Judges' new home sparkles

The walk from the George C. Young U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building tothe new edifice next door is like coming out of a time warp.

You leave the dim, crowded lobby of the 1970s brick and concrete tower --dubbed "Fort Young" by attorneys -- and move into a bright glass corridor. Atthe end is a modern, 92-foot-high atrium filled with natural light,stained-glass windows and a grand staircase.

You've arrived at the U.S. Courthouse Annex in Orlando, a $101 millionproject whose lobby is part government building, part art museum and partcathedral.

"We just can't believe it," said Chief U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawsettduring a tour of the building. "We've been released from a dungeon."

The six-story, E-shaped building will replace the Young building as centerof federal court operations in the Middle District of Florida. Fawsettpredicts that the stained glass will attract art enthusiasts.

"In courthouse architecture, you need to have a place which is important --where truth is spoken and justice is expected," said Fawsett, a judge since1986. "We have a functional building which is not lavish. It will be adestination point for art lovers from all over the world."

Orlando's newest courthouse was designed by Boston architect Andrea Leersand built by Hensel Phelps Construction Co. Now open for business, it will bededicated Sept. 21. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is slated tospeak.

The building at 401 W. Central Blvd. sits on the former site of thedilapidated Lamar Hotel and the bus station, across from Orlando policeheadquarters and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission.

The entrance faces southwest toward the city's warehouse district andParramore neighborhood, a gesture intended to link them to the businessdistrict. A fenced, two-acre park behind it ties the old courthouse, theFlorida A&M University law school and state office buildings into a"governmental plaza."

From Central Boulevard, the dominant feature of the cream and green-coloredstructure is a huge gridded window covered by an aluminum shade. A faux belltower in one corner marks the entrance below.

But the signature item is the 50-by-20-foot stained-glass window based onthe watercolor paintings of the late Al Held, an internationally known artist.

The works are busy and colorful, filled with ribbons, crosses, circles andcubes. Officials liked them so much that Held gave them five more designs sosmaller, stained-glass windows could be added to the lobby.

The stained glass was fabricated from Held's work after his July 2005death. He painted the watercolors in Italy. The glass was later handblownin Germany and cut and assembled in China.

In daylight, the big window bathes the lobby's terrazzo floor in a spectrumof colors. At night, it serves as a beacon.

"You can see it on I-4," said Mara Held, the artist's daughter andpresident of the Al Held Foundation. "It's a gift to the city, like a piece ofhigh art you can see from downtown."

Just leaving the aging courthouse is gift enough for the 175 workersthere. Over the years, they coped with burst water pipes, failing elevators,air quality that aggravated allergies, and moths invading sixth-floor officesand courtrooms.

"I've been in a windowless courtroom and chambers for 91/2 years," saidU.S. Magistrate Karla Spaulding, gazing out her new office windows. "It's anamazing thing."

U.S. District Judge John Antoon II presided over trials in a long, narrowcourtroom with poor acoustics, nicknamed "the bowling alley."

"I'm very much looking forward to working in a courtroom where it's easy tohear participants," he said.

With 15 cherry-paneled courtrooms and chambers for up to 15 judges --including a large courtroom for special proceedings -- the building will beable to accommodate growth for years. It features handicapped-accessiblecourtrooms; jury boxes with computer monitors; windows for natural light and aprivate, open-air courtyard where jurors can relax.

In the wake of the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma Cityand the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, judges wanted security. Guns were found inthe old courthouse in 1986 and 1991, and a .22-caliber bullet was fired intoFawsett's office window in the late 1980s.

The new courthouse "was built to embassy standards," said Eric Thompson, aU.S. Marshals Service supervisor who oversaw security on the project. "There'senough steel in the first floor of this building to make a 15-story commercialbuilding."

The courthouse has blast-resistant glass, X-ray machines, metal detectors,300 cameras, and 34 holding cells to accommodate 300 prisoners. Terraced,steel-reinforced concrete planters outside function as a wall around thebuilding's perimeter.

An adjoining gated parking garage and underground sally port provide addedprotection for employees and prisoners.

Getting the new building erected -- technically it's known as thecourthouse "annex" -- was a major task.

Buried fuel tanks and underground natural-gas lines had to be removed.There was a three-year dispute between judges, Leers and the General ServicesAdministration over the original, glass-reliant design.

Then there were delays caused by four hurricanes, the arrest of 66illegal-immigrant workers and fatal falls of a homeless woman and aconstruction worker at the site.

Still, GSA Senior Project Manager Mike Fifty said the complex took threeyears to build -- and was done on time and on budget.

"We say they are 50-year buildings, but we hope for 100 years," Fiftysaid.

But concerns are sure to remain.

The building has no public telephones -- federal officials said phonecompanies complain they are not cost-effective there -- and vending machineswill be added instead of a snack bar.

Parking will be limited by the closing of some city lots under I-4 duringhighway construction, and there are no nearby public handicapped spaces. Andthere may not be enough court security officers on busy days.

The old building was finished in 1975. It had two federal judges, onemagistrate and no lobby security checkpoint until 1983.

It will be gutted and renovated, eventually housing the U.S. Attorney'sOffice and U.S. Bankruptcy Court again.

Greg Eisenmenger, a Viera defense attorney who walked around the newbuilding Thursday, called it "kind of sterile." But he admitted that he likessmall, old-fashioned courthouses -- another vanishing species in Florida.

"I'm nostalgic," he said.

Jim Leusner can be reached at 407-420-5411 or jleusner@orlandosentinel.com.

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