Judges' new home sparkles
$101M federal courthouse combines art museum, cathedral and fortress
The 50-foot-high, stained-glass atrium window at the U.S. Courthouse Annex in Orlando, with designs from renowned abstract artist Al Held, can give off quite a reflection. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is to speak at the courthouse's dedication Sept. 21. (JOE BURBANK, ORLANDO SENTINEL / August 3, 2007)
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.