Price of 'dignity' at courthouse: $13.5 million A more traditional look on tap in Garmatz courthouse fix-up

May 27, 1992|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

If you think the Halls of Justice should be distinguished by the traditional marble and mahogany, check out the Garmatz Federal Courthouse, where blond, ersatz wood veneer covers courtroom ceilings and an avant garde steel sculpture lurks outside.

Many judges and courthouse employees have long despised the trendy look and feel of the building. Now, they'll get their chance to give it a more traditional interior with a $13.5 million renovation scheduled to begin this summer.

But the abstract George Sugarman sculpture will stay put, largely because nobody seems to have any authority to do anything about it.

"We're not being stuffed shirts, but I think people tend to act in a more appropriate fashion in a traditional courtroom," U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz said of the interior renovations. Judge Motz is chairman of the courthouse facilities committee, which advised the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) of the federal judges' needs.

"It will add dignity to the proceedings," he said.

Not so dignified is the ceiling of the large ceremonial courtroom on the first floor. Two weeks ago, water began to leak through. It peeled away some of the veneer, which from 20 feet below had looked like real wood. The veneer continues to hang unceremoniously as a major heroin conspiracy trial proceeds in the courtroom this week.

Joseph Haas, clerk of the U.S. District Court, said the renovation will replace the cheap veneer with real wood that is darker and more dignified. The lighting and furniture also will be changed to give the courtrooms a more traditional feel.

"We're going to try to turn back the clock, if you will," Mr. Haas said.

Another design feature in some courtrooms that he will be glad to get rid of is what he calls "the wave" -- which makes the ceiling look like an upside-down ocean. Wave ceilings will get more traditional treatments.

Mr. Haas said officials are striving for the kind of feel one gets when entering Baltimore's stately Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse on Calvert Street.

Although the judges are interested in style, the substance of the Garmatz renovation is accommodating the growth in the court's caseload since it moved from the old U.S. Post Office building across from the Mitchell Courthouse. City courts also have the benefit of that building's elegant design.

Bids on the Garmatz project were opened Friday in Philadelphia, with the low bid of $12.4 million submitted by W. M. Schlosser Co. of Hyattsville, according to John C. Thompson, a spokesman for the GSA.

Mr. Thompson said the GSA expects to award the contract by June 23. Construction is scheduled to start in July and take 30 months.

The government has moved four agencies from the building, including the large Immigration and Naturalization Service office, now in the neighboring Equitable Building. Also relocated were the Secret Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Office of Personnel Management.

The renovation has been designed by Beck, Powell & Parsons Inc. of Baltimore and the Vitetta Group of Philadelphia.

All nine floors will be modified, with the biggest changes slated for 10 of the 13 courtrooms. The U.S. attorney's office will be relocated from the eighth floor and spread out over four floors. The crowded U.S. Bankruptcy Court will get additional space for its ever-increasing load. Four new judges' chambers will be added, and hallways will get new carpeting and fresh paint.

Improvements also will be made to the heating and air-conditioning systems.

"There's very little of this building that will go untouched," Mr. Haas said, noting that much of the construction will be done at night to avoid disruption.

Russell W. Fulton Jr., the GSA's court liaison officer in Philadelphia, said the finishes will give the court a more conventional look, which runs counter to the building's initial design.

"You have to understand that the building is [16] years old, and at the time it was considered a pretty snazzy courthouse," Mr. Fulton said. "Nobody can pretend that blond judge's benches are what one would think of as traditional."

Judge Motz said he believes the federal government compromised too much quality by trying to cut costs when the building was constructed.

That can be changed with the renovation, but he's helpless to change the sculpture outside, which he says should be replaced with a statue of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

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