Courthouse in collapse

May 21, 1992

Eddie Murphy was recently at the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse to shoot some scenes for a new film. When those scenes eventually flash on area movie screens, local officials and citizens no doubt will puff their chests, just as they did 13 years ago when the city courthouse was featured in ". . . And Justice for All," the Al Pacino movie co-written by Barry Levinson.

But that's show biz. In real life, city and state officials apparently lack enough pride in the 92-year-old landmark to save it from falling apart.

Make no mistake, the Mitchell Courthouse is in sorry shape. The roof leaks badly when rainfall is harder than a drizzle. Ornamental plaster is crumbling. Now and then, water pipes burst. Window frames are rotted, posing the danger of glass panes crashing onto passers-by on the sidewalks below. Rats make themselves at home inside the walls. The electrical wiring is a mess, and there is no back-up generator. At times, the whole place has gone dark while prisoners were being escorted through the building. Talk about courtroom drama!

In 1988, a city-financed study found that a thorough renovation would cost $69 million. Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, for years the most vocal champion of the courthouse, says the renovation would keep the building operating for another half-century.

But he can't get the city, the state or private groups to provide that kind of cash for the required repairs. There's a recession on, and government officials aren't likely to budget big bucks for the courthouse when voters have more pressing concerns, such as repairing school buildings.

This benign neglect of the Mitchell Courthouse is nothing new, says Judge Kaplan, the chief administrative judge of Baltimore's circuit court. It dates to the 1920s but has increased since the last major overhaul was completed 40 years ago. If regular maintenance had been done over the decades, he claims, the building wouldn't be in its current decline.

The city pays about $4 million a year for courthouse maintenance, repairs and security, but the allocation is little more than a Band-aid. Judge Kaplan argues that the state should start paying rent, since 80 percent of the building's occupants are state employees.

Also, he says, the city could issue revenue bonds to help defray renovation costs. But, mindful of the tight economy and the history of official indifference to the courthouse's condition, Judge Kaplan isn't too optimistic.

At least Hollywood types seem to appreciate the courthouse. They know a classic piece of architecture when they see one. Good thing, too, because if the deterioration continues unchecked, in the near future you'll be able to glimpse the Mitchell Courthouse only in those Al Pacino and Eddie Murphy movies.

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