Historic District Commission approves design for new courthouse

January 07, 1994|By John Rivera and Liz Atwood | John Rivera and Liz Atwood,Staff Writers

The day belonged to those who achieved what many considered impossible: finding a design for a modern Circuit Courthouse that wouldn't clash with the ambience of the Annapolis Historic District.

Historic preservation groups and officials from Annapolis and the county yesterday hailed the spirit of cooperation that culminated in the Historic District Commission's unanimous approval of a 250,000-square foot courthouse on Church Circle.

"I feel that the Historic District Commission has been very protective of the city historic character," Annapolis Mayor Alfred Hopkins said of Wednesday night's vote. "I say this with respect, it's hard to get an inch. But we got more than an inch. I think they did a great service to Annapolis."

The commission -- which must sanction all building projects in downtown Annapolis -- approved the $43 million project, which will increase the number of courtrooms to 18 from eight.

The design also includes the renovation of the 1824 courthouse, which fronts the circle and will serve as the entrance to the complex. The two structures will be joined by a glass corridor.

The approval is contingent on several cosmetic changes dealing with landscaping, lighting, signs, and the details of the original courthouse renovations.

The commission also requested that a long cornice along South Street be broken up to give the building a more vertical feel, in keeping with the historic district.

The project is the largest the five-member commission has ever had to consider.

Although the commission gave preliminary approval to the design concept during its June meeting, many thought obtaining the final go-ahead would prove difficult and might ultimately doom the project.

The strongest objections involved the size of the building and its relationship to nearby historic structures. Some critics wanted the structure broken into three separate buildings, with walkways and courtyards in between. That suggestion was rejected by county and court officials, who said the design would cause security problems.

Historic district commission chairwoman Donna Ware said aesthetic concerns were addressed because county and city officials were willing to work with her group.

"I think the whole process was a very positive one in working with the county, that they were very responsive to the concerns of the commission," she said. "I think the unanimous vote by the commission is very significant, because we didn't have that feeling previously with the concept approval."

Mr. Hopkins praised County Executive Robert R. Neall for his support in keeping the courthouse, and its several hundred employees and lawyers, in the downtown.

"I'm so glad County Executive Neall has the same feeling that it's important that the courthouse stay here. Mr. Neall has been very understanding and kind to Annapolis," he said.

When Mr. Neall took office three years ago, he inherited a plan to put a new courthouse on a triangular piece of land across from the Arundel Center, said Neall spokeswoman Louise Hayman. The Arundel Center would have been converted into offices for courthouse staff.

"I think the supporters of this project have the county executive to thank because when he took office, it was a foregone conclusion that the courthouse could not and would not be built" on Church Circle, she said.

The approval means the county can proceed with site preparation, the first of many distinct construction phases. Groundbreaking is expected in August, with completion scheduled for 1998.

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