Documenting the documentary: Courthouse to be featured on PCN

April 23, 2014
Debbie Tingley, director of communications for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, and cameraman Matt Hall film President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca Wednesday for a show on historic courthouses. The episode will be on Pennsylvania Cable Network television channel’s “Historic Courthouses” series. - Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi has a new appreciation for actors on location shooting television shows.

He stood for 90 minutes in front of the courthouse Wednesday morning with temperatures hovering around the low 40s while reciting his introduction for a Pennsylvania Cable Network program about one of state’s historic courthouses.

Excuse him if he froze in more ways than one when delivering his lines. Honking horns and rumbling trucks or the retorts from motorcycle exhausts didn’t help.

Self-conscious about his role as host, he shivered as he apologized to cameraman Matt Hall of Camp Hill, who handled the retakes with aplomb before heading inside the rotunda of the Washington County Courthouse to record the next segment with President Judge Debbie O’Dell Seneca.

With a cup of hot coffee taking the chill from his hands, Maggi said, “This is a pretty big deal for Washington County. We’re going to be on PCN. It’s going to be statewide exposure. They don’t want it to look choreographed.”

Deborah Tingley, director of communications for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, didn’t mind that there is no broad expanse of lawn from which to take panoramic shots of the domed exterior.

“Towns grew around their courthouses,” Tingley said while standing beneath the stained-glass dome. “What’s so spectacular about your courthouse is the absolute beauty and detail of the architecture. This is really a magnificent piece of architecture, truly.” She was surprised to find such an ornate structure in the western part of the state.

“If I were a county employee, I’d be counting my blessings every day to be able to come to work here,” Tingley said.

And while a statue of George Washington gazes east, there is no longer a Liberty figure atop the place. She and Justice went by the wayside in the 1970s, but a there’s a possibility that replicas could be restored to the rooftop corners if money becomes available.

When the documentary airs in August, even those who visited the courthouse will find details they may have missed or, in the case of a “secret tunnel” from the old jail to the courthouse, a place that is off-limits to the general public. Maintenance worker Jason Lesnock pointed the way to the passage, and his co-worker, Mike Black, stood ready to adjust lighting or aid the production in any way he could.

Tingley was impressed with the vaults in use in at the row offices, and she had her crew focus on “Vault B” in the Register of Wills/Clerk of Orphans Court office.

“These are heavy metal doors,” Tingley said. “I’ve not seen this in any other courthouse.” Plus, the metal is decorated, not just utilitarian, and the combination locks are intact.

Chief Clerk Mary Helicke submitted a three-page application in January explaining why Washington County’s fourth courthouse at 1 S. Main St. should receive statewide exposure.

In the overview of local history to entice the production crew to come to Washington, Helicke noted the current courthouse, construction of which began in 1898, was designed by Frederick J. Osterling at a cost of $1 million. It was dedicated Nov. 17, 1900, with speeches and tours.

Maggi estimated it would cost $350 million to construct the same building today. The building is apparently ready for its close-up after the most recent round of courthouse renovations, completed in spring 2013, cost $809,000. Exactly one year ago, Russian-born artist Boris Brindar was touching up the faux golden marble interior finish known as scagliola while a homicide trial was taking place.

Helicke’s role in getting a stagehand to call, “Action!” won’t be anonymous. Looking closely at the finished program, a viewer may see Helicke and Maggi’s administrative assistant, Joy Orndoff, make cameo appearances while reading at a table in the courthouse basement law library.

Tingley said the county will receive a copy of the program that can be shown in schools or to prospective jurors waiting to be called to sit in judgment in either a civil or criminal trial.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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