At first glance, someone who doesn't know the history of the Old Lehigh County Courthouse, which is currently getting a new paint job, might find the building at 5th and Hamilton Streets a bit odd. Its outsized cupola seems to almost overwhelm the structure.
Behind it is an addition that is totally out of keeping with the rest of the building, as if somehow space aliens had transported it from a South American capital city and dropped it there. In 1964, when the new courthouse was dedicated, an editorial writer for a local newspaper found the old building so ungainly and out of date that he suggested it be torn down and the site used for a modern building to house Lehigh County Community College.
But time and chance has spared it that fate, and the nearly 200 year old building has survived to see service in a new century. But how did the old Lehigh County Courthouse come to survive nearly two centuries? Well, you might chalk it up to many things, but one factor may have been the strong belief of the conservative local Pennsylvania German population that it worked fine, and so, as the saying goes “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
After Lehigh County’s creation in 1812 there was no adequate building for the new county court to call home. The upper room of George Savitz’s Compass Tavern at 7th and Hamilton was the first place county business was conducted. But by 1814 the county moved in the second floor space of the first Lehigh County Prison at 5th and Linden.
Over those years the county was looking around for a proper home. It already had the land at 5th and Hamilton donated by Ann Penn Allen Greenleaf, daughter of Trout Hall owner James Allen and granddaughter of Allentown founder William Allen. Her large mansion built on the site now occupied by the Allentown Post Office was shared with her husband, James Greenleaf, a former diplomat and major league land speculator, and their two daughters.
The county court sent a delegation of three officials to survey local county courthouses and decided that the Lycoming County Courthouse, a handsome Federal style building with a slender cupola, was just the thing to copy. The courthouse, built at a cost of $24, 937 opened in August, 1817.
Along with being a courthouse, by the mid 19th century the building had also become a community gathering place. Episcopal Church services conducted by a traveling minister from Easton were held there in 1825 for members of the Allen family.
In 1844 P.T. Barnum, just starting his career as a showman, exhibited General Tom Thumb- a midget, as they would have said then- who he was later to present to England’s Queen Victoria. By the time of the Civil War the rear of the building had become a picnic grove for Sunday school church groups that included a primitive carousel.
The first big change to the courthouse came in 1864 when the growing demands of a rapidly industrializing Allentown required a large structure. The modification to the building was carried out by Allentown’s first city engineer Gustavus Aschbach, a German immigrant who fled Europe following the collapse of revolutions in 1848. He made some significant changes that enlarged the building.
Among the most important was the so-called Gold Courtroom, given that name because of a color it was once painted. A High Victorian gem in which young lawyer Abe Lincoln would have felt at home, it was recently restored to its original beauty thanks to the efforts of Lehigh County Court Judge Edward D. Reibman. During this restoration it was discovered that the courtroom’s paint color was originally a forest green in which it was repainted.
According to an often-told tale, Aschbach also oversaw the creation of the new, much larger cupola, supposing a clock would be installed there. But, so the story goes, the Lehigh County Commissioners balked at the cost and it was never installed. Aschbach died in his late 40s in 1875, after contracting malaria while building fortifications along the swampy banks of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers during the Civil War.
Perhaps the most radical change to the old courthouse that almost led to its destruction occurred in 1913. Deciding at the county’s 100th anniversary they wanted something more up-to-date, the Lehigh County’s commissioners proposed the total replacement of the old building. Allentown architect Henry Anderson proposed an imposing structure in a style now known as Second Renaissance Revival, one made popular by the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White.
Although partner Stanford White had been killed in 1905 following a headline-grabbing affair with a chorus girl, the firm's status remained high.
Courthouses all over America were adopting this new style and in 1913 the Lehigh County commissioners allocated $199,000 to begin the work. Completed by 1916, the new county courthouse annex so pleased the commissioners that they issued postcards showing the completed building in the new style.
But what saved the rest of the building was the outbreak of World War I. All private building was suspended as a result of the war. By the time things settled down in the 1920s, Lehigh county taxpayers balked at paying the higher prices of post-war building materials. That is why the building looks as it does today.
In the early 1960s a new courthouse was finally built on the northeast corner of 5th and Linden. Despite talk of tearing the old building down it was still useful.
Courtroom space was needed. From 1976 to 2004 the building was the home of the Lehigh County Historical Society. Today as it approaches its own 200th anniversary, the Old Lehigh County Courthouse is an historical survivor that is treasured.