Barbara Miller

Courthouse glows through highs, lows

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Many courtroom dramas have been playing out lately at 1 S. Main St. in Washington, but the real star of these scenes has been that venerable grande dame, the Washington County Courthouse.


Visiting members of the media covering these stories never fail to comment on the magnificence of the backdrop which many Washington Countians undoubtedly take for granted.


It has been said that counties vied with each other in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to build the most opulent secular cathedral.


I remember my uncle, who worked for decades in the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office on Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh, visiting 1 S. Main St. and saying, “Washington has always been known for its beautiful courthouse.”


The aforementioned federal courthouse, where granite and gray-veined white marble abound, has courtrooms that range from utilitarian to ornate. But the coldness of that marble on floor after floor, wall after wall, makes me think of a polar ice cap.


Gold, not cold, predominates in the Washington County Courthouse rotunda and the brass railings along its steps, illuminated by rainbow-hued stained glass of the huge dome and dome-covered courtroom skylights. And what many perceive as old-gold shades of marble is actually a faux finish on plaster known as “scagliola.” In addition to the recent trials and tribulations, it was also the site of a wedding ceremony.


Its warmth may’ve have been a tad too much for those attending one trial last month. Jury selection began on a day punctuated by snowflakes and brutal wind chill. By the time the defense presented its case, the heat of the day necessitated flinging open courtroom windows and the whirring of fans. Hawthorn trees by the Main Street portico had burst into leaf.


No, it wasn’t as sweltering as the fictional Maycomb County, Ala., courthouse in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but as spectators packed the benches and extra chairs in blue Courtroom No. 3 to hear closing arguments and a verdict, it was close, in more ways than one. (Blame fresh air dampers that have seized in a partially-open position, said Building and Grounds Director Gary Bertosh, and the sudden arrival of August-like temperatures.)


Washington County Courthouse, at 112 years old, was built to last. The cost of the most recent restoration was $1.134 million, borne by county taxpayers.


“The present courthouse is the fourth erected since Washington County was created by an act of the legislature in 1781,” the City of Washington website says. “But it is really the fifth in the history of the county, for the first was erected in 1776 at Old Augusta Town” when this area was part of disputed Pennsylvania-Virginia territory. A state historical marker has noted the spot on Route 40, three miles southwest of Washington, since 1947.


For a building of that age, maintenance never ends. Let’s hope no earthquake, fire, tornado or superstorm ever hits Main and Beau, because the cost to replicate its beauty would be so astronomical that a Courthouse Number 5 (or 6) would be a mere shadow of the edifice completed in 1901.



Staff writer Barbara Miller covers the Washington County courts. She can be reached at bmiller@observer-reporter.com.


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