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436 Grant Street

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Richardsonian Romanesque, Charles Rosenblum, Samuel Yellin

Artwork Type

Architecture



Allegheny County Courthouse

1886


Henry Hobson Richardson



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Owner Allegheny County
ADA Services Visitors who are not able to climb the stairs on Grant Street can access the courthouse through the rear courtyard.

Tucked with comparative daintiness among much larger skyscrapers Downtown, the Allegheny County Courthouse was once the most prominent building in Pittsburgh by both height and reputation. It may yet maintain the latter. The result of a design competition in 1884, it comes from winning drawings submitted by French-educated Bostonian Henry Hobson Richardson, whose Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago and Trinity Church in Boston helped make him arguably the first American architect to enjoy an international reputation. Yet Richardson, who died at age 48 without seeing the Pittsburgh complex complete, famously praised it as his favorite.

The style is still called Richardsonian Romanesque, because the heavy masonry and profusion of round arches recall the Romanesque cathedrals of Medieval Europe, in a combination of burliness and pedigree that Richardson found to be well-suited to the young United States and the youthful potential of its provincial urban outposts. Contemporary architects agreed, and hundreds of eagerly imitative buildings sprung up across the country, many of them in Pittsburgh. The many buildings with rough arches in brown stone pay tribute to Richardson and this building.

Richardson was still in a class by himself. His design refers to Roman Aqueducts, Syrian monasteries and Roman Renaissance palaces, while providing master classes in stone detailing and grand stairway design. The Bridge of Sighs, connecting the Courthouse and Jail, may even surpass the beauty of the Venetian structures that inspired it. Amid such complexities, the floor plan is a model of lucidity that his late Victorian rivals were too fussy match.

The building has more dramatic narrative to match its erudite beauty and three-dimensional sophistication. It once housed anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. One inmate escaped from incarceration with the help of the warden’s wife, providing inspiration for a 1980s movie with Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton.

The buildings themselves have endured architectural dramas over the years as well. The jail received two substantial expansions in the early twentieth century that nearly doubled its size, but maintained its character. A more recent conversion into juvenile courts is a functional transformation with surprisingly moderate disruption of the characteristic historic masonry, even if the original jail cells are all but gone.

Also in the early twentieth century, excavation to lower the height of Grant Street by up to 20 feet accordingly moved the entrance of the Court House to the height where its basement was originally, disrupting the entry sequence. Since then, many courtrooms have received dropped ceilings and otherwise-unsympathetic updates, though a few have been returned to more accurate original condition.

Allegheny County has recently announced a program for a complete renovation of the Court House, with the promise to restore its historic character, reinvigorating Richardson’s brilliant designs for another 125 years or more.

By Charles L. Rosenblum, Ph.D 

Internationally acclaimed architect, Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886) is often recognized in the "trinity of American architecture" along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Born in Louisana, Richardson designed a number of buildings in cities across the United States. In addition to the Allegheny County Courthouse, some of his most famous projects include: Trinity Church in Boston, the Thomas Crane Public Library, and the John J. Glessner House in Chicago. Richardsonian Romanesque is the architectual style that is named after him.