The Lancaster County Court House 1852-1855 

Philip Geiser

  • images-departments-ams-courthouse-gif

Lancaster County Court House
Samuel Sloan, Architect
1892 photograph

In the 1850's, Lancaster County experienced an enormous amount of growth. The population of this fourth county established in Pennsylvania proved to be increasing at an astronomical rate. The population of Lancaster County consisted of about 40,000 people in 1800. By 1850, the county's population had increased to 99,003, 12,369 of which lived in the Lancaster City.1 The increase in population and commerce was too much for the court house of 1784 to handle; like Lancaster itself, the court house felt the growing pains of the community in "The Busy Age."2 Thus, on August 27, 1851, the Examiner and Herald announced that the County Commissioners agreed to consider the construction of a new court house:

The Court-room is incovenient, unhealthy, and altogether inadequate for the transacting of the public business of the Courts. The present Court House was erected in 1784, when the population of the county was under 30,000, now increased to over 100,000. . . . The room is entirely too small to admit of any better arrangement, which suggests the urgent necessity of having a more roomy building with proper accommodations. All persons attending court, either jurors, witnesses, or spectators, without regard to age or sex, are promiscuously huddled together without a seat, and scarcely room to stand, occasions an almost constant confusion and noise, often interrupting and delaying the business before the court. That matter is in the hands of the County Commissioners, who no doubt will give it all due consideration and remedy the evil whenever the funds of the county will justify the expense.3

After the newspaper announced the possibility of the construction of a new county court house, the major issue of debate in the city was the location of the site. Many individuals proposed their properties be the location of the new court house in Lancaster. After several months of intense examination by the County Commissioners, they finally decided that the corner of East King Street and North Duke Street proved itself to be the best location for the buildings' erection. The Commissioners purchased three lots adjacent each other. On March 11, 1852, the Commissioners entered into an agreement with David Longenecker, I. N. Lightner, and James Evans for the procurement of their properties at an accumulated price of $18, 000.4 The Commissioners chose this parcel of land because it would have sufficient light, air, and freedom from external disturbances. In other words, the noise and commotion of the center square, the traditional location of the previous two court houses, would not disturb the court in this new location. Thus, the first objective of the County Commissioners consisted of the purchase of suitable lot for construction. In the Minute Book of the County Commissioners, they described the acquisition of this land:

Resolved. That this Board will purchase David Longenecker's, I. N. Lightner, and twenty feet of James Evan's property. . . the North West corner of East King and Duke Streets, for the purpose of erecting a Court House thereon, provided the same can be purchased for the sum of eighteen thousand dollars, clear of all incumbrances.5

The second objective of the Commissioners proved to be the selection of an architect, general supervisor, and contracts for construction of the new court house. On April 29, 1852, Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia earned the architect position for the erection of the new court house. Sloan's appointment appeared to be a well received choice. He received two percent of the cost of the building for his services.6

The Board appointed several different general supervisors throughout the construction of the building. James Crawford came highly recommended from the community for the position of general supervisor. He received $1.50 per day, but when construction resumed after the winter of 1852-1853 Haden Patrick Smith replaced Crawford. Smith resumed construction on April 18, 1853, and he received $2.00 per day for his efforts. Crawford's dismissal proposed the idea that he was removed to keep construction costs at a minimum because of the winter lay-off; however, thrift appeared to be ruled out because Smith was hired at $2.00 a day, which was fifty cents more than the wage paid to Crawford.

At this point, the Court House in the center square was in the process of being demolished. The reasons for its destruction are unavailable, but one possible explanation is that the city needed the space to be free of obstruction because of increased traffic in this region. Nevertheless, the destruction of the old court house must be considered a tragedy because of its extensive history. The Lancaster Intelligencer elucidates the significance of the 1784 Court House:

The Court House, it is said, was erected in 1784, and has stood the wear and tear of sixty-nine years. For several reasons prior to 1812, Lancaster was the seat of government and the legislature of the Commonwealth held their sessions there: House of Representatives in the lower room and the Senate upstairs. Since removal of legislature to Harrisburg, the lower room has been used for holding several Courts of the County and for public meetings; the upper floor for jury rooms, council and school board chambers. The building presents a somewhat antiquated appearance, in the approaches to it through the four different avenues of the city: but it was a substantial structure and would have stood for ages by keeping it well roofed and painted. It had its days, however, and we at least have regrets in seeing Centre Square relieved from the antiquated obstruction.7

While the old court house was being demolished, the construction of the new Court House progressed rapidly. The Commissioners' next objective was to find a place where court could convene while the construction continued. They decided to hold court at Christian Hager's Fulton Hall. Hager received an undisclosed amount of money for the use of his building.

By the end of 1853, construction of the new Court House was well beyond the halfway point. For the third time, a new general supervisor of construction was chosen. Why Smith, who received $595.00 for his services during the year of 1853, was released is unknown; however, early 1854, Daniel Ehrisman replaced Smith. Mr. Ehrisman did not remain on the project for long because on May 22, 1854, O. C. M. Cains was appointed as the fourth general supervisor.8 He received the same wage as Smith and Ehrisman, and he " was allowed one or two hours per day to attend to other business." 9

The actual moving date of the new building is a mystery, but the Commissioners' Minute Book states that on September 7, 1854 the Commissioner office relocated to the New Court House. A brief ceremony preceded this monumental move. This celebration was the second ceremony held regarding the construction of the County Court House.

The first ceremony occurred in August 1852. The site of the construction hosted both events. The first ceremony celebrated the placement of the cornerstone of the new Court House. Following the laying of the stone, David G. Eshleman, Solicitor for the Commissioners, delivered the main address. Many members of the public attended this momentous event, and it received much attention from the newspapers. The Lancaster Intelligencer, on August 25, 1852, discusses the importance of the new building to Lancaster County:

. . . when this building shall have been finished, with the elegance which its own importance and the condition of the county seem to demand, it will stand for ages as a proud monument of the skill of the architect who designed it, and of the public spirit of the Commissioners who caused it to be erected.10

By April of 1855, many of the difficulties the county faced regarding the location and construction of the new court house had been conquered and the new magnificent structure stood as a testimony to the great acts of civisism many Lancastrians strived for during the mid-nineteenth century. Although the actual blue prints of the Lancaster County Court House can not be found, one observer recorded its proportions and beauty, in 1883:

The Lancaster court-house. . .is a massive structure of stone and brick, one hundred and sixty-four feet in length, seventy-two feet wide, and two stories high. The basement is of sandstone, the superstructure of brick, covered with a roughcast coating of mastic. A portico on the southern and another on the northern end of the building, also a pediment on its eastern side, are each supported by six fluted stone columns, with ornamental capitals of the composite order. The columns stand on buttresses raised to the height of the floor of the second story. From the centre of the roof rises a cupola , which is crowned by a statue of Justice holding the scales. In the cupola is a clock, which has four dials, facing north, south, east, and west. In the south end of the court-house is the main entrance, which is reached by a flight of stone steps (equal in length to the width of the building) rising from the East King Street sidewalk. The lower story is occupied by the several county offices. In the upper story is the court-room, eighty-three feet long, sixty-six feet wide, and twenty-five feet high, handsomely frescoed and decorated. Adjoining this is a large room devoted to the use of the law library. The courts and offices are well accommodated in this building, which, having now been in use for nearly thirty years, seem likely to fill the requirements of the county for half a century more.11

One hundred and forty-one years have passed since the final phase of construction of the third Lancaster County Court House. It still stands on the corner of East King Street and North Duke Street, erect and proud. The tribute paid to this massive structure in 1855 holds as true now as it did when the building was first constructed: "It [the court house] is a credit to Lancaster County and to all concerned in the erection of it." 12