the squirrels and the trees indicate the concern and pride both Mercer County and Mercer Borough feel for the Court House park. However, one other group of creatures that inhabit the park and the Court House environs are not nearly as fondly regarded. At least as early as 1928 there was a pigeon problem around the building that still exists today. The local flock can be seen regularly atop the dome in good weather and huddling about its base or under the porticos when it rains or snows. As with all pigeons, Mercer's flock was (and is), in the words of then County Commissioner Peter Joyce, "very generous with their droppings."
Over the years different tactics have been tried to alleviate the problems produced by these cooing pests, ranging from outright pigeon-cide and chemical sprays to attempts at fooling the birds. In 1928 County Detective Sam Leyshock shot down several of the birds which had been nesting on the capitals of the columns of the north and south porticos (apparently he was granted immunity from the borough's ordinance against discharging a firearm within its limits). In the mid-1970s the county sprayed "Roost No More" around the building and even installed an artificial owl under the porticos, but neither proved satisfactory. Commissioner Joyce said the pigeons "seemed to carry on a flirtation with (the owl)."
Even partial success in shooing the pigeons from their customary perches brought added headaches. Local residents complained that whenever the county was successful in clearing the Court House of the unwanted guests they simply took themselves and their droppings to other parts of the borough. Even more disconcerting, in summer months, the displaced pigeons alighted on Court House windows and mites from the birds invaded the un-airconditioned county offices, causing understandable disgruntlement amongst the staff.
There have been numerous other small matters that have come to light concerning the park in the first half of the twentieth century .These include the erection in 1915 of a barrier to prevent local boys from playing baseball on the lawn; new walks and benches installed in 1921; banning of skiing and coasting in the park in 1936; vandalism to shrubbery reported in 1938 (at the same time the Court House was defaced with crayons-there was no mention of what was the graffiti was) and; in 1939 it was remarked that a bird house for Martins installed some time before had never seen any tenants.
As is evident, the Court House park did not substantially change up to the 1960s. That decade brought two major changes to the park-one that reduced its greenery and another that accented it. Nineteen sixty-five's south portico driveway project (see section on the Third Court House) decreased the park's greenery somewhat and served to divide the park into eastern and western halves. However, three years later a major landscaping project was undertaken that helped enhance the remaining green areas with over 350 shrubs and trees. The plants themselves were obtained from Pencor Prison Industries at the Rockview Penitentiary, and twenty boys from the George Junior Republic in Grove City assisted with the planting and landscaping.
Beyond trees and other plants, two structures and a memorial were added to the park during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978 a hexagonal gazebo was erected on the west lawn in memory of the late Sally Knause, one-time director of the Mercer Chamber of Commerce. Dedicated on May 1st, 1979 (the 175th anniversary of the deeding of the land for the "County Town" by John Hoge to the original Trustees of Mercer County) the gazebo was financed by the Chamber and was built by Knause's husband Dr. John Knause. Before the gazebo was moved to Brandy Springs Park in 1988 it was used as a place for Christmas tree displays, concerts and tourist information during the summer.
Nineteen eighty-three saw an addition to the war memorial area on the edge of the east lawn. This monument was the end result of the labors of the Mercer County Vietnam Veterans association and honors Mercer countians who served in the Vietnam Conflict. A simple rectangular black granite stone, the memorial is centered in front of the Civil War monument. Its east face reads:
The Vietnam Conflict
On the reverse a bronze plaque lists the forty Mercer Countians who made the supreme sacrifice in the service of their country.
The monument was financed by donations solicited by the Vietnam Veterans' association and was produced by Gealy Memorials of Hermitage. A dedication ceremony was held on Sunday, December 11, 1983, at the memorial. The featured speaker was retired Army General William C. Westmoreland who had commanded U. S. troops during the height of the conflict. The POW /MIA flag that flies nearby with the U. S. flag and the annual vigils that local veterans hold at the memorial attest to the importance of this addition to the Court House park.
Another addition to the east lawn came in 1987 when a brick bandstand was built to accommodate the Mercer Summer Community Band which had been providing free band concerts in the park since 1978 under the direction of Dr. Hendley Hoge. The $30,000.00 stand was financed through donations from individuals and businesses in the area. In 1991, in recognition of Hoge's community service, the bandstand was named the Hendley Hoge Bandstand. Besides the summer band concerts the stand has also been used to display the Court House's outside Christmas tree, and during Mercer Borough's annual Victorian Days festival it features performances by various musical groups.
The last addition to the park before 1990 was the installation in July 1988 of additional flagpoles for both the Pennsylvania State Flag and the Mercer County Flag, which is based on the County's Seal adopted in June of that same year. Along with a pole that flies the national standard and the Vietnam POW /MIA flag, these are grouped on the east lawn near the memorials. These flags, along with the memorial area, are illuminated at night by floodlights.
One other small bit of ornamentation in the park is worth mentioning and that is a two tiered stone marker located not far from the band stand. Although no documentation was found to confirm it, this is believed to be a reference point for surveying. The initial entry in the 1876 history of Mercer County lends some credibility to this identification in that the latitude and longitude of the Court House is established as 41 degrees 14 minutes north and 80 degrees 15 minutes west. Also, the survey marker is clearly identifiable on the plate from this history which features the Second Court House (although the plate shows it three tiered).
In the 1990s the community's day-to-day use of the park is probably much like that of the preceding one hundred and eighty plus years. All seasons save for winter see people strolling through it or pausing to rest and chat on the benches. Children run on the lawn, and during the business day attorneys and others having business at the Court House hurry along its walkways. In all seasons county workers can be seen clearing snow, cutting grass or raking leaves, making sure that the park that surrounds the home of the Courts and County Government is safe and clean. Even the squirrels still inhabit the park, perpetually gathering and hiding food amongst the trees and shrubs.
Both the Court House park and the building itself are the responsibility of the Mercer County Maintenance Department which is the descendant of the original Court House janitors and custodians. Besides these responsibilities this department also cares for all other county properties which now amount to a considerable work load. The generally sound condition that both the park and Court House enjoy is in large part due to the ministrations of this staff and its predecessor. The building has endured its first eighty-plus years rather well, given the wear and tear that is to be expected. The basic design has proven to be adaptable to many changes, and its longevity attests to the soundness of that design and the workmanship of its builders.
Only space has truly been a problem as 1908 expectations of the needs of the county's courts and government did not anticipate how quickly such needs would grow. Wisely, those who have had the responsibility of meeting those changing and growing needs over the past several years have never acted to change the basic nature of the building, so that in many ways it is still as it was when it was dedicated in 1911.
Sadly, however, many original features have been lost. The 1930 re-decoration of the building obliterated the neo-classical wreaths and laurels that graced the walls, and subsequent paint jobs have even hidden some of the work done during that re-decorating project. Traces of the lost 1930 work remain hidden above drop ceilings and underneath layers of institutional green paint in the corridors. Possibly these traces may one day be uncovered to allow for duplication of lost stenciling and return to the 1930 palette of colors. Hopefully, when such a project is undertaken, retouching of surviving stencils will also be performed to ensure their continued existence.
Also gone are many of the ornamental light fixtures that once hung in the building. The fate of these is unknown, but it seems that they were surely lost after they were replaced by fluorescent fixtures in the 1950s. Also lost were the brass spittoons that once lined the halls. Reportedly these disappeared at a time when all the brass hardware in the building was sent out for refurbishing. Although they probably wouldn't receive much employment in their intended role today they would certainly add to the ambiance of a stroll through the corridors.
Mercer County's Court Houses, besides dominating the skyline in and about Mercer Borough, have also been the focal point of much that has been important in Mercer County's history. Speeches have been made, political rallies held, civic groups have met and citizens have been entertained in our Court Houses. It is where important Court cases have been heard, taxes have been paid, property transferred, legal papers filed, dogs licensed, births and voters registered and marriages joined and put asunder. Indeed nearly every resident of Mercer County, living and dead, has had some business at the Court Houses.
The Court Houses are more than just buildings. They represent the sweat and toil of the people who have built and maintained them as well as the spirit of the system of justice and government that they have been erected to house. Probably each county in America points to its court house with pride and maybe a certain amount of reverence. In Mercer County that pride and reverence is well placed in our Temple Built to Justice.
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