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John Adams Courthouse

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John Adams Courthouse

Boston, Massachusetts

By Maggie Koerth-Baker | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the 200610 issue of BD+C.

After more than a century without a substantial renovation, Old Suffolk County Courthouse, designed in Neo-Classical style by Boston's first city architect, George Clough, was overdue for a facelift.

Old Suffolk County Courthouse
Smothered by decades of coal dust, smoke, and pollutants, the ornate, gilded ceiling of the Great Hall at Boston’s Old Suffolk County Courthouse was carefully restored in a $117 million renovation. The courthouse was renamed John Adams Courthouse following the 43-month project.

Enter the makeover team: Boston-based architects Childs, Bertman, Tseckares and general contractors Suffolk Construction/NER Construction Management. Their patient: a courthouse built between 1886 and 1894 and nowhere close to being ADA-compliant, too small to handle the needs of the Massachusetts High Courts, and sporting woefully out-of-date electrical, HVAC, and communications systems.

The team's efforts focused heavily on preservation and restoration because the courthouse was listed on the state and national historic registers, which meant that simple matters had to be addressed in smarter ways. After more than 100 years, its space needs had changed, not only for its judicial function, but also to accommodate security systems and automobile parking. Ordinarily, the solution would have been to loosen the girdle and letting the building expand. But here, the team had to find a way to add square feet within the parameters of the courthouse's original footprint—effectively plumping up the building while still managing to fit it into last season's pants.

To accomplish that goal, the Building Team headed for the light wells. Outdated since the advent of modern lighting systems, parts of the courthouse's two largest wells were converted into 50,000 square feet of usable space for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the state Social Law Library.

Meanwhile, new underground parking was inserted into the building's lowest level, giving the state's highest judicial members direct access from their cars to their chambers. The team also moved most major court functions to the second and third floors and reorganized the entry level to celebrate the Great Hall, a soaring four-story public space.

The Great Hall was also a major focus of the team's renovation efforts. Architectural details that were smothered by decades of coal dust, smoke, and pollutants were cleaned inch by inch, as was the decorative ceiling with its intricate, gilded floral abstract pattern bordered by arches and columns decorated with rosettes, egg and dart borders, and classical figures cast in plaster. Damaged areas were infill-painted using reversible materials, saving as much of the original art as possible.

Courtrooms were also heavily renovated. Drop ceilings from the 1960s were removed to reveal original plaster moldings. For the wall and woodwork restoration, the team turned to old photographs that documented original vibrant paint schemes, Victorian stencil work, and light-colored, lustrous wood finish. Modern, efficient versions of historic lamps and lighting fixtures completed the transformation.

When the dust settled and the nipping and tucking was finished, the now-344,285-sf courthouse was so transformed that officials decided it needed a new name. The Old Suffolk County Courthouse was reborn as the John Adams Courthouse.

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