WILKES-BARRE — The historic Luzerne County Courthouse probably ranks among the top five buildings in Pennsylvania architecturally and aesthetically, David Riccio told county council in a briefing about a restoration project this week.
The update was scheduled because Connecticut-based John Canning Co. is wrapping up its $2.1 million restoration of the courthouse rotunda and south lobby.
A principal at John Canning, Riccio said he has worked on projects at the White House and courthouses and state capitol buildings throughout the country, including Pennsylvania’s state capitol.
“I’ve seen a lot, and this one is incredible,” Riccio said, referring to the River Street structure built in 1909. “It’s a real treasure, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.”
A grand unveiling of the restored portions will be held sometime in April, said county Manager C. David Pedri. Rotunda scaffolding and barriers have been removed, allowing courthouse visitors to view the work during public business hours.
April 8 is the deadline for substantial project completion, but Riccio said that requirement already has been met.
Artwork restoration and cleaning of finishes is still warranted in other courthouse foyers and hallways on all three floors if county officials can scrape together additional funding down the road, Riccio told officials.
He estimated the remaining work would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars on each floor, depending on the scope. The first floor would be most expensive because it has the most artwork, including extensive mosaic sections that are largely intact but dirty, he said.
Most of the artwork and molding not yet restored have the same problems encountered in the south lobby, Riccio said.
At some point in the 1960s, an artist with “good intentions” but “poor execution” had repainted artwork on the walls and applied varnish to all the original paintings, preventing restoration today. Instead, Riccio’s company created reproductions of the originals based on test samples and other research and placed these replicas over the past-altered originals with removable adhesive.
Riccio displayed a before picture of one of these paintings showing how the anatomy and skin tones were off and sometimes conflicting on the same figure. Folds in linen draped over the figure had lost their original elegance and softness beneath harsh added shadows, he said.
“That was not the original intent. It was far more crude,” he said.
Courthouse visitors will find “weird things” in remaining artwork that had been painted over and has not been restored, including a figure with a missing foot, another with two left feet and some with unusually muscular arms, he said.
The original character of the south lobby was largely hidden behind subsequently added pastel pink and mint green paint — an issue still present in untouched areas, he said.
“It was sort of like an ice cream shop, and the artwork was very dingy,” Riccio said of the south lobby.
Gold accents had been added in the wrong places in the south lobby, “calling out elements that shouldn’t have been called out.” A painted leaf pattern also was uncovered through sampling and reproduced.
The south lobby’s return to its original largely beige palette “makes a lot more sense” and returns focus to the molding, art and marble, he explained.
Making it last
Councilwoman Sheila Saidman asked how the county can ensure the restored areas are protected.
Monitoring, cleaning and maintaining air flow systems is essential to prevent excessive moisture inside the building, which is a particular concern for a structure so close to the the Susquehanna River, Riccio said.
The restored work should hold up for 100 years if that’s done, he believes.
“I see no reason why not, other than water being introduced into this building or a complete lack of care by the custodians.”
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.