After 126 years of continuous use and incremental modifications, the Allegheny County Courthouse will begin a major program of renovation and restoration “with one goal,” says County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, “to restore our courthouse to its former glory.”

Fitzgerald announced on Monday that the county selected architects Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel to develop a master facilities plan for the iconic building, marking the official commencement of work.

The Pittsburgh-based firm of 18 architects was selected out of 12 firms that submitted credentials.

PWWG, which also designs and constructs new buildings, was chosen for their expertise in historic architecture. They have worked on over 120 projects in historic architecture for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, culminating in a restoration of the State Capitol Building in Harrisburg.

The Allegheny County Courthouse was architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s favorite among his scores of buildings. “If they honor me for the pygmy things I have already done, what will they say when they see Pittsburgh finished?” he asked near his untimely death in 1886. The building was completed in 1888.

Subsequently, it inspired a generation of regional and national imitators with rough-cut brown stone, repeating arched windows, and intricate carved stone. Few styles are named for a single architect like Richardsonian Romanesque. While many buildings go in and out of fashion, this one has been consistently popular.

But it has also been well worn. Its entrance has moved downward with multiple excavations of Grant Street. Courtroom ceilings have strangely followed suit, dropping with lowered panels for purported energy savings in a series of casual renovations. Mechanical and electrical systems are out of date, the roof has been replaced haphazardly, and nearly everything except the hardest granite is experiencing the wear of age.

PWWG Principal Sheldon Goettel acknowledges the building’s masterful architecture as he emphasizes its need for ongoing use. It “…endures as a fully functioning building, and a key facility for Allegheny County government. Our task is to…preserve the character of this landmark, while improving its efficiency and functionality as a working courthouse.”

PWWG will work with engineers and sustainability consultants on a Master Facilities Plan–an inventory and priority list that will determine the sequence of later work. For the first time since its completion, all further work on the building will take place under a comprehensive and unifying vision.

Charles Rosenblum

Charles Rosenblum is a journalist, critic, and scholar who specializes in the built environment and visual arts. His work has appeared in Architectural Record, Preservation, Architect’s Newspaper, Public Art Review, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly. Charles has taught history and theory of art and architecture at Carnegie Mellon University since 1998.