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Old county jail rebon with new look and mission

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Gone is the musty odor, the claustrophobic lack of light, the overpowering and omnipresent gloom showering down from a five-story range of jailed men.

People taking a tour of the old Allegheny County Jail yesterday walk through the interior rotunda section of the new combined home of the juvenile and adult family court sections of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

Instead, a visitor stepping off Ross Street, Downtown, and into the old Allegheny County Jail rotunda is enveloped today by the brightness of natural light bouncing off gray granite, cream and mauve painted surfaces, by the vibrancy of a design that's both historically respectful yet functional for a new use in 2000 and beyond.

A guided tour for the news media yesterday of the new combined home of the juvenile and adult family court sections of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court showed that the vision of famed architect Henry Hobson Richardson remains, even if the jail he designed in the late 1800s is now but a part of local lore.

The $46 million spent on the renovation project -- nearly 23 times the original cost of both of Richardson's Romanesque masterpieces, the jail and county courthouse -- includes $35 million for construction and the remainder for design and financing.

Under an agreement, Mascaro Construction, which oversaw the conversion, paid for the construction and is leasing the building back to the county for 29 years. The combination of the two court sections and its approximately 400 employees at one Downtown location will result in a savings of $500,000 annually, county officials said.

Currently, the juvenile court section is housed in a building on Forbes Avenue that is notorious for its lack of space and creature comforts. Also crowded are the adult family courts offices and courtrooms on the sixth, seventh and eighth floors of the City County Building.

While the new edifice is still one the general public wants to avoid, it has been transformed into a place that will make visitors feel more comfortable if the occasion occurs.

"We're providing space that is more humane for the public. It will be a less anxiety-ridden environment to wait for a hearing," said Sam Taylor, the county's principal architect, who noted the inclusion of waiting areas for victims and witnesses, a children's play room, concession area and courtyards.

"The spaces set aside for the public are more open and, I wouldn't say cheerful, but are more comfortable."

"I think this building represents the commitment of the county to the importance of families and children," said Common Pleas Judge Kathleen R. Mulligan, administrative judge for the Family Division, which includes juvenile court. "Two facilities in two different parts of town that were overcrowded and inappropriate will be combined in a gorgeous new facility."

No one in the tour group argued the point. The building's interior is striking both in its modern, sleek look and its acknowledgment of history.

As reporters and photographers were briefed on the first floor, workmen clad in blue jeans and white hard hats walked the corridors around the circular rotunda where jail inmates in red jumpsuits once shuffled.

But now, instead of metal bars, the rotunda is encircled with long, narrow windows that visually harken back to those days of incarceration.

Attention to detail is evident outside, too, where a new arched entrance on Fifth Avenue, replacement windows and a terra cotta tile roof all painstakingly replicate the design that Richardson created but never saw completed. He died a month before the jail was finished in May 1886.

In addition to the design and architectural nods to the building's former use, there are some real reminders -- eight iron cells and a half-dozen masonry cells that will be used as a museum.

"From an architectural standpoint, this building is considered one of the most important historic buildings in the United States," noted Mihai Marcu, president of IKM Inc., which designed the conversion. "The challenge for us was to maintain it's character yet to change its use, which is very difficult because the last thing we want is to have a group of kids come in here and get scared to death because of what it was.

"The whole idea was to try to make it as respectful as possible rather than scary and I think we've been relatively successful in accomplishing that."

Even as reporters marveled at the change, thoughts of the old jail seemed entrenched in the psyche when a starling hopped by the group on the fifth floor.

"The last jailbird," someone quipped.

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