Clarion County Historical Series: Fire Destroys First Two Clarion Courthouses

Now is an excellent time to look back at the history of Clarion County’s most identifiable landmark.

Ron Wilshire

Ron Wilshire

Published April 2, 2024 9:20 am
Last Updated: April 3, 2024 7:01 am
Clarion County Historical Series: Fire Destroys First Two Clarion Courthouses

CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – As Clarion County prepares to move everything in the Courthouse in April for an extensive renovation of the historic structure and updating building systems, a look at the history of the Courthouse shows the current building is the third Courthouse that has stood at that location since 1843.

Clarion County Historical Series is sponsored by First United National Bank

Now is an excellent time to look back at the history of Clarion County’s most identifiable landmark. The story is the official history of the Clarion County Courthouse, published on the Clarion County website. The tale of Clarion County’s Courthouse has a rich history of construction and destruction until it was finally constructed into what we know today.

The first Courthouse

The first Courthouse was bid to the firm of Derby & Clover of Ridgeway, PA, and Levi G. Clover of Clarion, PA. Derby was the Superintending Partner of the firm. The total contract price of this project was $8,500, which, as it appears, exceeded the lowest bid by $2,700 (The extras brought up the cost to $10,363.16). Work started in the spring of 1842 but was not finished until 1843.

The Courthouse was brick, two-storied, and divided by a slight offset – from which there were two narrow recesses into two longitudinal wings. The rear annex was slightly lower than the front part of the building. A wooden cupola in the center of the roof surmounted the main section of the building. The main entrance was through a portico in the Grecian style and reached by four low steps. Two wooden fluted pillars with plain capitals and two pilasters, one at both ends and painted white, supported the porch’s roof.

The County offices were on each side of the corridor, the main body of the building. The second story contained jury rooms. The courtroom was occupied on the ground floor in the rear of the building. Two doors in each recess opened into the entry leading to it. The hallway above the courtroom was used as a conference room for public meetings.

The circumstances surrounding the destruction of the First Courthouse were very similar to those involved in the burning of the Second Courthouse.

Fire strikes first and second Courthouse.

At about 9:00 a.m. on March 10, 1859, smoke and flames broke through the roof near the dome. A faulty flue was the cause. The town’s citizens had no means of getting water up to the second-floor area, and within two hours, the building was in ruin, but all records were preserved. The estimated loss was $10,000, although the Lycoming and York Companies resulted in a claim for $7,000.

The Presbyterian Church was used as a courtroom until the completion of the second Courthouse, and other county offices were located in the Arnold block of Clarion. The second Courthouse was built by Daniel and Edmond English of Brookville and was completed in 1863. A particular act of the legislature needed to be passed empowering the County Commissioners to erect a new structure.

The total cost was $17,200, including extras of $1,500. John R. Turner of Carlisle was the architect contracted by  County Commissioners Daniel Mercer, C. Seigworth, and Benjamin Miller.

This undertaking was a losing one for the contractors.

The building was substantial brick with a wooden roof. It measured 60 feet wide by 98 feet long. The height of the first story was 13 feet, and that of the second story was 21 feet. The overall height of the building, excluding the belfry, was 65 feet. The building was constructed cheaply, considering the cost of the size and solidity of the building.

At about 1:00 a.m. on September 12, 1882, the fire smoldering in the loft burst through the roof. Water pressure was not strong enough to reach the top of the Courthouse, and the flames gained resistless headway. The building was gutted in a few hours, leaving the walls intact. Total insurance received from the result of this fire amounted to $25,000. Fortunately, again, no records were lost in the fire.

Between the destruction of the second Courthouse and the completion of the present Courthouse, the Methodist Church was used for the other county offices.

Current Courthouse

The present Courthouse, built in 1883, was awarded after 16 bidders placed contracts for the new building.

Numerous changes in renovations to the current Courthouse are not reflected in the official history. Still, extensive changes in the Courthouse were accomplished in the last four years, including new window shifts in office locations, in preparation for the planned renovation temporarily closing the Courthouse.

John Cooper’s bid was the highest at $135,000, and the lowest bid was that of P.H. Melvin at $88,370. This bid allowed $5,000 for materials from the former Courthouse and jail. Melvin was awarded the contract, and work was to be completed by November 16, 1884. It was completed on July 16, 1883, but the building was not handed over to the County Commissioners until October 14, 1885. The Commissioners were John Keatly, Aaron Kline, and Johnson Wilson, but Samuel Bell, David Heffron, and Emmanuel Over were the ones to assume office in the new building.

Henry Warner of Allegheny executed the Fresco work. The Star Encaustic Tile Company of Pittsburgh laid the tile floors. Howard Clock Company of New York furnished the clock dial, which is nine feet in diameter, and the bell weighed 1,313 pounds.

P.H. Melvin, the contractor, failed to complete the project on January 27, 1885, and at that time, the bondsmen, Augustin Dietz, Edward Denneny, and Edward Lyman, became the acting contractors. Melvin, however, was retained as superintendent of construction.

The present Courthouse is a variation of the Queen Anne style of Architecture. When originally constructed, details of the building were recorded as follows: Its general dimensions are 78 feet, 8 inches wide, 134 feet long, and the elevation from the ground to the top of the tower figure is 213 feet. The tower rests on foundation walls 4 ½ feet thick, supported by three graded courses of stone. Stone columns in the corner of the vestibules and iron cross-girders carry the tower up on the three internal sides. It is surmounted by a galvanized iron figure of justice 9 feet, 11 inches tall. The interior of the clock loft is fitted with gas pipes for illumination. The tower is 25 feet square, with elevation above the roof at 139 feet, and that of the tapering part is 56 feet. The highest part of the structure’s body is 90 feet, 9 inches. The walls of the central part of the structure are constructed of stone and brick and are 22 inches in thickness. The roof is of tin and slate.

The basement part of the building extends the whole length and width and is 10 feet high. It contains the engine and boiler room.

The building is ventilated on the vacuum principle. A large fan exhausts the vitiated air from all parts of the building. The fan is 62 inches in diameter and 27 inches wide; it escapes up the foul air flue. All the heating and ventilation is done by one engine. The basement is also furnished with a gas regulator and water meter.

In the first story are county offices on each side of the corridor, which is 16 feet wide. This story is 14 feet, 9 inches high, has a vaulted brick ceiling, and is fireproof. The second story is 21 feet tall, and the third floor, or mezzanine level, is 12 feet tall. Each has a lobby that is 21 feet square. The corridor and the halls are paved with ornamental tile. On the second floor, outside the front of the courtroom on either side of the lobby, are two ladies’ waiting rooms; in the rear are the judges’ and attorneys’ rooms and two rooms for petit juries. The third story contains the apartment of the County Superintendent and surveyor, opening from the front vestibule. From the rear are the grand jury room and two witness waiting rooms.

The courtroom is 74 feet long, 55 feet wide and 45 feet high. Twelve double windows and four chandeliers of 18 lights each light it.

The heating and ventilating apparatus were included in the contract. The following shows the cost of the furnishings, etc.:

Architect $4418
Furniture $4248
Bell and clock $2800
Gas/ Plumbing $1500
Carpet $510
Total $13,476

An allowance of $661.50 was made for a drain. The Commissioners deducted $949.77 for the neglected and defective work. The total cost to the county was $97,124.27; $18,000 was paid to the contractor and the subcontractor, and $3,500 was paid to the bondsmen, thus bringing the total cost of the building to $126,936.

P.H. Melvin, on February 12, 1886, brought a lawsuit against the County Commissioners, totaling $40,000, stating that the Commissioners failed to comply on their part with several of the contract stipulations, that the estimates were not advanced at the time agreed, that the work was delayed by failure to furnish him with the plans correctly, that the Commissioners compelled him to purchase new brick at a significant loss, and that he was harassed and hindered in the work by the objections of the supervising architect.

Although the undertaking was unfortunate to the contractor and the sub-contractors, the citizens of Clarion County may congratulate themselves on possessing a creditable, solidly constructed Courthouse at a comparatively small expense.

Clarion County Historical Series is brought to you by First United National Bank — The FUN Bank!

Stop at one of their offices in Fryburg, Clarion, New Bethlehem, Oil City, Franklin, or Cranberry and allow First United National Bank to make you one of their satisfied customers.

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