Skip to content
Judges' new home sparkles
The walk from the George C. Young U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building to the 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. At the 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 million project whose lobby is part government building, part art museum and part cathedral.
"We just can't believe it," said Chief U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawsett during a tour of the building. "We've been released from a dungeon."
The six-story, E-shaped building will replace the Young building as center of federal court operations in the Middle District of Florida. Fawsett predicts 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 since 1986. "We have a functional building which is not lavish. It will be a destination point for art lovers from all over the world."
Orlando's newest courthouse was designed by Boston architect Andrea Leers and built by Hensel Phelps Construction Co. Now open for business, it will be dedicated Sept. 21. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is slated to speak.
The building at 401 W. Central Blvd. sits on the former site of the dilapidated Lamar Hotel and the bus station, across from Orlando police headquarters and the Orlando Union Rescue Mission.
The entrance faces southwest toward the city's warehouse district and Parramore neighborhood, a gesture intended to link them to the business district. A fenced, two-acre park behind it ties the old courthouse, the Florida A&M University law school and state office buildings into a "governmental plaza."
From Central Boulevard, the dominant feature of the cream and green-colored structure is a huge gridded window covered by an aluminum shade. A faux bell tower in one corner marks the entrance below.
But the signature item is the 50-by-20-foot stained-glass window based on the watercolor paintings of the late Al Held, an internationally known artist.
The works are busy and colorful, filled with ribbons, crosses, circles and cubes. Officials liked them so much that Held gave them five more designs so smaller, stained-glass windows could be added to the lobby.
The stained glass was fabricated from Held's work after his July 2005 death. He painted the watercolors in Italy. The glass was later handblown in Germany and cut and assembled in China.
In daylight, the big window bathes the lobby's terrazzo floor in a spectrum of colors. At night, it serves as a beacon.
"You can see it on I-4," said Mara Held, the artist's daughter and president of the Al Held Foundation. "It's a gift to the city, like a piece of high art you can see from downtown."
Just leaving the aging courthouse is gift enough for the 175 workers there. Over the years, they coped with burst water pipes, failing elevators, air quality that aggravated allergies, and moths invading sixth-floor offices and courtrooms.
"I've been in a windowless courtroom and chambers for 91/2 years," said U.S. Magistrate Karla Spaulding, gazing out her new office windows. "It's an amazing thing."
U.S. District Judge John Antoon II presided over trials in a long, narrow courtroom with poor acoustics, nicknamed "the bowling alley."
"I'm very much looking forward to working in a courtroom where it's easy to hear 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 be able to accommodate growth for years. It features handicapped-accessible courtrooms; jury boxes with computer monitors; windows for natural light and a private, open-air courtyard where jurors can relax.
In the wake of the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, judges wanted security. Guns were found in the old courthouse in 1986 and 1991, and a .22-caliber bullet was fired into Fawsett's office window in the late 1980s.
The new courthouse "was built to embassy standards," said Eric Thompson, a U.S. Marshals Service supervisor who oversaw security on the project. "There's enough steel in the first floor of this building to make a 15-story commercial building."
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 the building's perimeter.
An adjoining gated parking garage and underground sally port provide added protection for employees and prisoners.
Getting the new building erected -- technically it's known as the courthouse "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 Services Administration over the original, glass-reliant design.
Then there were delays caused by four hurricanes, the arrest of 66 illegal-immigrant workers and fatal falls of a homeless woman and a construction worker at the site.
Still, GSA Senior Project Manager Mike Fifty said the complex took three years to build -- and was done on time and on budget.
"We say they are 50-year buildings, but we hope for 100 years," Fifty said.
But concerns are sure to remain.
The building has no public telephones -- federal officials said phone companies complain they are not cost-effective there -- and vending machines will be added instead of a snack bar.
Parking will be limited by the closing of some city lots under I-4 during highway construction, and there are no nearby public handicapped spaces. And there may not be enough court security officers on busy days.
The old building was finished in 1975. It had two federal judges, one magistrate and no lobby security checkpoint until 1983.
It will be gutted and renovated, eventually housing the U.S. Attorney's Office and U.S. Bankruptcy Court again.
Greg Eisenmenger, a Viera defense attorney who walked around the new building Thursday, called it "kind of sterile." But he admitted that he likes small, old-fashioned courthouses -- another vanishing species in Florida.
"I'm nostalgic," he said.
Jim Leusner can be reached at 407-420-5411 or email@example.com.