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Jail no more

The Allegheny County Jail becomes a family courthouse showcase

October 01, 2001 |

In 1885, the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, Pa., and its associated courthouse were crowning glories of architect Henry Hobson Richardson's career, which spawned the Richardsonian Romanesque school of architecture with its massive stone walls and dramatic semicircular arches. Richardson, born in 1836, died one month before the jail was completed, but the building has proven to be as enduring as his fame.

The building's restoration has been a cause célèbre in Pittsburgh, where county administrations had made the project on-again-off-again for 10 years before it finally reached fruition. For architect Mihai Marcu, president and chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based architect IKM Inc., restoring and adapting the historic jail as a family court building has been a high point as well. "It is an extremely exciting project because we started with something so wonderful. ... You don't find too many buildings that have the beginnings of this one," he says.

"It's one of the most important buildings in the world," says Frederick C. Watts, project manager for IKM. "To see it fall into disrepair was just unacceptable."

Demolition could have created a political impasse because of the jail's status as a historic landmark. Converting it to family court allowed the county to save rent it had been paying for other locations and to make use of a central site.

While the exterior appears much as it did more than 100 years ago, the interior has been vastly modified. "Changing that atmosphere from within the walls was what I felt was so challenging," says Marcu.

Says Allegheny County principal architect Sam Taylor, "It had the feel of a jail."

Plethora of proposals

In 1992, when the project was first discussed, a number of adaptive-reuse proposals were considered. They included a shopping mall, a hotel and a criminal court facility. "Halfway through that design process, the direction changed. The family court system became more vocal with their needs," says Taylor. That system was being housed in several locations, crowding victims and witnesses, adults and juveniles, divorcing husbands and wives and their entourages all together. "It reminded me of Hill Street Blues," he says. In designing the renovation, says Taylor, "Our main goal was to create a facility that was more humane to the public."

Watts puts it another way: "If there was another challenge that was important for the design goals, it was the need that the building become a child-friendly, family-friendly institution in a space that was originally designed to be imposing and frightening. To try to make that conversion and still be respectful of the original design of the building was a major challenge. I think we accomplished that. It brings a great deal of dignity to the family court process."

"The building still conveys a sense of the past but hopefully conveys respect for the law rather than fear of it," says Marcu.

Not the least of the problems was that a temporary holding area had to be maintained during construction for prisoners awaiting trial in the adjoining courthouse. "Essentially we rebuilt the building while prisoners were still in a small section of it," says Michael Cain, senior project manager for contractor-developer Mascaro Construction.

Today, a permanent holding area is maintained in the basement for the prisoners awaiting passage over the concrete "Bridge of Sighs," which arches over Ross Street between the two buildings.

The adaptive reuse also required constructing a building within a building. The jail was basically a shell, with free-standing cellblocks rising five stories. With only the basement and the roof level static, the building team had to install floors. The designers originally planned to use a steel structure within the building. But because the steel would have been difficult to transport through doorways and erect, a post-tensioned concrete floor was specified. The concrete was poured around a series of cables, which were tensioned.

Watts notes as well that budget constraints required ingenuity. The budget for the project was fairly unforgiving. Much of the cost-cutting involved granite tile. The team originally had planned to use all new tile on the roof, but about 60 percent was removed and reused.

Getting the project under way was the biggest hurdle, but other challenges remained. When Mascaro bid the job, it was only 60 percent designed. Mascaro then hired the designer, IKM, and completed the project under a design/build/leaseback arrangement.

Logistical nightmare

As the location was in downtown Pittsburgh, the logistics were difficult, says Cain. Because the site had virtually no laydown areas, careful coordination of deliveries was required to maintain the project schedule. All large material deliveries arrived through the openings created in the granite and brick load-bearing walls, which ranged from 24 inches to 36 inches thick. Height restrictions limited load size, and the only place for storage was in the courtyard where materials entered and exited the building. To avoid rush hour traffic, deliveries were not allowed between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Subway location requires redesign

A subway built in the 1980s ran below the building. Because its exact placement was uncertain, the contractor had to dig until the tunnels were located. Below-grade design work could then proceed.

Several openings spanned by massive steel lintels had to be installed in the building as did a granite floor using Milford pink granite floor and wall tile from the same Connecticut quarry that had yielded the building's granite exterior more than 100 years earlier.

The project required replacement of all of the historic wood windows with custom-made, arched aluminum windows. The interior granite columns in the rotunda were cleaned and plaster work restored. A new entry arch was installed, which historically matches size and style, using exterior stone from the wall.

Despite all of the project-related tribulations and travails, the trials in the 11 courtrooms now are only of the judicial variety. This winner of a 2001 Building Design & Construction Reconstruction Project Award improves the efficiency of the courts while continuing as a monument to architect H.H. Richardson.

Construction Costs

General conditions $2,450,000
Demolition 2,700,000
Concrete 2,800,000
Masonry, repointing 2,200,000
Structural, miscellaneous 1,200,000
Carpentry 950,000
Roofing, skylights 1,850,000
Windows, doors, curtain wall 2,450,000
Drywall, flooring 4,450,000
Washroom accessories 120,000
Specialties 110,000
Window treatments 20,000
Elevators/lifts 1,250,000
Fire protection 550,000
Plumbing 1,450,000
HVAC 5,200,000
Electrical 4,150,000
TOTAL $33,900,000

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