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How did York’s 1898 courthouse escape the wrecking ball?

This building almost replaced the domed courthouse


Last month I did a blog post about the impressive turn of the century York County courthouse and its narrow escape from the 1950s mentality of tear it down and build something new. The nicely restored building now serves at the York County Administrative Center in the first block of East Market Street.

I found a lot of material on the almost done deal in the York County History Center files, including the reason the demolition didn’t happen. See below for my recent York Sunday News column, which tells the rest of the story:

How York County almost lost its impressive 1898 courthouse

The East Market Street domed courthouse and its next door annex were bursting at the seams in 1952. A new or extensively renovated courthouse would need to be approved by the York County commissioners, a grand jury and York County judges.

The commissioners were considering an addition to the courthouse or a new building at a different site. Democratic commissioner Jennings Hartman favored a new site. In October 1952 a grand jury declared it was “of the unanimous opinion that the Court House should be retained on its present site.” It was later revealed that the two Republican commissioners, Edward Fitzgerald and Walter Trout, had been discussing a large scale rebuilding on the present site with architect Frederick Dempwolf since shortly after they took office in January 1952.

On July 20, 1953 Dempwolf presented his preliminary plans to the three commissioners. They were for an expanded and drastically remodeled five story building, virtually replacing the four story structure designed by Dempwolf’s father, John A. Dempwolf, just over 50 years before. The broad steps and stately columns were gone, as were the Florentine domes. The front of the new rectangular building, of Indiana limestone, would extend to sidewalk and look much like the 1940s Dauphin County courthouse. The building would be extended to the west on a county-owned vacant lot. Dempwolf estimated the cost to be over $2 million.

Fitzgerald and Trout voted to approve the plans, instructing Dempwolf to prepare working drawings. Hartman wanted to study the preliminary drawings because of the large expense; Fitzgerald and Trout said they had not studied them either. Dempwolf said the drawings already had the tentative approval of the York County Bar Association Court House Study Committee chairman. The next day both the Gazette and Daily and the York Dispatch ran Dempwolf’s perspective drawing of the proposed $2 million plus new courthouse.

Dempwolf continued work, with plans approved by a spring grand jury. The project, however, came to an abrupt halt on December 1, 1953. Upon examining plans and cost, now risen to $2,239,948, the three York County judges rejected the plans as too expensive. Judge Ray P. Sherwood felt that the raise in taxes needed to pay for the project would put an unnecessary burden on taxpayers. He thought just erecting a west wing would serve for “a number of years.” Judge Walter I. Anderson remarked that the plans “seem like a new building under the guise of remodeling,” and he would like to see the present architecture retained. Judge Harvey A. Gross called the present structure “this rock of Gibraltar,” and said he didn’t want to see the front torn off, especially since it would cost so much. He suggested adding wings to both the east and west of the present building. The lot on the west was vacant, and the courthouse annex, the former Security Trust/Central National Bank building to the east, was in bad shape; the elevator was already condemned.

On February 26, 1954 the Gazette and Daily headlined “Courthouse Plan Appears Dead ‘Til After ’55 Election,” reporting a “heated discussion” between Republican Commissioner Fitzgerald and Democratic Commissioner Hartman. Fitzgerald declared “Let the next boys do it.” referring to the next board of commissioners who would take office in January 1956. He stood by the Dempwolf plan and said, “Another plan would take another two years and would get the same booting,” and he told Hartman that as far as he was concerned the improvement program was at an end. Hartman asserted that the board should not drop the program after producing only “one idea, one project and nothing else.” Fitzgerald then suggested Hartman “go to the court and ask it to reverse its decision.” Hartman responded that would be foolish, since Hartman agreed with the judges’ decision to unanimously reject the too expensive plan.

The commissioners all agreed that the need for space and improvement had existed for many years before they took office. The judges too, after rejecting the over $2 million proposal, asked that the board submit a “more feasible” and less expensive plan. Fitzgerald, saying space for some county offices was more than adequate and others less so, suggested reshuffling office space. He still took a strong stand against spending a large amount to repair the elevator in the five-story annex housing a mix of county offices and business tenants. Fitzgerald suggested the commissioners would be lenient with tenants breaking leases because of no elevator service.

Some planning continued, and in April 1954 the grand jury recommended “that two-story wings be added to both the east and west side of the courthouse, at the rear,” for additional office space and another court room. They jury also advocated needed elevator installation and renovations to the annex, so as not to lose leasing revenue.

In May 1954 the Dispatch reported that Dempwolf submitted his $22,429 bill for the plans he had produced under his contract with the commissioners. He pointed out he could have charged $3,731 more, based on his allowed percentage of the proposed general construction cost. He would turn over all studies and plans to the county for possible future use.

In September 1954, Republican commissioners Fitzgerald and Trout voted to advertise for bids on proposed improvements to courthouse offices, expanding the Recorder of Deeds office and moving others around. Minority commissioner Hartman dissented, wanting to first ascertain if it would be feasible to utilize the annex.

Republican Edward Fitzgerald was the only holdover when the new board of commissioners took office in January 1956. The two newcomers were Democrats Harry Busser and Emory Kilgore. Busser said a solution to the courthouse problems would be found during their administration.

Young York architect Clarence “Dutch” Forrer had started working on courthouse concerns on his own in 1955, surveying needs and present facilities and visiting other courthouses. Forrer shared his proposal, adding wings to each side of the courthouse, with the York County Bar and county commissioners in January 1956. In May, Busser and Fitzgerald voted to have Forrer proceed with the project estimated at $1,500,000. Kilgore favored the Buchart architectural firm instead, citing Forrer’s limited experience. Busser countered that Forrer had been recommended by various officials.

After further consultation with the commissioners, members of the bar and courthouse employees, Forrer’s plans were revised and presented to the judges for approval. Even though revised cost estimates were now $1,850,000, they were approved unanimously by the judges. The building, much as we see it today was dedicated in the spring of 1959. Architect Forrer’s name may not be familiar today, as he passed away of a heart attack in December 1960 at the age of 36.