Luzerne County Courthouse Restoration: Revealing Detail Lost to Time

luzerne county courthouse

The Luzerne County Courthouse was originally built and opened to the public in 1909, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. It stands as a monument to the importance and prosperity of this area during the historic coal and railroad industrial revolutions.

 Unfortunately, decades of water damage, mold, mildew, and incompatible, localized repair attempts compromised much of the historic fabric of the structure, making the preservation of its finishes a high priority.

It is with this in mind that John Canning & Co., with our more than forty years of experience  conserving and restoring landmark buildings and churches, was selected to assess, stabilize, conserve, and restore all of the interior artwork and finishes at the majestic Luzerne County Courthouse in Pennsylvania.

Key among this work was balancing the many different histories—architectural style and decorative history, history of damage and repairs, and history relating to the people who decided to build it and those entrusted with its care all these years—with the technical aspects of the work.

 Set on the Susquehanna River in Wilkes Barre, this restoration is the perfect example of how all histories (time, place, people—then and now) affect our ability to deliver accurate, quality work.

Here, we take a closer look at the work that went into restoring this amazing historic landmark.

Digging in and Digging Up

Phase I of the courthouse preservation goals focused on the rotunda dome, rotunda proper, third floor corridors, and south lobby. By conducting a thorough assessment and analysis of the finishes and artwork, we were able to determine the conditions and conservation treatments that would be required for each mural, while also establishing the original historic color palette.

 Experience sharpens powers of observation. We know what we’re looking for, and what we’re looking at. Hands on, up close visual examination gives us a lot of information. We proceed by doing mechanical and scientific testing to confirm our theories.

Collecting Paint Samples

In order to perform a detailed analysis, we must first observe the artwork in situ and collect samples for laboratory analysis. This involves digging into the plaster to extract small pieces which, under a microscope, reveal every layer of paint and coatings—from the very first painting to the most recent.

Laboratory analysis allows us to discover the color and composition of every layer, and also reveals dirt layers, which indicates how long a paint layer was viewed before being painted over.

 Following the preparation layer(s), i.g. size and/or primers, the finish first layer is our target. Selecting a number of areas to sample move us closer to the original color palette.

Decoration Discovery

Exposures (removing paint layers one by one) help us to reveal faded decorative borders, area stencils, simulated mosaics, mural details, gold leaf, and more.

 The original design scheme began to take shape, like long-buried ghosts released from the walls.

Viewing the artwork under different light sources and angles helped us coax almost invisible shadows back to life long enough to trace nearly-lost patterns. Unfortunately, in some places where we expected to find murals and decoration, we found nothing—the original finishes had been sanded off and painted over.

Archival Research

Though physical examination and laboratory analysis is essential to ensuring an accurate restoration, so too is archival research, which offers a look back through history.

As a part of our research process for the Luzerne County Courthouse restoration, we dug up all of the historical evidence we could find to confirm our observations, and to fill in the blanks where we lacked detail.

 Unfortunately, original drawings or specifications were not available; however, photos, newspaper and magazine articles, artist rendering, and documentation of work done by others in the past were carefully reviewed.

 Every record was important—it’s difficult to overstate just how important even the simplest of documents can be. One photo, in particular, seemed to indicate light sources in the dome. Dark for more than 40 years, and obscured by a net at its base (to catch falling plaster), we found original light fixtures in the dome using the photo as a guide. New, LED fixtures were installed in the same positions in order to recreate the historic lighting and mood.

All documents, taken in the aggregate and combined with visual observations and scientific evaluation, provided the information needed to confidently define our palette, recreate long lost murals, and confidently begin the journey back to the original designs selecting typefaces, point size, line length, line-spacing (leading), letter-spacing (tracking), and adjusting the space within letters pairs (kerning).

Pilot Project: South Lobby
Pilot Project: South Lobby
Pilot Project: South Lobby
Pilot Project: South Lobby
Pilot Project: South Lobby

 Building Trust

Due to their interactions with contractors in the past that led to subpar work, our confidence wasn’t enough for the client; they had to be confident in us, too.

This is not unusual. Many of our projects are done with owners, reps, and architects who have little or no experience with large-scale conservation and restoration. Not everyone can visualize information. We built trust with the Luzerne team and other contractors by explaining what we intended to do and why, and showing them progress along the way.

We are eager and excited to share our knowledge from the very start of the project explaining everything from how plaster was traditionally attached to a dome, to the hierarchy of color palettes for background, foreground, pattern, stencils, moldings, and murals and more. Unlike fine-art, in design there is a reason for everything, every decision.

For every new area, full-scale design mock-ups shown under final lighting conditions were provided for the client’s sign-off. We emphasized how each area related to each other, building on the design scheme and creating a unified whole.

After several weeks of thorough, enthusiastic answers to every question and concern, we had earned their trust.

luzerne county courthouse

History Restored: A Look at the Results

Over the course of the project, we carefully assessed, documented, and conserved 125 murals throughout the rotunda proper and third floor corridors. Additionally, deteriorated areas of flat and ornamental plaster mouldings were restored using the same plaster materials as the originals.

The historic color palette was reinstated. The colors related to the botticino and white marbles used throughout the courthouse. The marble features and flooring were carefully cleaned, conserved, and repaired where joints had deteriorated. Bronze torchieres, railings, and ornamental features were conserved and cleaned to reestablish their original finish.

The project was completed on time and within budget—including work not in the original scope. It took place in an active courthouse over a six-month period without closing or delaying any of the day-to-day operations of the courthouse. The budget was $2.1 million.

 All told, the restoration included:

  • A rotunda measuring 100 feet from the floor to base of the dome

  • A dome measuring 24 feet high from base to top

  • 125 murals conserved and reinstated: 96 in the dome, 4 pendentives (including simulated mosaic), and 25 throughout corridors

  • 3 varieties of Italian marble (Botticino, white, Alps Green) and multiple Tennessee marble colors used in patterned flooring

  • Gilding with aluminum leaf with glaze to appear gold; Dutch metal, and mica powders

  • The cleaning of cast bronze elements

Awards & Recognition

2018 Trumbauer Award for Historic Preservation: Fine Art

2019 Traditional Building Palladio Award: Craftsmanship

The successful completion of the Luzerne County Courthouse restoration represents the full scope of John Canning Co.’s capabilities. We are proud of the award recognition we have received, and prouder, still, of the trust we built with the client and architect that allowed us to do our job to the best of our abilities.

 Peter Restaino, an area resident, was quoted in an article about the grand reopening, “This building contains a great collage of the history of our area,” suggesting county officials hold regular public events to attract residents to the structure. “The art really is exceptional.”