Critics denounce style of courthouse New District Court home not appropriate for area, some say

November 09, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An $11.3 million, state-of-the-art District Court building being dedicated today is, its critics say, unattractive, domineering and out of sync with the historic look of Annapolis.

Though ceremonies will be held at 5 p.m. today, no cases will be heard in the building for a week. The court will be relocated from the Tawes Office Building across the street Friday, while judges are at a conference.

The new Robert F. Sweeney District Court Building is named for the retired first chief judge of the statewide District Court system.

This is the second new courthouse to open in Anne Arundel County in slightly more than a year, and it was designed by a partnership that includes the same architects responsible for the county's Circuit Courthouse. A widely praised structure in the Annapolis historic district, it too features a lot of brick and glass.

Judges, at least, like the new District Court, particularly its spacious interior.

"It is going to be a great improvement for the public," said James W. Dryden, the county's administrative judge.

Four new courtrooms can accommodate 100 people -- more than twice the current capacity -- and have double doors to keep out noise from the hallway.

The new building is outfitted with metal detectors and other security devices that the current court lacks.

But the exterior?

Critics -- some of whom say the nicest thing about other state buildings along Rowe Boulevard is that large trees hide them -- complain the new District Court building is too modern and too big. It will take years for trees to grow tall enough to hide it.

They argue that because Rowe Boulevard is a gateway to a historic urban setting, its buildings should leave the focus on the State House dome at the end of the road.

The new building looks "like a watermelon," said Tom Davies, who attended architectural review sessions for the structure and is president of the Community Associations of Annapolis.

"To me, that thing looks like you could sell cars there or you could go to the movies there, but it doesn't look like it would dispense justice," Davies said.

Charles Lamb, a retired architect and city resident who serves on various advisory boards, said, "As a piece of architecture, it is one that may rest more easily in a more isolated location unto itself. It does not have a noble look."

The four-level structure is built of three shades of brick, with a bowed glass atrium facing Rowe Boulevard. It features a tower, columns, a plaza in front and walkway in back.

The building sits atop a knoll on 6.9 acres that once housed Annapolis Elks Club 622.

Defenders say the building is a nice mix of old and new -- or, as Dryden put it, "Taste is an individual thing."

"Any building has an individual appeal to almost any person that views it," said William R. Gluck, chief of project management and design for the Department of General Services.

PTC State officials say they did make design changes, mostly in landscaping, after meeting with residents.

Critics say those meetings were held too late to be meaningful. What really would have helped was would have been the same local scrutiny the city's Historic Preservation Commission exercised over the Circuit Court, they said. But the District Court is outside the historic district that the commission patrols.

In 1996, former Maryland Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy asked that the building be named for Sweeney, who had just retired. As an administrator, Sweeney unified the assorted lower courts and oversaw construction of 25 District Court buildings around the state.

Pub Date: 11/09/98

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