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The Court in Philadelphia

The current Court sits to hear arguments throughout the year in its three courtrooms in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg. However, for much of the court's history the bulk of its work was done in Philadelphia.

The Court used multiple courtrooms throughout the city before finally moving in to their permanent home in City Hall.

Initially trying cases in private residence and taverns, the citizens of Philadelphia created a tax to build the first courthouse and city hall at 2nd and Market St., called the Towne House. (Artist Unknown).

City Hall

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Philadelphia's City Hall in 1904. (Photographer Unknown)

For nearly fifteen years, City Hall stood as the tallest habitable building in the world.  Sitting atop the building is a bronze statue of William Penn, standing 37 feet tall and weighing 27 tons. 

The Supreme Court was instrumental in the construction of City Hall, ruling on eminent domain disputes as well as the constitutionality of the commission in charge of construction.

Moving to City Hall

After moving from the Towne House, the Court conducted its business in Independence Hall, old Congress Hall, the Grand Chapter Room of the old Masonic Hall, and even briefly shared a courtroom with the U.S. Supreme Court at Old City Hall shortly after that court's creation. 

The Court made its final move in 1877, becoming City Hall's first tenants, but occupying a temporary courtroom in room 254.

The Court's Final Move

The Philadelphia courtroom as it looked in 1891. Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records.

After years of construction, the Court eventually moved into its permanent courtroom in 454. Upon its dedication the Evening Telegraph described the chamber as "a marvel of magnificence," while another reporter wrote “some of the more fastidious lawyers will hereafter take only Supreme Court cases, in order that they may practice in this court palace.”

Many of the records about of the courtroom are not available, however, much of design appears to have been done by committee.


 

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A New Coat of Paint

George Herzog, a painter known at the time for painting several rooms in the Masonic Temple across the street, was selected to paint the Supreme Court courtroom.

The courtroom was originally painted with dull red walls and a subdued gray-green ceiling with gold accents, similar to that of the conference room. However, the many of the decorative elements have changed throughout the years.


 

Two of the most obvious changes are to the lighting elements when the original bronze gas-electro chandeliers and wall sconces were replaced with Art Deco fixtures some time between the 1930s and 1950s.

 

After falling in to disrepair, the marble clock behind the bench was eventually replaced by a mural of Independence Hall. The painting completed in 2002 by two local artists. Michael Webb was the lead artist responsible for the design and painting of Independence Hall with Max Mason III painting the sky and assisting in painting the hall.

Chief Justices Sharswood and Gibson

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To the left of the bench is a bronze bust of George Sharswood, during Chief Justice Sharwood’s service, the Court was often overwhelmed by a growing number of cases.  Sharswood wrote extensively about the necessity of a quick decision without sacrificing adequate examination.  He implemented a number of procedures hoping to find such a balance, but it was not until the establishment of the Superior Court in 1895 that Sharswood’s concerns were sufficiently addressed.

To right of the bench is an Italian marble bust of John Bannister Gibson, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania from May 1827 to December 1851.  The Caen  stone which houses the bust bears a Latin inscription meaning “bright and full of majesty made ​​the decision.”  Chief Justice Gibson served on this court for an astonishing 37 years.  Gibson served as a Justice for eleven years, then Chief Justice for 24 years, and interestingly after a constitutional amendment served an additional two years as a Justice until the time of his death in 1853.

Want to learn more about the people who helped shape Pennsylvania's Court System?

Other Decorative Elements

This Courtroom is nearly thirty feet tall and the ceiling is decorated by deep rectangular panels.  The pillars and decorations surrounding each of the doors are in the Corinthian style.  The wainscoting surrounding the courtroom is 6’2” tall Tennessee marble.  The façade of the bench is constructed of Mexican onyx with each of the seven panels divided by 3' tall, bronze statuary representing Greek figures of Law, Justice, and Jurisprudence.

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Each of the Justices' chairs have a hand-carved shield bearing elements of the state's seal. Including a ship carrying the state’s commerce to the world, a plow working our rich natural resources, three golden sheaves of wheat representing our state’s fertile fields and our citizens’ wealth of human thought and action.

A mosaic tile pathway around the courtroom and mosaic tile in front of the fireplace situated behind the bench.

A bronze plaque created to celebrate the bicentennial of William Penn's arrival to Pennsylvania in 1682.

A polished brass marine clock built by a famed Philadelphia jeweler , J. E. Caldwell & Co.

The Consultation Room

The Court's Consultation Room serves as a law library to aid in decision-making and offers one of the most splendid views of Philadelphia's South Broad Street.

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The Philadelphia Consultation Room as it looked in 1891.

The Murals

The murals painted on the walls depict figures representing Truth, Harmony, Reason, Wisdom, Science, Law, and Philosophy as well as classical figures Solon, Brutus, and Plato.  On the north wall, Mars and Minerva were depicted leading the tribute-bearers to Pericles.

Originally painted by Herzog, the frescos were re-styled and re-painted in 1965 by Edward D. Hyatt and Louis Ewald.

Other Decorative Elements

The Consulation Room's fireplace is constructed of the same Tennessee marble and Mexican Onyx used in the Courtroom.

The bronze chandelier in the center of room illuminates the bronze casting at its base as well as the brown and subdued blue paint on the ceiling.

A hand painted plaster cast of the Commonwealth's seal sits just opposite of the room's window.

Interested in visiting City Hall?

Visit: https://www.phlvisitorcenter.com/CityHall

 

Note: The courtroom is used for official and ceremonial events throughout the year and may not be available during your tour.

Can't visit in person?

Take a virtual tour of the courtroom.

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