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Market Square, Reading, PA

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This first official courthouse of Berks County was in the middle of Penn Square at 5th and Penn Streets. The court house was built of stone, plastered and marked off in imitation of cut stone, and was surrounded by a brick pavement about 13 feet wide. The building was about 40 by 50 feet in size. The front door to the Court House faced south.

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  • marketsquare.jpg
    Market Square, a.k.a. Penn Square, 5th and Penn Streets, looking north. To the right of the Court House is the White Store, which evolved into Joseph L. Stichter's hardware store. Behind it is Trinity Lutheran Church's steeple. At far right is a portion of East Penn Square's market stall, removed in 1871. The rendering is by F. A. Holtzwart, an artist who came to Reading in the 1830's.

The first floor was arranged in one large room for the "courts," and the second floor into three rooms, the eastern half in one room and the western half in two rooms. An entry separated the two sections.

The stairway was constructed in the southeast corner of the court room. The "bench" was arranged along the northern side of the room, and the "bar" was enclosed by a semicircular railing, the ends of which extended to the wall on both sides of the "bench." The Jury box was situated in the northwest corner of the room.

The court room was entered by two doorways, one on the south side and the other on the west. The latter was little used. A large stove was located nearby, and wood was generally piled up against the door, inside, during cold weather.

The crier's seat was located a few feet west of the center of the room, adjoining the "bar," and the prisoners' dock was next to it on the east. The crier was a prominent figure in the room, by reason of the elevation of his seat.

The floor was laid with brick. Benches were arranged on inclined platforms along the southern and eastern walls. The seating capacity was rather limited for a public place. A marble tablet was built in the eastern wall near the center, which contained the following inscription, "J. L., C. W., S. H., 1762." These initial letters represented the names of the officiating county commissioners, Jacob Lighfoot, Christopher Whitman and Samuel High.

The steeple contained a bell and town clock. The bell was cast in England in 1763, especially for this country, and the clock was a 30-hour clock, imported from London about 1755.

This building was used for the purpose of hearing criminal and civil cases until 1840, the last term of court there being the April term in that year. During the following three months the county records were transferred from the building then used for county offices, the "State House," to the new court house which had been completed that year. The old court house was sold to Joseph Kendall at public sale, and he removed it in May, 1841.

In addition to the first court house at Fifth and Penn streets, there was erected on the northeast corner of that intersection in 1793 the "State House," for the accommodation of the county offices and the public records. It was built of brick, and was 30 by 80 feet in dimensions, with a narrow alley extending along the eastern wall from the front to the rear.

An entry extended across the building near the center, with its doorway on Fifth street, and a stairway led from this entry to the second floor. The first floor was divided into three compartments, the first, adjoining Penn street for the use of the prothonotary's office and clerk of quarter sessions, the central one for the recorder, register and clerk of the orphans' court, and the rear one for county commissioners and county treasurer.

Previous to the erection of this first court house, for a period of 10 years, Judges of the courts held their sessions in an inn in the town. There were no rooms in the building for the county officials but many were not necessary, for five offices were vested in one individual for upwards of 20 years, these having been the prothonotary, recorder, register, clerk of orphans' court and clerk of the quarter sessions and the man who held these joint offices was James Read, a lawyer.

In the 1970's, workmen dug down about five feet into the street, at the Court House site, and unearthed its brick floor, which was surprisingly intact Around 1888, Penn Square was extensively graded, which explains the change in surface elevation.

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