Essex County Courthouse exudes respect for justice

A determined Building Team digs deep, goes vertical, and even chases down missing furniture designed by Cass Gilbert to revitalize a famed courthouse.
August 11, 2010

For nearly 90 years, the Essex County Courthouse in Newark, N.J., has stood as a somber reminder that if you break the law, justice will be served.

From the nine marble statues above the main entrance that glare down at visitors as they approach the courthouse, to numerous engraved-stone signs that relay bold statements like "Justice renders to everyone his due," the courthouse is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that the law will always prevail.

The building's Greek Revival architecture is equally dramatic. Designed by Cass Gilbert (better known for the Woolworth Building in Manhattan) in 1902, the five-story courthouse is perched atop a prominent, elevated site in downtown Newark. A portico supported by eight massive Corinthian columns marks the entrance, which leads visitors to a dramatic four-story rotunda topped with a series of murals representing four female allegorical figures: "Knowledge," "Mercy," "Power," and "Wisdom." The 11 courtrooms are finely detailed with vaulted ceilings, ornate skylights, furniture designed by Gilbert himself, and dozens of dramatic murals that depict scenes of justice. A life-size bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln overlooks the main entrance.

Ten years ago, Newark had one of the highest per capita crime rates in the country. After long delays and setbacks in funding a renovation of the facility, the county decided to move operations from the crumbling courthouse to the adjacent Hall of Records building. Essex County Courthouse sat vacant for the next eight years.

"After 80 years of use, the courthouse had simply run its course in time," said Michael Mills, FAIA, partner with Farewell Mills Gatsch Architects, Princeton, N.J., lead architect on the $43 million restoration and modernization of the 180,000-sf facility. Space was tight, security was a concern, and, without modern HVAC systems, the courthouse was stuffy and damp. Its marble façade had deteriorated to the point where pieces began to fall from the cornice level, and leaks in the roof caused extensive damage to the decorative interior plaster walls.

"Age, intense use, and systems wearing down led to some really bad conditions," said Mills, who described graffiti-laden walls in the bathrooms and murals covered with mildew. "It was very run-down."

The two-year restoration kicked off in 2003 with a comprehensive survey of the building to assess the damage, catalog historic components, and identify spaces that could accommodate new mechanical and electrical infrastructure crucial to modernizing the facility.

 
A life-size bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln greets passersby at the main entrance to the courthouse. The project involved restoring “Abe,” as well as nine marble statues perched atop a portico at the entry.  Photo: © Brian Rose

Hunting for vertical space

A key find for the Building Team was an abandoned prison elevator system that had been walled off in the mid-1980s when security issues forced the county to move all criminal cases to the Hall of Records.

"We needed major vertical runs from the basement up to the attic so that we could distribute conditioned air throughout the entire building," said Mills. The elevator shaft proved ideal for this role. The team extended the shaft from the second floor to the attic to accommodate the large vertical duct runs, from which horizontal ducts branch out on each floor. HVAC equipment was installed in several old boiler rooms in the basement.

The team wasn't as lucky locating rooftop space for several large air-handling systems required to ventilate the interior space. Since historic skylights covered much of the rooftop, the only viable option was a 20-foot-deep light well above the former criminal courtroom on the second floor. This required the construction of a structural concrete platform—fitted with vibration isolators to minimize acoustical disturbance—suspended five feet above the skylight. The new air handlers were installed on the platform, and a roof was constructed overhead to enclose the space. Fluorescent light fixtures installed beneath the concrete platform re-create the look of natural light flooding through the skylight.

"The light well had been a source of leaks for a long time, so enclosing that space was crucial," said Mills. The new roof structure also provided a structural deck for a separate penthouse to house new chiller systems.

 
Strapped for space, the team housed new air handlers above the lay light in the former criminal courtroom. Fluorescent light fixtures installed above the lay light replicate daylight to illuminate the room.  Photo: © Brian Rose


While the light well was certainly large enough to accommodate the air handlers, the structural engineering team discovered that the piers supporting that portion of the courthouse did not have the capacity to support the additional weight of the mechanical systems. This meant the steel piers would have to be reinforced from the basement level to the roof with steel plates.

Just when the team thought it had the problem solved, a grim discovery in the basement brought the project to a halt.

"During construction, we found that the foundation footings for those four piers were atypical from the rest of the building, and this didn't show in the original drawings," said Mill. As it turns out, the piers were resting on granite blocks that would have crumbled under the additional load. With irony in his voice, Mills called the problem "a major subsurface intervention."

Construction on the upper floors had to be halted so that a spread-footing foundation system could be installed underneath the piers. "It was a very delicate operation that required close monitoring of the building so that it did not settle," said Mills.

"The circulation, MEP, and lighting systems were wonderfully re-created for modern use," said judge Norman Crowe, a professor of architecture at University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind. "Perhaps not in any way they were originally intended, yet the character of the original building was entirely preserved."

The judges were particularly impressed with the team's solutions for lighting the interior spaces. All historic light fixtures were restored and modernized. Where additional illumination was required, the team specified the least-obtrusive solutions. For instance, recessed halo fixtures line the perimeter of the ceilings in many of the courtrooms, and tiny fiber-optic lights encircle the sky-lit dome in the central rotunda. "The lighting does not disturb any other aspect of the interior," said Crowe. "The restoration is respectful and unobtrusive."

 
Views into the former criminal courtroom on the second floor are afforded from the central rotunda. Fiber-optic lights installed in the dome cornice illuminate the murals and staircases that surround the rotunda.  Photo: © Brian Rose

A major component of the project involved restoring more than 900 pieces of historic furniture, including 400 chairs, 175 courtroom benches, 35 tables, and hundreds of window openers, umbrella stands, coat racks, and cabinets. Many of these pieces were designed by Gilbert specifically for the courthouse, and had since gone missing during the numerous relocations of court operations.

"People are tied to their furniture, and they'd take chairs and desks with them when they moved to other buildings," said Mills. "We had to get permission from the judiciary to walk through their facilities to document missing items."

Once the furniture was located, each piece was carefully restored.

The same type of care was taken on the building's marble façade, which had begun to crumble after years of abuse from Newark's harsh weather. Mills estimates that 30% of the stone façade was replaced, including hundreds of small decorative dentils at the cornice level that had fallen loose. Where possible, the stones were repaired using the Dutchman technique, where the damaged portion of the stone is cut out with either straight or keyed sides and replaced with a new stone.

Crowe said the building once again "recognizes and celebrates the dignity of the law and the belief that the law provides a great public service."