Delaware County Council has entered into a 99-year lease agreement with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the old Chester Courthouse, at a cost of $1 a year.
“The 1724 courthouse is incredibly, incredibly important in terms of the history of Delaware County, history of Pennsylvania, history of the United States — it’s the longest continuously used government building in the country,” Councilman Kevin Madden said.
The property at 412 Avenue of the States in the city of Chester once served as the county courthouse for the sweep of Southeastern Pennsylvania that now encompasses both Delaware and Chester counties. Eventually, the city acquired it and used the building as Chester’s city hall until the 1960s.
Since then, it has been used sparingly by the community, city government, and Delaware County. Though the state Historical and Museum Commission was in possession of the property, it was unable to continue to pay for its upkeep.
“And they came to the county and the Delaware County Historical Society, to ask if there was some way that they could basically offload it,” County Council member Elaine Schaefer said.
Over the past few years, an effort to preserve the old courthouse has gained momentum.
“The county alone is not going to be the only entity caretaking this building because, as many people are very well aware, local government is a terrible landlord for historic assets,” Schaefer said. “So we’re very happy that the Delaware County Historical Society has stepped up and agreed to be the manager of the building.”
It’s no secret that a structure this old is going to be expensive to maintain, which is why Madden characterized the state’s refusal to keep the property as “disappointing.”
WHYY News reached out to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.
“To me, personally, I would like for the state to continue to, with their deeper pockets than the … county has, keep it. But if they’re going to pass responsibility to Delaware County, we want to make sure that they do so in as good a shape as possible,” Madden said.
The council and the state have come to an agreement on that front: The building will be inspected within the next month, and the initial capital costs will fall to the state, not the county.
The lease is subject to the solicitor’s approval. However, the solicitor is under guidance from the council to block the lease until all of the state’s responsibilities are met.
According to Schaefer, the Delaware County Historical Society will get additional funding to help pay for the upkeep of the building. The group will also work to plan programming. Recently, the 1724 courthouse served as a venue for youth mock trials
“We all really hope that it continues on and in that way,” Schaefer said, “and serves as a place to learn about how our justice system started, and where it started, and what it looked like back in the 1700s and that kind of educational programming and having that building available for that — it will be wonderful for future generations.”
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