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In the history of Lebanon, Pa., which spans more than 200 years, there have been scores of impressive landmarks constructed. However, none as iconic as the Lebanon County Courthouse, which stood in the heart of the city’s downtown district on the northwest corner of 8th and Cumberland Street for 148 years.
In 1813, when Lebanon County was incorporated, the Stoy House at 924 Cumberland St. (current headquarters of the Lebanon County Historical Society) served as the county’s first courthouse. James Buchanan, who would later become the 15th president of the United States, practiced law in this building from 1813 to 1817.
Since it was important to the integrity of the newly established county to build an official courthouse, then county commissioners Samuel Achey, Jacob Capp, Peter Gloninger, Philip Greenawalt and Henry Shuey approved the purchase of land and contracted the construction of a courthouse building.
The building was designed by noted architect Stephen Hills (designer of the original Pennsylvania State Capitol building) in the then-popular Greek Revival style, which is associated with democracy. The building was completed in 1818 at a cost of $21,415.81. Two annexes were added, in 1854 and 1887, to the original structure as governmental needs of the county expanded.
Exterior features of the white-painted brick building included matching windows on the first- and second-floor levels, three arched entranceways on the front first-floor level, and a porch on the front second-floor level with four columns and a banister. A tall, three-section clock tower featured four clock dials, a bell in the top octagonal-shaped section, and a conical- and octagonal-base pedestal on the top of the tower, which supported a statue of Lady Justice.
The interior included two spiral staircases leading to the courtroom on the second floor, impressively carved wood moldings throughout, and a tiled entranceway. A fountain at the exterior of the building supplied drinking water for the public, and county commissioners ensured that cups were available for the convenience of passing pedestrians.
In addition to administering justice for the county, the building also served the community by hosting various business and social meetings and special events. Organizations including the Farm Bureau, Lebanon County Democratic Committee, Lebanon County Republican Committee and the Lebanon County Teachers’ Institute sponsored events in the building.
The most noteworthy legal case in the building’s history was the infamous Blue-Eyed Six murder trial in 1879, the first time in U.S. common law history that six people were convicted of murder on a single indictment. One defendant was acquitted during a second trial, but the other five defendants were sentenced to death by hanging. The case stirred worldwide attention and led to major national changes in insurance regulations and law, particularly those concerning the once unrestricted practice of insuring people in whom one had no legal interest.
The fire of 1908
On Nov. 18, 1908, a devastating fire, caused by the flame of a painter’s torch, destroyed the upper part of the building, including the clock tower. The court was in session, but everyone was successfully evacuated from the building. Most of the county books and legal papers were saved as they were in a fireproof safe. However, efforts to extinguish the flames were hampered by delays of firemen and fire apparatus due to snow-covered streets, and an inadequate city water supply to battle such an inferno.
Many opinions regarding rebuilding or erected a new building were considered, including purchasing land in the suburbs and building a new structure in the middle of a park, demolishing the damaged structure and building a new one on the same site, and locating a new site in the city and building a more modernized structure.
Since all of the exterior walls and the first floor, which was only damaged by water, were intact, the Board of County Commissioners decided to restore the original damaged structure. New basement offices were added and a new clock tower was constructed, which included a new clock mechanism, four new round clock dials and a new zinc-and-galvanized tin statue of Lady Justice.
Abandonment in 1962
On March 30, 1962, the Lebanon County Courthouse was abandoned as all of its offices completed their move into the new Lebanon County-City Municipal Building at 400 S. 8th St.
Complaints about the Lebanon County Courthouse included a lack of proper ventilation, banging heat pipes and radiators, loud noises from the street, and persistent leaks. Buckets occasionally had to be scattered around to capture rainwater coming in from the roof. Many of the workers and county officials welcomed the move into the modern and more comfortable building.
The Lebanon County Courthouse was suggested for use as a community air-raid shelter or for other “general” purposes and offered for sale. After being vacant, unmaintained and left to deteriorate for three years, it was sold in March 1965 to the Lebanon County Redevelopment Authority, who were working on a commercial urban renewal project for the downtown area.
Demolition in 1965
Efforts to save the Lebanon County Courthouse included the Save the Courthouse Committee’s gathering of 1,500 signatures from concerned citizens, and stern opposition to its demolition from organizations such as the Woman’s Club of Lebanon and the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission also designated the building as a “Historical and Architectural Monument of Significance.”
All efforts to save the building failed and, by the middle of 1965, it was deemed a public eyesore, considered to be beyond economic repair and was awaiting the wrecking ball.
The Moody Salvage Company was paid $7,333 to demolish the structure. Demolition began in July 1965 and was reported complete on Sept. 4, 1965, relegating Lebanon’s most iconic landmark to history.
Gone but certainly not forgotten
Although the Lebanon County Courthouse has been gone since 1965, many people still retain an emotional attachment to it. The structure is surely an integral part of the folklore of Lebanon County. Many people who never saw the building know of its existence, and most people who remember it are still sad that it wasn’t preserved.
Charles McConnell, 94, a lifelong resident of Lebanon, said, “I realize it was something of historical value and they should have made an attempt to retain it … as it could have become a tourist attraction.”
Some artifacts from the original courthouse still preserve its memory, including a portion of the original wooden Lady Justice statue salvaged from the fire of 1908, which is displayed in the Lebanon County Historical Society, and the second statue of Lady Justice, lifted off the top of the building by a helicopter in 1965, which is displayed in the lobby of the Lebanon County-City Municipal Building. The large bronze bell from the building’s clock tower is on display in front of the Lebanon County Historical Society.
Since its demolition, the building’s image has been featured on items such as bronze coins, envelope covers, letterheads, engravings, paintings and commemorative plates.
The memory of Lebanon’s most iconic landmark is destined to live on in pictures, surviving artifacts, items that carry its images and, especially, in the strong tradition of local folklore.
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