View the only contemporary image of Lancaster’s first “real” courthouse

There are literally thousands of pictures of Lancaster’s Courthouse at both its current Duke Street local and original Penn Square home. But would you believe that only one image exists of it draw by a person who actually saw it?

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A Brief History of Lancaster’s Courthouses

Lancaster has had four courthouses since it was established as a county on May 10, 1729. Lancaster County held its first court session on August 1729 at John Postlethwaite’s tavern on the Old Conestoga Road, which is present-day Long Lane near Rock Hill. Read more about the Postlethwaite tavern courthouse here.

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John Postlethwaite’s tavern. Lancaster County’s “first” courthouse.

In 1737, the county’s first real courthouse was constructed in the square at Lancaster. It is in this courthouse that the Continental Congress met on September 27, 1777, and the Pennsylvania General Assembly met during the British occupation of Philadelphia. Click here to read more about Lancaster being the nation’s capital for one day.

The Lancaster County Courthouse in Centre Square
The Lancaster County Courthouse in Centre Square

In 1786, the original courthouse was destroyed by a fire, and a new one was constructed in the square and used until 1853.

Lancaster County Court House, 1875
Lancaster County Courthouse, 1875

The current courthouse was built between 1852 and 1855. The original building was designed by Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan. The north wing was added between 1896 and 1898, and low flanking wings on either side of the exterior staircase were added in 1926–1927. These later additions were designed by Lancaster architects James H. Warner and C. Emlen Urban, respectively. Click here to read more about this sketch of the current courthouse.

Nicolaus Garrison, Jr. Courthouse Sketch

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This illustration shows the only contemporary image of that first “real” courthouse (background of the drawing on the left). It was drawn in 1757 by Nicolaus Garrison, Jr. The original is at the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem.

Here’s a closeup of the same image with the contrast-enhanced for better visibility.

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Read more about Lancaster’s courthouses.

2 thoughts on “View the only contemporary image of Lancaster’s first “real” courthouse

  1. Jack Loose, Lancaster County’s unofficial historian, said that the only difference between the first courthouse on the square and the second wast that the first had two clocks on the tower (facing north and south), and the second had four.

  2. You are correct that the courthouse that existed on Capital Day only appears in one drawing. All of the other images are of the second courthouse on the square.
    The first was built c. 1737 and burned down in 1784. A copy built on the same site was in use by September 1786. It stood until 1852. The only known difference between the original and the copy was that the first had two clocks on the tower (facing north and south), and the second had four.

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