Arundel courthouse addition reduced to rubble, but the memories remain 1952 section dwarfed historic structure

November 25, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

If it ever had a distinguished appearance, the 1952 addition on the tiny Anne Arundel County Courthouse doesn't have one now.

It's trash.

Monster-sized Pac-Man equipment has been chomping the former halls of justice and one-time seat of county government into nearly 600 truckloads of rubble, making way for a new section of what will be a 274,000-square-foot county courthouse.

Downhill from Church Circle in Annapolis -- between a recently opened section of the courthouse and the small 1824 courthouse -- workers have been excavating for the rest of the new building while demolishing what's left of the addition.

Meanwhile, crews are restoring the third oldest Maryland courthouse in use to its mid-1890s appearance. That little old courthouse will be tethered to the new high-tech courthouse by a glassed-in walkway. The entire project will be completed in 1999.

While demolishing the huge, utilitarian 1952 addition that dwarfed the original 1824 courthouse, workers won't touch several late-19th century remodeling touches, including an entrance tower with a cupola and a Southern-style, balconied second-floor courtroom.

"I saw 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and I thought, 'Oh, my God. That's my courtroom,' " said Judge Raymond G. Thieme Jr., an Anne Arundel County Circuit judge from 1977 until he was named to the Court of Special Appeals in 1996.

"The courthouse is where the county's life was chronicled," said historian Jane McWilliams.

For example, local residents were so cash-strapped in the spring of 1823 that only one indictment for larceny was recorded,

according to Elihu S. Riley's 1887 book, "The Ancient City: A History of Annapolis, in Maryland."

During a double-murder trial in 1885, a defendant slugged a marshal in the head with an improvised slingshot, leading to an uproar in the courtroom.

For the past month, not a day has gone by without passers-by stopping and sighing around the hard-hat site in Annapolis' historic district. Workers have been discreetly giving away bricks to people who yearn for a piece of history. Around midweek, the addition will be debris, said Charles Manack, project supervisor for CER Inc., the contractor.

"It almost hurts me to see them tearing that building down," said Judge Eugene M. Lerner, who has been on the Circuit Court since 1979. His chambers and courtroom were in the 1952 addition.

Lerner was inducted into the Army on May 24, 1954, on the wide South Street steps. He got a chunk of the marble steps from a jackhammering worker this fall.

It sits on a bookcase in the new chambers he moved into two months ago. His offices and courtroom smell new and are a far cry from his old digs.

His was the soggiest courtroom, buckets notwithstanding. Every rainstorm sent water cascading onto whoever sat in Juror No. 7's chair. Carpeting near the windows squished.

The old courthouse smell combined mustiness with cooking odors, as a basement closet-turned-cafeteria kitchen sent the smell of bacon throughout the ventilation system.

Fallout areas under the staircase served as cafeteria seating for juvenile and domestic court participants.

The brazen insects of the historic courthouse were legendary, marching boldly across judicial benches as judges powerless to control them just watched.

"There were cockroaches going down the hall. They were so old I swear they wore Civil War uniforms," said public defender Alan P. Friedman.

The lack of privacy and security appalled Friedman and others who marveled that no serious attack ever took place in jammed corridors.

Everyone went down the same hall and piled into the only elevator -- somber judges, shackled defendants, couples going through divorces and everyone's weeping relatives.

Lawyers consulting with clients lined hallways. Drunks looking for bathrooms stumbled into judges' offices.

"I loved that old building," said Warren B. Duckett Jr., former prosecutor and a retired judge. "People would just walk in. I loved it. I was always more of a politician than a judge anyway."

The judges' chambers in the new building sit off a controlled-access corridor with separate elevators that whisk them directly to underground parking. The judges are so secure now that some court regulars wonder if they are isolated.

In a city that prides itself on its history, history has repeated itself.

In September, workers moved into an unfinished two-thirds of a new building. In February 1823, workers started occupying the old courthouse, which was not finished until March 1824.

The cost on the courthouse project went from $43.6 million to $55.6 million in 1994. It's now at $62.3 million. In 1821, county commissioners figured $12,000 would get them a fine building, but when the dust settled, the 1 1/2 -story brick box cost $15,266.

For more than a century, auctioneers lured crowds to the old courthouse steps. Tuesday, the day people flocked to town, was the traditional public auction day.

"It was so crowded sometimes you couldn't get a toothpick in there," said Robert H. Campbell, who has held auctions there for 50 years.

These days, the temporary entrance to the new courthouse is half a flight down from the Franklin Street sidewalk. Auctions take place on the sidewalk.

But courthouse officials say that when the construction and renovations are done, auctions and weddings are likely to return to the courtyard.

Pub Date: 11/25/97

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