Since it opened in 1888, the same 450,000 tiles have topped the Allegheny County Courthouse, sheltering court proceedings from the weather and collecting a thick layer of soot.
Now, as part of a $10 million project, 450,000 new tiles are replacing the old ones, and a local company is turning the trash into treasure.
Wendell August Forge, based in Mercer, is transforming the tiles into decorative calendars, beer flight carriers, candle holders, wine trays, and wall hangings. They’re available for purchase online, ranging from $30 to $75. Proceeds benefit the Allegheny County Parks Foundation, a nonprofit supporting the improvement, preservation and restoration of the county’s nine parks composed of 12,000 acres.
“You’ve got these tiles coming off. What do you do with them? Do you just throw them in a landfill?” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said. “We thought this would be a way to recycle them. They are a piece of history.”
People who worked in the courthouse or visited there to conduct business — or even Pittsburghers who moved away — might like to have a piece of the city in their home, he said.
When they were first installed 130 years ago, the terra cotta tiles were orange, not the grayish black you’re used to seeing today.
“Most of us who grew up here have only seen that black roof. It obviously turned black during our industrial heritage,” Fitzgerald said.
Each tile measures in at about 3/4-inch thick, and they were tied together with copper strands. Over the years, as the strands rusted, rain began to seep in.
“In the rafters, there were parts where you could just see the sky,” Fitzgerald said.
The new roof tiles will be orange, just like the original terra cotta clay roof tiles, which were imported from Germany in the 1880s. Ludowici Tile of New Lexington, Ohio, replicated the original tiles by using the same material and standards, per an Allegheny County news release. The roof restoration, which is about 30 percent complete, is the first step in the courthouse’s overall rehab, which will eventually include HVAC, electrical, and window repairs, the county executive said.
The Downtown building, a National Historic Landmark, is the work of renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Its architecture exemplifies the symmetry of the Renaissance period, with Romanesque details, such as Syrian arches, late French Gothic dormer windows and French Renaissance roofs.
“It has that real beauty and grandeur,” Fitzgerald said. “For a public building, it’s important to keep that up for future generations.”