Dignitaries gather to celebrate rebirth of landmark 1847 building
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
One hundred and sixty-seven years after its first ribbon-cutting, the historic Chester County Courthouse celebrated a rebirth last week.
With a host of county officials on hand, the landmark building at the corner of High and Market Streets in downtown West Chester reopened after extensive renovations. In some cases, the work undid previous efforts to help the 1847 structure accommodate the county’s growth for more than a century.
Offering a historic snapshot, Chester County Commissioners’ Chairman Ryan Costello explained that in 1840, after a series of well-attended trials highlighted the need for more space, opposition to new construction centered on concern over costs. Despite using renowned architect Thomas U. Walter – known for his work on the U.S. Capitol – and fireproofing the building, the courthouse debuted in 1847 at a cost of less than $56,000. Walter received $100 for the plans and $1,100 to oversee the construction, Costello said.
Toward the end of the 19th century, growing pains surfaced again, and an annex to the western end of the courthouse was completed in 1893. That cost, which included renovations to the original structure as well, was $116,500, construction that would be subject to additional modifications for decades to come.
About a decade ago, the commissioners faced a scenario similar to their predecessors in 1840: The county had again outgrown its space. That realization led to the construction of the Justice Center several blocks away and left a once grand building in need of resurrection, Costello said
Commissioner Kathi Cozzone explained that the recent renovation project afforded a chance to uncover treasures that had disappeared during previous transitions, such as hidden door frames and an exterior staircase. Various building materials helped to date some of the changes made to the interior over the past 167 years, she said.
Now, instead of a “functional office” look, visitors to the courthouse will see the building as it looked in 1847, with vaulted ceilings, marble stairs, and walls and trim that are painted in historic colors, Cozzone said. The wall halfway up the stairs now features a large print of the original courthouse, taken around 1870. The print is framed in a circular copper ring. which is actually two halves of copper rings from the original courthouse clock tower. One used to encase the north clock face, and the other encased the south clock face, Cozzone said.
Commissioner Terence Farrell explained that the renovated courthouse will serve as the new home of District Court 15-1-04, which covers West Chester Borough Wards 1, 2 and 4. Up until about a month ago, Judge Gwenn Knapp’s court was located in space that cost the county $164,000 in annual rent. Considering that the renovations cost about $880,000, the payback time is five years; in addition, the move restores court services to the building, Farrell said.
“As with all new construction and renovation to county-owned properties, this courthouse now practices great energy efficiency and many of the materials were repurposed,” said Farrell, who joined his colleagues in commending the many people who worked on the project.
Another benefit is that “the doors of the building are open to the public as they were before September 2008,” Costello said, returning the Hall of Heroes on the first floor of the courthouse to its rightful prominence. Dedicated in November 1999, it honors those individuals who sacrificed their lives in the service of Chester County, from World War II onward, he said.
Requested by – and still maintained by – the West Chester Men’s Service Club, the Hall of Heroes was always on public display to visitors – until court operations moved to the Justice Center. On Thursday, the memorial was rededicated, and the commissioners laid wreaths in front of it, paying tribute to an ever-growing number of Chester County heroes.