WILKES-BARRE — Maybe you knew that Luzerne County was named in honor of a French guy named Anne.
It’s one of the facts you may hear about if you visit the county courthouse next week for a grand re-opening ceremony, celebrating the historic structure’s return to early-20th-century grandeur as part of a recently completed $2.13 million rotunda restoration project.
Inside the courthouse, you’ll find among many works of art a tribute to the county’s namesake.
That would be Anne-César, Chevalier de La Luzerne, to be precise, and he was an ardent supporter of American independence who served as France’s first ambassador to the new nation. Luzerne reportedly enjoyed his time in bustling Philadelphia very much, as one might expect a wealthy and worldly 18th-century Frenchman to do.
Pennsylvania returned the compliment in 1786, splitting off a large chunk of what was then Northumberland County to form Luzerne County — much larger then, before Bradford, Susquehanna, Wyoming and Lackawanna counties were spun off from Luzerne.
Some 120 years later, work began on the majestic domed courthouse along the Susquehanna River, filled with artistic tributes to law, justice and people who played some significant role in the development of the Wyoming Valley or early America. The building was completed in 1909, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Thanks to the restoration effort, many of the building’s paintings, vignettes and decorative features shine forth once again. Long darkened by a century of grime, water damage, cigarette smoke and less sympathetic spruce-ups, the careful work undertaken this time by workers from Connecticut-based John Canning Co. brightened the building’s soaring spaces and revealed details long lost to the naked eye.
Among them: More than a few semi-naked figures, like one of the rosy-cheeked maidens who hold aloft Luzerne’s portrait. Their busts were perhaps less visible before the restoration, so the more prudish among us may want to avert their eyes.
Such cherubic women in their flowing robes contrast with the stern-faced men of business, politics and the law who stare down on visitors from alcoves throughout the corridors. Among them are John Wilkes and Isaac Barré, British statesmen and supporters of American independence, for whom Wilkes-Barre is named. You’ll also find King George II, since the crown once held sway over this valley.
Then, too, there are portraits of once-powerful men (you’ll notice a theme here) who played some pivotal role in the county’s history, with names that still echo in the valley today: Conyngham, Nesbitt, Jenkins, Denison, Hollenback, Welles, Blackman.
By the way, Anne was sometimes used as a male given name in Europe back then, so the chevalier was not unique.
Reflections under the dome
Wilkes-Barre City Councilman Tony Brooks, who is director of the Wilkes-Barré Preservation Society and curator of the Zebulon Butler House Museum, has led a series of tours to show off the courthouse to residents curious about its history after being approached by County Manager David Pedri last year.
As word of the restoration grew, so did the crowds. The most recent, on April 23, attracted about 200 people.
“It shows me that people really appreciate local history and architecture and want to learn more,” said Brooks, a self-described “history geek.”
It’s easy to lose sight of how much art and history are contained in this massive edifice, thanks to its workaday purpose. For the building remains a working courthouse, where people come for some of the worst reasons imaginable.
When you’re here to testify in a trial, appear before a judge or apply for a protection from abuse order, stained glass and paintings are the last thing on your mind — if, indeed, you look up at all.
Likewise for journalists.
I formerly covered Luzerne County Court for the Times Leader, and spent many long hours in the building reporting on trials, hearings and other court actions. It’s important subject matter, but often grim. We may not be immersed in the cases the way those directly affected are, but make no mistake, we feel it. We’re human, and it’s hard not to go home after a day of writing about murder testimony without reliving it over and over in your mind.
Aside from the emotional toll of writing about drugs, violence, murder and sexual crimes, there was the lingering shadow of the county’s judicial corruption cases — including “Kids for Cash,” as some of the disgraced judges argue we should never call it — all of which took place a few years before I started covering the courthouse. That dark chapter of the building’s history was still very recent and very raw when I was assigned to the beat.
Like Brooks, I am also a history geek, so I found some solace in admiring the building during quiet moments between stories. I would wander the corridors trying to track down big names among the vignettes, study the murals that hang above the judges’ benches in the courtrooms, or simply stare up at the friezes, carvings and paintings around the rotunda, which was much darker then, before the restoration.
I was not alone. Bob Kalinowski, my competitor from the “other paper,” was another history geek who was always a gentleman even as we tried to scoop each other. We agreed that spending our days in one of America’s finest public buildings was a definite perk of a challenging job.
Brooks would agree.
“The emotional factor makes a community psychologically comfortable, shapes local identity and gives one a spiritual bond to the area,” he said. “The goal and role of preservation and appreciation of architecture and local history and the story telling that goes with it, is to pass the torch of civilization through the generations.”
As next week’s grand event approaches, Brooks and county officials hope many people will happily come to the courthouse, with the express purpose of looking up, and looking back.
“Understanding the place where you live gives you more pride and a sense of place,” Brooks said. “Sense of place is defining oneself in terms of the landscape, local history, architecture and shared experiences of a given place.”
Reach Roger DuPuis at 570-704-3989.