A 1930s courthouse is transformed for the 21st century
By Brian Libby
Photos by Brad Feinknopf
For more than 85 years, the Franklin County Courthouse has been a cornerstone of the National Register–listed Main Street Historic District in Greenfield, Mass. Its classical revival style, with Corinthian columns, a pedimented Greek temple-like entrance and decorative brickwork, helped the courthouse stand out as a symbol of justice rooted in ancient democratic traditions.
Yet by the 21st century, it was becoming clear that the grand old building could no longer meet the needs of modern jurisprudence. “The original building was classical and traditional and reads as an important civic structure, with a quiet elegance on Main Street,” says Elizabeth Minnis, a deputy commissioner in the Office of Planning, Design and Construction for the state of Massachusetts. “But there were major issues with it.”
Among those deficiencies were a lack of accessibility, poor wayfinding, inadequate security, and a lack of sustainable design features. The building was also severely overcrowded, with judges forced to share offices, holding cells in which security and separation were compromised, and inadequate waiting rooms and conference space to provide for the needs of court business. The court had outgrown the facility and was forced to locate a separate site for juvenile and housing court a few blocks away. Finally, the grand entrance on Main Street wasn’t even an entrance anymore; visitors entered from the back.
“The old building was dysfunctional,” agrees Josiah Stevenson, a principal architect with Leers Weinzapfel Associates, the Boston firm that designed a $66 million renovation of and expansion for the 1931 original building. “At one point, I sat down with the head marshal for the court, and she said, ‘This is a disaster. I have prisoners that walk to the courtroom by the front corridor where family and the prosecution are waiting. You just don’t do that now.’”
While the state had studied the possibility of tearing down the venerable old hall of justice and replacing it with an entirely modern facility, that approach was ultimately rejected in favor of a hybrid scheme that retained the original building while moving most court functions into a new addition behind it. “We wanted to respect the existing architecture without overpowering it,” Minnis explains.
For the new Franklin County Justice Center, as it is now known, the Leers Weinzapfel design restores the front of the original building, which is used for administration space by the clerk and probation departments, while the much larger addition features a new entry, as well as six courtrooms, a law library, detainee circulation and a jury-pool room. Perhaps most crucially, there are separated circulation paths for prisoners, judges and the public, who now come together for the first time in court.
Though the new addition is larger in square footage than the original building, it doesn’t overwhelm. “I think despite the fact that it’s a big building, it fits into the context pretty well,” Stevenson explains. To tie in with the original, the new addition begins with a masonry base before giving way to three stories of glass. “We wanted to make the new piece distinct enough that the old one could hold its own,” the architect adds. “So we used Indiana limestone to match the trim of the existing brick building. It goes with it, but it makes the original hold its own pretty well.”
At the same time, the modern addition takes advantage of the sloping site, in order to stay within the height of the original. “The much larger addition sits back from the original building, with a light and glassy top that allows the strength of the classical facade to retain its mark on Main Street,” Minnis says.
To maintain the integrity of the 1931 courthouse, with its elegant brick and limestone facade and historic style, the new addition provides a contrast with its glass facade, proffering a bevy of natural light for the lobby and circulation areas, which then gives way to a three-story limestone inner wall that matches the masonry of the existing structure.
“That glass piece is the public zone,” Stevenson explains. “It has connections to every space. There is a library where the public can go and research issues, and then there’s the jury-pool room where you come to become a juror. All the public spaces are right there.” Beyond the public zone are the solid courtroom zone, and then a private circulation for judges.
Whereas most courtroom spaces around the country are devoid of much natural light, skylights naturally illuminate these spaces. “Courts are big rooms, and they’re surrounded by program: prisoners on one side, the public on one side, judges on another side — it’s hard to get light into all those rooms,” the architect adds. “I’ve been in countless courthouses with no natural light. But we created a corridor where you borrow light across, so there’s a shelf of light from a corridor next to it. Every courtroom gets natural light.” A large roof canopy also extends over both the lobby and glass facade in order to minimize glare. That’s also assisted by a fritted coating covering a portion of the glass to make it translucent but not completely transparent.
Where the extension is set back from the street to create a small plaza, the architects placed a new entrance to the building. “This project’s architectural language is all about large windows, clear wayfinding, soothing, light-filled spaces and simple, warm-hued natural woodwork,” Minnis says. “While there is dignity and monumentality to the design, it is more subtle and welcoming, simple and clean.”
The transparency of the entry facade and lobby helps create a feeling of openness that is particularly needed in a courthouse, both as a symbolic expression of transparent democracy, as well as to assist the majority of visitors making their first trip to the building. “The wayfinding in the building is very straightforward,” Minnis says. “The main entrance is visible from Main Street and draws you down to a very generous and level entrance with plenty of queuing space protected from the weather for those waiting to get through security.”
While the Franklin County Justice Center’s contemporary new addition may gain the most attention and public use, the existing building was also restored to its 1930s splendor. Original building carvings on the exterior were refurbished, as were lighting fixtures and millwork inside. “The masonry was actually in good shape, but the limestone at the base needed cleaning,” Stevenson explains. There was remediation needed with the windows. But the brick itself stood up pretty well. I guess you could argue that it withstood the test of time and didn’t require major changes. But it was all repointed.” At the same time, seeking to better seal the building envelope and improve energy efficiency, interior insulation was added inside. “Originally, it was three layers of brick plus plaster,” he says. “What it became is that plus a stud wall with insulation so we could bring up the R-value.”
Since the Justice Center’s ribbon cutting this past spring, the public has enjoyed a better-functioning space that’s more secure, more open and full of light. “There has been very positive feedback from virtually everyone,” Minnis says. “It has really enhanced potential for collaboration and more efficient operations.”
Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Division of Capital Asset Management & Maintenance
Josiah Stevenson, Principal-in-Charge
Andrea Leers, Advising Principal
Tom Chung, Project Manager – Design
Jim Vogel, Project Manager – Construction
Jeffrey Fishbein, Project Architect
Shih-Min Hsu, Designer
Juliet Chun, Designer
Daniel Colvard, Designer
Jared Ramsdell, Designer
Laura Patrick, Designer
- Building Envelope – Gale Associates
- Civil – Green International Affiliates, Inc.
- Contractor – Whiting-Turner Construction Co.
- Historic Preservation – Preservation Technology Associates, Inc.
- Landscape – Richard Burck Associates, Inc.
- MEPFP/T/D/S/Code – Cosentini Associates
- Structural – RSE Associates, Inc.
- Sustainability LEED/Lighting Design – Atelier Ten
Brian Libby is a Portland, Oregon-based architecture journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Architectural Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.