Courthouse flaws featured in film Design: The cramped federal Garmatz building in downtown is called one of the worst in the nation by jurists and engineers. It is being used to show what not to construct.

September 06, 1996|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN STAFF

Most federal courthouses around the country are known for their soaring ceilings and shiny marble floors, their roomy, wood-paneled courtrooms and spacious, stately public lobbies.

L But the courthouse in Baltimore is known for something else.

It's one of the worst-designed, most horribly constructed halls of justice in the country, according to interviews with judges, engineers and courthouse design experts around the nation.

A few weeks ago, a federal team of filmmakers finished shooting a video of the Edward A. Garmatz Courthouse, and it's not going to be pretty. Judges plan to show it to architects, federal lawmakers and anyone else who wants to know how to avoid the mistakes that were made in Baltimore -- mistakes that have cost taxpayers millions.

"It's one bad building," says U.S. District Judge James M. Rosenbaum, a Minneapolis jurist who has helped the nation's governing panel of judges come up with better designs for federal courthouses.

"It's not the best," says Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz. "In fact, it has a reputation for being the worst."

The federal government is about to commission a sweeping study of the nine-story building. The study will recommend solutions to problems that have hounded the building ever since it opened 20 years ago -- small courtrooms, unventilated bathrooms, tiny jury rooms, and a design that makes it look like anything but a hallowed hall of American justice.

"It looks like a giant day-care center," says Paul W. Brier, a courthouse design expert for the U.S. 4th Circuit, which covers Maryland and four other states.

"It's just flat-out ugly," says U.S. District Judge Benson E. Legg, a Baltimore jurist and one of the most persistent critics of the peeling, concrete building at Lombard and Hanover streets.

For years, Legg has been telling anyone who will listen just how terrible things are at the courthouse -- terrible for jurors and the public, for prosecutors and defense lawyers, for just about anyone who happens to have business inside the building.

Courtrooms are so small, witnesses testify a few feet away from accused suspects. Rooms where juries are supposed to carefully consider verdicts are cramped, some times resulting in 12 truly angry men and women. Unventilated bathrooms have prompted notes from jurors to judges during trials.

"The bathroom stinks," a juror once wrote.

Last month, a film crew from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts showed up in Baltimore to document the woes. They filmed the courtrooms and interviewed people who use the building every day. It's part of a broad evaluation of courthouses around the country to come up with a strategy to renovate old buildings and construct new ones.

The videotape will be shown to judges, congressional staffs and designers. Legg says he hopes the video and the study -- commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration -- will prevent others from making some of the same mistakes, and convince the federal government that Baltimore's courthouse needs some financial help.

Boondoggle from birth

From the beginning, the Garmatz building has been a boondoggle.

It was named for a former congressman indicted on bribery charges but later cleared. It was built between 1973 and 1976 -- a time when inflation was running high and the U.S. government was slashing federal construction budgets.

At the Garmatz building, designers were forced to cut square-foot construction costs in half. They had to trim the number of stories from 11 to nine. They were forced to scale back the design and use cheaper materials.

The architects of the $23 million building say they did the best they could.

"When we accepted the project, we expected to do a wonderful job," said Harold L. Adams, chairman and president of RTKL, the Baltimore-based firm that designed the building. "But over the years, it just got squeezed more and more."

Talk to anyone who spends any time in the building -- clerks, lawyers, judges -- and they'll rattle off a litany of troubles. Witness waiting rooms are too small. Courtrooms aren't big enough to accommodate large trials with several defendants, which are common in federal drug trafficking cases.

Courtrooms are so tight, judges during side-bar bench conferences are forced to turn on "white noise generators" -- a device that fills the room with annoying static so jurors and spectators can't overhear the conversations.

Confining courtrooms

"It's terrible," says U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, whose 97 prosecutors and staff members in Baltimore are spread out in offices on four floors because of the design. "The courtrooms are so small, you're practically sitting on top of each other, and witnesses are forced to testify next to some of the most terrifying defendants imaginable."

That was the case earlier this year, when prosecutors took James Howard Van Metre III to trial for kidnapping a young mother from Pennsylvania, and strangling her and incinerating her body in Maryland.

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