Exterior: U.S. Courthouse, Erie, Pennsylvania

Building History

The U.S. Courthouse in Erie, Pennsylvania, is a complex of buildings that represents the U.S. General Services Administration's commitment to historic preservation and high-quality new design. By the late 1980s, the federal courts needed more space to effectively serve the public. To resolve the space shortage, GSA undertook a bold plan to purchase, restore, and adaptively use two adjacent historic buildings: the Erie Public Library and the Baker Building. The existing courthouse was rehabilitated and two additions were constructed.

The U.S. Courthouse complex overlooks Perry Square, a park named to honor Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry. Other major buildings front the square, creating a monumental town center. The earliest building in the U.S. Courthouse complex is the Erie Public Library. Completed in 1899, it was designed by the firm of Alden & Harlow of Pittsburgh. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

A U.S. courthouse constructed at this location in 1888 was demolished to make way for the existing 1938 courthouse designed by Rudolph Stanley-Brown, a Cleveland architect who was the grandson of President James Garfield. Built during the Great Depression with funds from New Deal programs, its construction provided local jobs. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

The 1947 Baker Building was originally a clothing store. Isaac Baker and Son established its first store in the 1850s at another downtown location. When fire destroyed an earlier building, the proprietor hired Erie architect Walter Monahan and consulting architect George Mayer of Cleveland to design a new building. The Baker Building was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

The new portions are the Courthouse Annex and the Connector, which unite the annex, library, and courthouse. Both are skillful architectural statements and are clearly modern. The design and restoration was completed in 2004 by DPK&A Architects and Kingsland Scott Bauer Associates.

Architecture

The buildings that now comprise the U.S. Courthouse have distinct architectural styles. The Erie Public Library combines elements of the Beaux Arts Classicism and Second Renaissance Revival styles of architecture. Both were commonly used at the end of the nineteenth century to convey the importance of public buildings. The building features arched openings, a prominent cornice, swag and garland decorations, and a roofline balustrade. It is clad in Pompeian red brick. The original facade is dominated by a marble portico, which was removed and stored by previous owners. It was reassembled and conserved as part of the renovation, recapturing the library's original grandeur. The library rotunda is one of the most significant interior spaces in Erie and was meticulously restored as part of the renovation. Mahogany paneling and marble floors serve as a backdrop for a decorative paint scheme. Spectacular allegorical murals on each side of the coffered skylight refer to literature, art, science, and poetry. They were completed by Elmer Ellsworth Garnsey, who also completed murals in the New York Stock Exchange and the Library of Congress.

The 1938 courthouse was designed in the Stripped Classical style, which was commonly used for Federal buildings constructed during the Depression era. The building has the monumental scale and form of earlier classically inspired Federal architecture, but lavish ornamentation commonly found on buildings from previous eras is stripped away. The building is clad in Indiana limestone with polished black granite accenting the building base and entrance area. Carved soapstone panels with a Greek key motif are on the second level. On the interior, the vestibules, lobbies, and corridors are clad with blue terra-cotta wainscot. Ceramic tile floors are bordered with another Greek key pattern. Two original courtrooms remain and are elaborately finished with paneled wood wainscot. Two related sculptures entitled “American Youth” flank the courtrooms. Completed by sculptor Henry Kreis shortly after the building was completed, the minimal forms are compatible with the architectural style of the courthouse.

The Baker Building is one of the best surviving examples of the Art Moderne style of architecture found in Erie. It displays all of the character-defining features of the style, including rounded corners, curved glass-block panels, a metal canopy, and a flat roof. The facade is clad in buff-colored brick and is smooth and devoid of ornamentation, also common characteristics. Because of these significant architectural features, the Baker Building was integrated into the plan for the complex as a U.S. Post Office, although a portion of the rear was demolished.

The Connector and Courthouse Annex were constructed under the auspices of GSA's Design Excellence program, which contributes to the rich history of important Federal design by producing high-quality new public buildings. Both new portions are clearly modern construction. However, architects used forms and materials similar to those found on the exteriors of the historic buildings to provide an overall harmonious appearance. The interior of the annex features terrazzo floors and finished hardwoods, most notably on columns and the Shared Legal Library. Commissioned by GSA's Art in Architecture program, two artistic glass windows extend thirty-five feet in height in the new lobby. Designed by David Wilson, the windows evoke monumental columns.

Significant Events

1899: Library completed

1938: U.S Courthouse completed

1947: Baker Building completed

1979: Library listed in the National Register of Historic Places

1993: Courthouse listed in the National Register of Historic Places

2004: Construction and restoration of new U.S. Courthouse complex completed

Building Facts

Location: Bounded by South Park Row, State Street, 7th Street, and French Street

Architects:

  • Library: Alden & Harlow;
  • Federal Building: Rudolph Stanley-Brown;
  • Baker Building: Walter Monahan and George Mayer;
  • Connector and Annex: DPK&A Architects and Kingsland Scott Bauer Associates

Construction Dates:

  • Library: 1899;
  • Federal Building: 1938;
  • Baker Building: 1947;
  • Connector and Annex: 2004

Landmark Status: Library and Federal Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places; Baker Building eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places

Architectural Styles:

  • Library: Beaux Arts Classicism and Second Renaissance Revival;
  • Federal Building: Stripped Classical;
  • Baker Building: Art Moderne;
  • Connector and Annex: Modern Contemporary

Primary Materials:

  • Library: Pompeian Red Brick;
  • Federal Building: Indiana Limestone;
  • Baker Building: Buff-Colored Brick;
  • Connector and Annex: Glass and Indiana Limestone;

Prominent Features:

  • Library: Rotunda with Murals;
  • Federal Building: Austere Facade;
  • Baker Building: Curved Facade;
  • Connector and Annex: Steel and 35' Glass Windows with Geometric Patterns

The Isaac Baker Building is a two story Moderne style building, situated on the northeast corner of State and Seventh Streets. Its massing is horizontal and rectangular, with a juxtaposed rounded corner facing the intersection, which is the focus of the building. The corner of the building is supported on two black marble columns that contain flanking, recessed, curved display windows. The curving, horizontal lines of the corner are further reinforced with a cantilevered, brush-chrome canopy that starts on the east elevation and sweeps around to the north elevation. The center of the second floor at the rounded corner is articulated with a large, square, glass block opening that is backlit with vertical fluorescent lights. Elsewhere, the exterior of the building is devoid of ornamentation.

The interior is currently occupied by the US Postal Service and is composed of a simple, large rounded public space, which is divided from the rear postal work area. The upper floor is currently vacant and used as storage.

The front (west) portion of the shop contains a rounded, two story entrance space that contains a second floor balcony.

The significance of the Isaac Baker Building lies in its Moderne architectural features, which include its curved glass block corner entrance and simple streamline exterior. As part of the 2002 Addition/New Building, the Issac Baker Building was drastically altered to its current two-story size and shape. Prior to 2002, the Issac Baker Building was a multi-story building with a curved corner entrance (accentuated with glass block) and curved multi-level spaces within the interior. However, approximately 2/3 of the original building was demolished as part of the 2002 Addition/New Federal Building, and only the curved corner entrance remained, which now functions as a post office.

The building was constructed during the period 1943-1946 by the Henry Shenk Company, a prominent Erie general contractor. Shenk constructed the adjacent Erie Library, over 40 years earlier, and his company was quite large when it began constructing the Isaac Baker Building. Work was stopped on the building shortly after it began, because of the War; however, it resumed in 1945 and was completed in 1946. At present, the architect for the building is not known.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1943 1946 Original Construction Henry Shenk, Contractor
1993 Aside from sign removal, no changes have been made