119 South Pitt Street · Mercer, Pennsylvania 16137 · 724-662-3490

Courthouse Construction

. . . As the job of removing all traces of the old structure neared completion work on surveying the ground and excavating for the new foundation began. A serious problem was thought to have developed when soft ground was encountered at what would be the southeast corner of the new building. As luck would have it, further examination and tests revealed a firm bed of clay twelve feet down upon which the foundation could safely rest.

ned byersDuring the summer, as the cleanup and surveying work continued, the architects were busy completing the detailed drawings necessary for potential contractors to base their bids upon. By late August the plans were complete and provided for a building 180′ x 92′ which was a compromise between the original specification of a 200′ length and the reduced 160′ length the outgoing Board of Commissioners had suggested. The structure was to be topped by a dome 166′ high and was expected to cost $325,000.00. On September 18th, 1908 it was reported that Owsley and Boucherle had sent out forty copies of the plans and expected thirty contractors to submit bids which were to be opened on September 21st.

In typical Western Press tongue-in-cheek fashion, editor Whistler offered an entertaining front page account of the opening of the bids. In it he poked good-natured fun at numerous members of the Mercer County Bar including ” Attorney Baker, (who had) an alarming predisposition to baldness” and “Attorney Campbell, rotund and oleaginous, (who) rolled across the bar.”

Besides his written caricature of the worthies in attendance, Whistler did find space to list the bids for the superstructure, plumbing, heating and electrical wiring. Sixteen general contractors submitted bids for the superstructure, ranging from $324,100.00 to $391,924.00 – the lowest bidder being the firm of Luyster and Lowe of Dayton, Ohio. In addition, nine bids were received for the heating portion of the construction, seven for the plumbing and five for the electrical wiring. The new Court House drew bidders from as far away as Chicago and Indiana as well as companies from Cleveland, Columbus, Philadelphia, Altoona, Pittsburgh and New Castle. Three general contractors from MercerCounty were also contenders -Wallis & Carley, William McIntyre & Sons and F. J. McCain. Whistler’s account ended in typical fashion:

Byers boysTreasurer Zahniser found himself in possession of certified checks payable to his order-as required by the Commissioners of bidders in their tender of bids…to the amount of one hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars. So, the banks being closed, with no water in the creek and mighty little in the wells, Treasurer Z. locked up $185,000 of good commercial paper in his safe that night. Meantime, it is hoped, carefully cautioning the watchmen to keep their eyes skinned for burglars and fire-bugs and to keep a jug of water handy for emergencies.

Accompanying the story of the opening of the bids, The Western Press included a five column illustration of the proposed building, based on E. Eldon Drake’s rendering (copyrighted by Owsley) which today hangs in the Court House rotunda.  On Saturday, October 3rd the CountyCommissioners awarded the contract for the superstructure to the lowest bidder, Luyster and Lowe, of Dayton. It was reported that the Commissioners, the County Solicitor and a representative of the Advisory Committee had journeyed to Dayton and had satisfied themselves that the senior member of the firm, W .W . Luyster “was …an up-to-date builder in every respect.” By the end of October the contract was closed with Luyster furnishing an $80,000.00 performance bond. His company’s work, as well as that of the other contractors (J. W. Byers for plumbing, American Warming & Ventilating for heating and ventilating and Iron City Engineering for the electrical work), was bonded through the Title Guaranty and Surety Company by way of the McClellan Agency of Scranton.

The rest of 1908 passed with no mention of the new court house in the local newspapers. On New Years’ Day of 1909 the Dispatch reported that no work would be done on the new building until spring, “this course having been decided on with the consent and approval of the Court, Commissioners, architect and advisory committee. ” The same article referred to “numerous rumors” which had circulated about Mr. Luyster all of which his attorney (W.W. Moore) branded as false. It would seem from the article that the rumors may have had something to do with the apparent lack of progress to that point which was explained by the weather. Mr. Moore assured the Dispatch that ”as soon as the weather will permit the dirt will begin to fly.”

Although dirt didn’t “begin to fly” right away, other essential work was completed throughout January, February and the first part of March 1909. During this time work proceeded on the erection of a stone cutting plant in the East End, possibly on the large lot owned by Newt Robinson at the foot of East Butler Street. Robinson was proprietor of the Mercer Marble Works, and it is known that his foreman, William M. Montgomery, performed stone dressing work on the Court House, including cutting the “1909” on the cornerstone. Luyster’s stone cutting machinery required special foundations, and the plant included an electric light plant “so that work may be done day and night. In late March Luyster’s preparatory work was rapidly coming to a close.

scene at new Courthouse

Active work on the construction of the new Court House was commenced Friday, when contractor W. W. Luyster began to install his machinery. Four lifting engines, a concrete mixer and a large quantity of other equipment are now in place. Preparations for the laying of the concrete footings for the foundation were started Monday and the CourtHousePark is rapidly becoming one of the busiest
places in town. The stone cutting plant in the East End is rapidly nearing completion. The building is up and under roof, and a large gas engine and one monster planer have been installed. Other machinery is on the ground and will be put in place as soon as foundations are ready. ”

The beginning of April marked the start of work on the footings for the building. The Dispatch was careful to mention that rapid progress could not be expected since the south and west sides of the building required very thick footings owing to the presence of soft ground to a considerable depth. By the middle of the month the west side was still giving the contractor some trouble but work on the other sides was progressing to the point that the bricklayers could begin their task.

As the spring waned further events at the construction site were noted in the local press. Included among these were the first two accidents at the site. On May 25, 1909, one of the laborers, who was only identified as being an Italian, fell from the top of the foundation wall while wheeling a barrow load of bricks. In the course of his fall he struck a projection from the wall and was quite bruised and shaken up. Despite the fall it was thought that he would be incapacitated only a few days. The next day, Wednesday the 26th, one of the large cranes broke while carrying a large load of cement. Luckily no one was injured in this second incident; however, these accounts serve to remind us that work sites in the early 20th century were places of great potential danger.

In late May 1909 the local newspapers carried notice that the Commissioners were considering plans from their architect for the construction of a power house to serve the new Court House. This structure would be erected near the jail and would also serve as a stable for that building. While this addition to the project was being considered the Diamond in Mercer hosted what would be the first of many formal occasions at the Third Court House.

On May 29, 1909, many of MercerCounty’s dignitaries gathered to lay the cornerstone to the new Temple of Justice. Reverend John Duncan, who reported the day as “glorious” in his diary, opened the ceremonies with a prayer which was followed with speeches by a number of attorneys and judges including presiding Judge A. W. Williams, attorney S. R. Mason (then the oldest member of the Mercer County Bar), retired Judge Samuel S. Mehard and attorney Q. A. Gordon.

Gordon’s remarks included an interesting perspective on the cost of the new Court House that may have helped put to rest the criticism the Commissioners and the Advisory Committee had taken over the bill for the new building.

…the laboring man who is assessed only with an occupation will be required to pay five cents a year for eighteen years; the man (with) an average house and lot, say at $1,000, will have to pay $1 per year, …an average farm, at $3,500, will have to pay $3.50 per year …To repeat, this new court house which some have said is too expensive, will, during the next eighteen years cost the common laborer the same as two cheap cigars a year; the man with an average house and lot the same as a yearly subscription to a county newspaper, and the average farmer the same as a pair of shoes each year. When we consider that for this comparatively little expense we are getting a magnificent modern
fireproof county court house …we ought not to complain.

The tax that Gordon referred to was specifically designed to establish a sinking fund set up by the Commissioners to finance a bond issue that would partially finance the new building. The issue, in the amount of $360,000.00, was in denominations of $500.00 and $1,000.00 bearing interest of 4 percent payable semi-annually. The bonds were to mature in twenty years (1929) although the Commissioners reserved the right after two years to redeem annually a specified number of unmatured bonds, after providing legal notice by publication.  . . . .


scene at new Courthouse 2

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