The Judicial Center: Is it York County’s 4th or 5th courthouse?

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The tall York County Judicial Center has offered the public views from all directions since it was dedicated 10 years ago. Here a visitor looks down on the Strand-Capitol complex on North George Street in York Pa. When it went up, the judicial center was among several high-profile projects new to York – the biggest and most expensive of them all. Check them out: A decade of changes. Also of interest: York County Courthouse – now Administrative Center. What do you call it? 

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York County Judge John Uhler was a driving force for the new Judicial Center,, dedicated 10 years ago,

He recently provided these decade-plus-old comments setting the Judicial Center in history and raising an interesting question about whether the center is York County’s fourth of fifth court facility:

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After work on the York County Judicial Center was completed, the old courthouse, foreground, received a facelift.

Dependant upon one’s interpretation, the proposed new judicial center being symbolically launched today is either the fourth or fifth courthouse to serve York County since 1749. I personally subscribe to the view that this grand new judicial center at least represents our fifth Court facility.

Our First Courthouse evolved when the Trustees of York County approached the County Commissioners on November 1, 1750 and sought to defray the costs of the construction of a public facility designed to accommodate the citizens of York who were compelled to travel to Lancaster to attend to their legal business. The Minutes of a subsequent meeting in November of 1753 reflect the raising of the sum of £504 16 shillings and five pence through taxation for building a courthouse in Yorktown. The project was not opened for public bid as is required today. Both material and craftsmen were generated from within the County to construct the facility. While there were no architectural plans comparable to those we now work with, the contracts reflect that the

First Courthouse was a two-story structure with dimensions of 45 ft by 55 feet, and which was situated in the center of the Borough of York square facing south. In fact the only specific dimension mandated by the Commissioners was the size of the brick. These foundation dimensions were later disproved in 1973 when my friend, mentor, and former partner the late Judge John F. Rauhauser Jr. as the President of the York Bicentennial Commission secured permits to excavate the square in order to find the foundation markers of this foremost York County Court house. That excavation established that the original Court House foundation was 45 feet by 45 feet. This small building was the first courthouse in Pennsylvania West of the Susquehanna River.

It is the model upon which the replicated “Colonial Courthouse” was based. While this was the smallest of all the York County courthouse structures, it attained the greatest historical significance when from September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778 Congress held their deliberations under its roof. It was during this time period while York served as the Capitol of our newly emerging country that the Articles of Confederation were drafted. York stakes its claim to be The First Capitol of the United States of America arising from this important event. Months later a Proclamation of Thanksgiving emanated from this largely frontier Court House.

A State house serving County office holders was constructed in 1793 immediately to the east of the Court house while Court proceedings continued to operate on the first floor of the facility. In 1815 the addition of gables on the second floor to the north and south provided additional space for Court records and Clerks. These additions also allowed the Commissioners to satisfy the demands for a town clock which was added at the same time . These substantial alterations to the original facility, coupled with the lack of a discernable plan made it difficult to reconstruct accurate plans of the original courthouse as it appeared in 1777.

The efforts to expand the accommodations of the First Court House for the public good were ultimately exhausted. In one of York County’s saddest moments a decision was reached in 1841 to offer the old Court House for sale. John Gibbons in his “History of York County” wrote “it should never have been destroyed, but the people of York County, like Americans in general did not, at that time, reverence a historic old landmark -(the courthouse) if it stood now would be one of the greatest and most important objects of veneration in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The building was totally demolished together with the State House. Only a few pieces of this historic structure were salvaged. It should be noted that our replica Colonial Courthouse retains a petition signed by many citizens of the Borough of York who opposed the destruction. While their remonstration was for naught, I remind all of the debt of gratitude that we owe to the late John F. Rauhauser, Jr. who as the catalyst for the project was largely responsible for the replica which was dedicated 25 years ago this month.

Due to the demands of the citizenry a determination was reached in 1839 to build a Second Court House. Unlike the orderly process adopted by our contemporary Boards of Commissioners in the formation of a Courthouse Task Force, and sharing of these issues with the public it appears the earlier Commissioners pursued a completely opposite course of action resulting in great controversy as to where the Courthouse should be located.

Numerous petitions were circulated challenging the site selections. Observations ranging from self dealing, cronyism, safety hazards(fire safety), a nearby stable behind a tavern which was a favorite stopping place of peddlars, horse drovers, circus companies and menangeries were assigned in objections to the selection. One petition advocated the new site location at the corner of Beaver and Market and suggested that more inhabitants approached the city from the west than the east and it was closest to Judge Barnitz’s home.

Another petition containing approximately 2000 signatures or marks and extending more than thirty feet in length sought the State General Assembly to intervene. Notwithstanding all of the protests, the Commissioners were steadfast in their resolve to have the location of the Second Courthouse at its present site.

In 1841 the Courthouse was completed at a cost of more than $100,000; however, the Grecian styled courthouse borne in dissatisfaction remained in disfavor by the inhabitants. It had only three windows on the entire front of the building and when completed lacked space for all that was demanded. Numerous renovations were undertaken but the Second Courthouse was plagued with poor ventilation which again prompted the Grand Juries to prevail upon the Judges and Commissioners to build a new or remodeled Court facility.

Of historical note the Second Court House on June 28th, 1863 was compelled to display the Confederate Flag when General Jubal Early, together with his 10,000 troops entered York. General Early took over the Sheriff’s office on the West side of the Courthouse. Demands were made by him for $100,000- food supplies and sundries to spare the town. Only $28,000 was raised before Early was called to assist at Gettysburg by his superiors. Before Early’s departure Judge Fisher ordered that all of the court records were to be hidden in the basement for safekeeping.

The inadequate and unpopular Second Courthouse was ultimately destroyed and in 1898 the Third Courthouse much of which stands today was erected. This included a third story and a three-story addition to the rear. The large Court Room Number 1 which remains today was remodeled and refitted and a Second court room was added, on the second floor. A law library and grand jury facilities were provided on the new third floor.

Three domes were added to provide light for the courtrooms, stair hall and corridors. The structure was described by historian George Prowell as “one of the most ornamental temples of justice in the State of Pennsylvania or anywhere in the Country.” The costs of the Third courthouse exceeded $450,000. The Architect of this elegant structure was John A. Dempwolf.

Growing pains again were experienced by the County when in 1943 the neighboring central National Bank Building was purchased by the County and converted to the Courthouse Annex. Again the growth of the County and demand for services focused attention on the Courthouse facility in the late forties early fifties when consideration was given to building a new freestanding structure or undertaking a substantial remodeling of the turn of the century structure. A new site was rejected and Clarence Dutch Forrer was awarded the contract as Architect for the remodeling and expansion of the Courthouse at an approximate cost of $1,500,000 in May of 1956.

The project added the Orphan’s Court Room # 3 and a Domestic Relations Juvenile Court Room #4 on the third floor. The Courthouse annex purchased in 1943 was demolished. Two wings on the east and west were incorporated into the facility accompanied by an altered facade providing additional space for the County Office holders.

Increased demands for space later necessitated the lease of nearby office space and the later purchases of the Government Center and One Marketway in order to accommodate additional courtrooms and the expanded number of county employees in the early eighties. Courtrooms 6 and 7 in were added. Gerry rigged Court or hearing rooms namely 5, 8, 9, 10, have been operational for more than ten years and most recently Courtroom 11 in the basement of our existing structure and Courtroom 12 in the basement of our government center. Anterooms to restroom facilities and catacombs designed for records have been converted to offices. It is difficult to reconcile this much-altered building with the essence of the original Third Courthouse.

The interior and exterior changes to the 1898 two original court room “temple of Justice” over the last one hundred years have been so vast, by Judicial fiat, we must minimally call it our Fourth Courthouse for purposes of historical perspective.

How will this new Judicial Center, our Fifth Courthouse, with twelve jury courtrooms and hearing rooms and a shell floor designed for expansion of Court facilities be later looked upon at similar ceremonial occasions. I trust we have learned from the lessons of the past. Our current courthouse will not be destroyed and sold but maintained for the public good. Court Rooms 1 & 2 will retain their integrity and restored to the magnificence they enjoyed prior to 1956 when they were painted battleship gray.

Court Room Number 1 will continue as our Ceremonial Court Room and remain available for civil trials. Court Room Number 2 shall become the Commissioners hearing Room and a public meeting room. Our County Commissioners have fully utilized the collective wisdom of the Court House Task Force in making their site selection and the needs requirements recommended by the National Center for State Courts. The Architects have enabled the County to fully participate in the design recommendations, thus assuring that the Judicial Center is reflective of our needs and is our court facility. Our community, inspired by unsatisfactory personal exposure to the current facility, or third hand reports through the Fourth Estate, are overwhelmingly supportive of the project.

Of greatest significance is the support of our County Commissioners and their recognition of the importance of this project to provide our citizens with a dignified and welcoming structure constituted of high quality workmanship and materials. As this process evolves into the construction phase, we should continually be reminded by history of the central role of our Judicial process fulfills in our great democracy.

Our founding fathers recognized the central importance of the Judiciary in the preservation of our liberties and of the Court facility serving as a focal gathering place at the political and cultural center of town. Courthouses are intended to be a visible symbols of justice in the community.

As recognized by Tocqueville in 1825 when he described the American legal system:

“The principles on which the constitution of the American States rest, the principles of order, balance of powers, true liberty, and sincere and deep respect for the law, are indispensable for all republics, they should be common to them all; and it is safe to forecast that where they are not found the republic will soon have ceased to exist.”

When completing this our Fifth Courthouse these principles should be in the forefront for our future generations.

052206-cdg-Hotel-Penn.jpgThe Hotel Penn stood for decades on North George Street. Then it was demolished and its footprint became a parking lot before the new York County Judicial Center went up 10 years ago. Also of interest: See this before-and-after photograph of the Hotel Penn/Judicial Center.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.

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