District court will move to renovated first floor in April
By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
WEST CHESTER — Like the county — and the country — that surrounds it, the Chester County Courthouse has been reinvented numerous times, but in the end, it is again returning to its roots.
The original 1847 courthouse building will again be a seat of justice next month, becoming the new home to a district court while at the same time regaining a lot of the look and soul of the original building.
The gem of a building — still in many ways the symbol of the county, despite the departure of the courts to the new Justice Center in 2007 — was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, who would go on to design the dome as well as the senate and house chambers of the U.S. Capitol and contribute design work to Philadelphia City Hall.
When new, it featured vaulted ceilings and internal arches, with large windows to let in the light.
Years of use and a move toward modernity — first with the building of the court annex in 1893, an then subsequent renovations in 1933 and 1966 — the beautiful details in the building were covered with drop ceilings and lighting arrays, the arches covered, the vaulted ceilings hidden from view.
Little by little, said Jack Stewart, the project manager for the county, those details emerged — and a few surprises. One of the biggest: an old back stairway from the courtroom, sealed off when the annex was built. The stairway is again sealed off — as will be a pair of spiral staircases that appear to have been used to access record storage in the basement, particularly in the days when the space housed the office of the county prothonotary.
But the new renovation, slated to cost $1.46 million is returning those design details to public view — and more importantly, public use. As the new home for District Court 15-2-04 — the court of Magisterial Justice Gwenn Knapp — the building will again house an active court room.
The vaulted ceilings are back in view and will be lit by indirect LED lights. The arches — where possible have been preserved and will be back on display throughout the first floor.
But Stewart said, figuring out which details came from which renovation project, took a bit of time and some materials study.
A less historic but still crucial part of the project includes building an elevator to allow handicap access to the second floor — and Courtroom 1. Previously, that access had come from the since sold-off North Annex. And Stewart notes that with two-foot thick brick walls in places, making all of the space on the first floor handicap accessible has been challenging, especially while trying to preserve as much of the original building design as possible. Another challenge: building safe and secure holding cells — which are tucked back behind the courtroom and largely out of public view.
And while the new courtroom will have all of the modern amenities, the large windows and vaulted ceilings will give the room the sort of elegance and history that is found upstairs in Courtroom 1.
While the major work has focused on the major renovations downstairs, the upstairs will get a clean up, some fresh paint and general tidying up before the entire building is reopened to the public this spring.
Courtroom 1 will continue to be used for ceremonial purposes — such as the swearing in of county officers and new judges, among other things. Courtroom 2 — added in 1893 — is less often used, although it has been rented out from time to time for film and TV production use, where a classic-style or historic courtroom is needed.