With its original section dating back to the early 19th century, the Old Lehigh County Courthouse has undergone numerous renovations and expansions over its 200-year history. The initial courthouse, which was modest in size, was completed in 1819. It was then remodeled and enlarged in 1864, again in 1881 and once again in 1916. The mismatched 1916 addition was initially meant to be the beginnings of an entirely new courthouse and spell doom for the older sections. However, a new courthouse was built near the old in 1965 and the Old Courthouse was spared. Today, the newer section is home to a branch of the County District Court while the older section houses local government offices such as that of the County Coroner. The Old Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.
Soon after Allentown
was founded, the local courts met above a local tavern and later at the newly
built Lehigh County Prison. Planning for
a stand-alone courthouse began in 1812 on land donated by Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf,
granddaughter of the town’s founder, William Allen, at the corner of Hamilton
and 5th Streets. The town
fathers decided to model their courthouse after the one located in
Williamsburg, which was demolished in 1860.
Construction on the limestone building began in 1814 and was completed
building was modest in size, at only 90 feet x 60 feet. It featured a hipped roof that was topped by
a tall, narrow cupola unlike the large, wide version that sits atop its roof
today. It soon became a community gathering
place, hosted Episcopal services in 1825 and a staging place for P.T. Barnum to
“exhibit” little person, Tom Thumb, in 1844.
Its lone courtroom was located on the second floor and was dominated by
a large Palladium window.
after its completion, it was evident that the town and county had outgrown the
small courthouse and as the Civil War raged, plans for its expansion were made. That expansion was completed in 1864 and gave
the courthouse a Cruciform design. The
original interior was redesigned as well.
Two large curving staircases were added to the entrance hall that led to
the courtroom foyer and two small probate courtrooms were added. The main courtroom was remodeled with a
church-like design with nave-like seating, a rear wooden balcony and an apse-like
alcove behind the wooden judge’s bench that included fluted Corinthian columns
and center doorway. The old cupola was
also removed and replaced with the larger version that still graces its roof.
In 1880-81 a
smaller addition was built that housed its new, two-floor law library. Then, prior to America’s entrance into World War
I, plans were made to replace the Old Courthouse and those plans began with a
modern, mismatched addition that faced Court Street. After that Second Renaissance Revival
addition was completed, the plan was to demolish the Old Courthouse and
complete the new, modern version.
However, World War I delayed those plans. Then, material costs and citizen’s aversion to
a tax increase shelved those plans for good.
Old Courthouse came to house county courts and government offices from 1817
through 1965 when the new courthouse was completed. It was also home to the Lehigh County Museum,
offices of the County Archivist and Museum Director as well as the library of
the Lehigh County Historical Society from 1976-2004. The 1916 addition still serves as a courthouse
(County District Court 31-2-01) to this day and the 1864 courtroom has been
used as an auditorium.