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Courthouse nears completion

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Federal judges will begin a move to the $65 million glass and concrete Richard Sheppard Arnold courthouse by the end of the year, and when they do, they’ll be surrounded by a crash wall to keep booby-trapped vehicles from ramming the building.

The wall, solid reinforced concrete 3 feet tall and 18 inches thick and set 40 feet from the building, is just one of the security measures incorporated into the 168,045-square-foot building.

The five-story annex to the Federal Courthouse on Capitol Avenue, built in 1932, features architectural niceties as well: A connecting glass atrium separates old from new, a “glass curtain” that reveals the limestone of the original building and lets in natural light. It, too, was designed with safety in mind: The glass encasing the atrium is blast proof. It can break and flex, but it is secured to the frame in such a way that it won’t fall out. All the columns are steel encased in concrete.

The annex will house 12 judges’ chambers, courtrooms and a parking garage. The exterior will include a fountain and water sculpture at the entrance and a plaza on Gaines Street open to those visiting and working at the courthouse. Local architecture firm Witsell Evans Rasco and Washington, D.C., architects RTKL designed the project, which includes interior renovation of the old courthouse. Renovation should be complete by the end of 2008.

Other security measures include separate parking for judges and criminal defendants.

WER principal architect John Greer remembers the security at the old federal building when he first started working there: “We’d get in the elevator and the marshals would come in with a prisoner in shackles. We had to get out of the elevator. They bring the prisoner in, face him to the wall, and then we got back on the elevator. But we’re on the elevator at the same time.”

The annex will include holding cells on every floor and prisoner-only elevators with high-tech coded access.

Employees who once had window offices facing east now have a view of the goings-on in the new building. From inside the atrium you can see people at desks typing and talking on phones, right through their windows. “Once we had to stop work while court was in session, but other than that no one seems to mind,” Greer said.

Witsell Evans Rasco is giving the lobby of the old courthouse, which was once a post office, a good cleaning, polishing the marble and tile floors and the aluminum grills on the post boxes. The look of the 1930s lobby will remain intact with original paint colors and additional historic light fixtures. If there’s enough money, the old fourth-floor courtroom will also be renovated.

The U.S. Marshal Service is being moved to the third floor, where it will have triple the amount of space. The clerks, who are currently scattered throughout the building, will all be located on the first floor for easier access to the public.

— Amy Bowers

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