Secret nooks revealed in York County's old courthouse


The grand old York County administrative building at 28 E. Market St. has been through its share of changes since it was built more than a century ago.

But even after a massive renovation project to transform it from a courthouse to government offices in 2006, magnificent architectural aspects remain.

People marvel at the opulent marble staircase that greets visitors in the rotunda, and some gaze down to the tiny tiles laid perfectly in the flooring. Gorgeous crown molding rings the ceiling of the commissioners' meeting room on the second floor.

But parts of the building are hidden from view of the public eye, and some of the most unique features are hidden in plain sight.

Look up: We'll start where everyone does after they enter the building through a wide hall: the rotunda.

Set in one of the walls is a brass mailbox, installed when letters were the main means of correspondence.

"Since the building's been renovated, people were still dropping mail in it," said Scott Cassel, director of facilities.

Every now and again, someone would have to unlock the mailbox to retrieve the misposted mail, he said. A small sign now alerts would-be mailers the box is for decoration only.

The Pennsylvania coat of arms inlaid in the center of the floor — particularly the tiny tiles — is a signature feature from John Dempwolf, the man who designed the 1898 courthouse and many other prominent York buildings.

The same tiling style was used on upper floors, likely meaning painstaking, long hours for those who put them in place.

It's hard not to miss the coat of arms, but few people may notice a grand feature just above it. Gaze up through the oculus, the round hole in the centers of the floors, to see the interior of the dome with its white crown molding surrounded by light blue paint.

"They wanted it to emulate the sky," said John Klinedinst, the county engineer, of the color scheme.

To the top: The fourth and uppermost floor of the building is where few get to go; a special key is needed to send the elevator to the top.

The rather bleak floor once held the county's archives and law library, though now it houses equipment and serves as storage space.

But there are treasures in this vastness. On the floor and lining the walls are unneeded pieces of marble and other ornate features removed when the building was renovated, Cassel said.

And there's also a torch.

A couple of months ago, when county commissioners were ringing the bell atop the building to mark the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at the end of the Civil War, county spokesman Carl Lindquist noticed a torch that appears to be from a time when fire was the primary means of light.

"It's obviously been used. The question is when is it from and what was it used for," Lindquist said.

Domes: Breaking up the openness are three cylindrical towers, each part of the domes on the top of the building. The largest is for the center dome, and a door leads to a landing inside, allowing an unobstructed view of the rotunda's main floor.

The railing around the oculus on the fourth floor is lower than those on the second and third. During renovations, the railings on the second and third floors were cut and a section installed to increase the height to meet codes, Cassel said.

The two smaller dome rooms look a little worse for wear, with unfinished circular walls marked by graffiti left by workers. Accompanying one signature is the date March 21, 1940.

"It's quite the contrast when you look at (the domes) from the outside and see how beautiful they are," Cassel said.

Inside both of the smaller rooms is scaffolding, relics from the renovation project about a decade ago. Cassel said it was cheaper to leave the metal skeletons in place rather than remove them.

At the front of the attic space is the original lead glass clock face and timekeeping mechanism, which has been ticking the time since the late 19th century.

Second building: The administrative center is the second courthouse built at the site. The first one was constructed in the 1840s, but pillars of the original were saved and used in the second incarnation.

The six large columns facing East Market Street were prominent features of the original courthouse, Klinedinst said.

Just below are the granite steps leading up to the entrance. Back in the 1980s, the hollow granite steps were removed and concrete poured into the base. Workers found a rusty old metal lantern, possibly left by mistake when the steps were laid, Klinedinst said.

Despite the cosmetic and structural work needed throughout the building's past, officials have always made sure — particularly during the 2006 renovation — to preserve its treasures for generations to come.

"Tearing it down would have just broken my heart," Klinedinst said.

— Reach Greg Gross at