Like most young cities, Colonial-era Lancaster had its courthouse as a focal point of the community.
Over the years – again, like most cities – the courthouse was rebuilt and expanded multiple times. The result of all of that, of course, is the imposing edifice spanning the block of Duke Street from Orange to King streets.
But the county’s courthouse wasn’t always in that location. In fact, the first sessions of county court – in 1729 and 1730 – were held in a building south of Millersville.
A proper county courthouse was built in 1738, in the center of Penn Square, the current site of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.
That courthouse was eventually outgrown as the county population rose from just under 30,000 in 1784 to over 100,000 in 1850. For this reason, the County Commissioners agreed to the construction of a new courthouse, settling on the corner of Duke and King streets for a site. Three private properties were bought and consolidated by the city for a grand total of $18,000, and construction began in 1852 under the direction of renowned Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan.
During the period when the old courthouse had been demolished but the new one was not yet complete, court sessions were held in Fulton Hall (later renamed Fulton Opera House), another treasure of local architecture.
The courthouse officially opened in 1855.
Later additions include an expansion to the north in 1898, two smaller additions on either side of the grand staircase on King Street – these were designed by C. Emlen Urban, an architect who left his mark all over Lancaster – and finally, the large “new courthouse” which fills the block from the old courthouse to Orange Street, added in 1970.
Of course, the old 1855 courthouse still stands as an anchor amid all of those subsequent constructions, its copper-domed roof and statue of Lady Justice presiding over the city’s downtown.