Throughout this year, the Bedford County Sestercentennial Celebrations Committee will be presenting a series of articles by means of the kind assistance of the Bedford Gazette (itself, a gem in the crown of Bedford County history). This series will be comprised of a variety of subjects carefully chosen to tell the story of Bedford County. The Sestercentennial Celebrations Committee sincerely hopes that you will enjoy this series. But more importantly, we hope that you will learn something that you didn’t know before. As chair of the Sestercentennial Celebrations Committee, I want to thank the individual historian/authors who have submitted articles for this series. — Larry Smith
By Larry Smith
For the Gazette
By the 1820s, the stone courthouse was showing its age and the annex was getting filled up with records. As early as 1797 the old stone building was needing repair. A petition, probably submitted by the jailor was submitted to the county Commissioners. It requested that the “Back room on the right of the entry to be lined with strong oak plank the window casings of the back room on the left entry to be lined and cased with oak plank and stone work around the windows to be repaired, that the entry be ceiled with strong oak plank and wall be repaired at the sides adjoining the Jail wall, so as to keep prisoners from escaping.” Something needed to be done. That something was the decision to build a new courthouse.
The Bedford County Commissioners in 1825 called on local contractors to submit proposals “on the Havlin Plan” for a new courthouse. John Haviland was an English architect who had designed many of the Greek Revival style structures in the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and New York and was very respected.
Solomon Filler, the region’s own most accomplished architect/contractor, won the contract to bring Haviland’s design concepts to Bedford Borough.
The open space on the southwest corner of the Square was unoccupied and so it was chosen as the site for the new structure. The footprint of the courthouse measured 54 feet in width and 65 3/4 feet in length. The length would be increased to 92 feet in 1876 with the addition of two room-sized walk-in safes at the west end of the building.
Construction on the new courthouse began in 1826. The red brick structure would be three floors in height: a basement, first floor and second floor.
The first or ground floor was occupied by the Prothonotary’s office and the Register of Wills and Recorder of Deeds’ office. Additional smaller offices occupied the east ends of both larger offices.
The second, or top floor consisted of the courtroom and smaller offices. No garret or attic floor was included in the plans; the ceiling of the second floor was constructed as a curved “cathedral” ceiling. The basement floor would hold heating and plumbing facilities.
When the two large, room-sized walk-in safes were added onto the west end in 1876, barrel vaulted supports were built of brick in the basement. Those “vault” spaces would be utilized in which to store records.
The façade on the structure’s east end faces Juliana Street. Two square columns built into the red brick wall, known as pilasters, flank either side of two round, free-standing, Doric-style columns, all of which appear to hold up the lintel, frieze and pediment. The two central round columns stand in front of a recessed front-entrance portico. Despite their carved-stone-like appearance, the round columns are actually composed of thin, four-inch wide strips of wood positioned like barrel staves and glued together.
It might be noted that the claim has been made that Mr. Filler added the two round columns for some sort of symbolic reason. That claim has no historical or design merit because the two columns are specific features of the Greek Revival style and the structure would be incomplete without them.
Eight brick chimneys, four on each long side wall, rise along the eaves of the courthouse roof. They are evidence of one of the new courthouse’s ultra-modern design. By the time the new courthouse was built in 1828/29, advances in steam heating of large public buildings had been made. Heating the new brick courthouse by steam would have involved the operation of a steam furnace in the basement and sending the warm air through small pipes to the upstairs rooms. Although not necessary for the release of wood smoke associated with a fireplace, the chimneys would still have been needed for the release of the heated flue gases released by combustion in a furnace.
By installing a steam furnace for central heating, the new courthouse would been outfitted with the latest and then-modern equipment. It’s hard to think of the courthouse, as “ancient” as it may look to some people today, as being one of the most ultra-modern structures in the borough of Bedford, and indeed the entire county when it was constructed.
The brick courthouse was completed in 1829. Some county officials might have started using their offices in the new courthouse in 1828, but the whole building was not completed until the following year. The building has stood unchanged to the present day, and the courtroom therein has been continuously used for 192 years since then. The courthouse has been heralded as one of the oldest courthouses in continuous use in Pennsylvania, second only to the Perry County courthouse, which was completed in 1827, just two years before Bedford.
Over the years since 1829, specialized departments, such as the Planning and the Veterans Affairs Departments, came into existence. They too needed space for their employees and the ever-accumulating records. Numerous structures throughout the borough, most of them private dwellings, were engaged as annexes.
The Mann House, a block to the south, was annexed for a number of years. The Russell House on the opposite side of Juliana Street provided office space. And more recently, the Lyon House adjacent to the courthouse to the south provided an annex from the 1970s until the present time.
In 1982 talks began to modernize the county’s computer systems. Those talks became talks about increasing the size of the courthouse. No actual plans emerged from those discussions.
Then, in the early 2000s, talks were renewed for finding a way to link the 1829 courthouse somehow with the Lyon House Annex. A large structure would be built to the west of the two existing structure that would be tied into them while retaining their architectural integrities. Construction of a new steel, brick and glass structure began in earnest in the fall of 2005 and continued through the winter.
By mid-February 2006, at least half of the structural steel was in place. Unlike the 1828/29 courthouse’s solid brick structure, the new building would have walls of brick veneer: a layer of brick attached to a steel beam and cinder block wall.
The renovation of the Lyon House was proving to be more difficult than had been previously anticipated due to its age and the fact that it had undergone many changes over the decades. Inside, the offices were also nearing completion with drywall and windows installed. Finishing touches, such as painting the walls and applying necessary trim would be completed soon.
Metal roofing was installed on the original 1828/29 courthouse building to match what was being installed on the new structure. By the time that mid-November rolled around, and three coats of paint had been applied to the walls, it was estimated that the contractors would meet a late-December completion deadline.
The end-of-2006 completion date came and went as work continued on the new building. Changes required to meet state and federal codes had to be made, and they just added hours onto the overall time frame and dollars onto the total cost. The project initially had been estimated…