Showing its age: Chattanooga's 80-year-old federal building lacks security, space

Showing its age: Chattanooga's 80-year-old federal building lacks security, space

July 1st, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Local Regional News

Yellow tape cordons off the main first-floor hallway in the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building where water damage has cause the ceiling to break above the post office boxes.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

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TIMELINE

• 1933: Construction of new building to house all federal offices in Chattanooga, including the main post office and the U.S. courthouse.

• 1938: American Institute of Architects recognizes courthouse as one of the 150 finest U.S. buildings in the previous 20 years.

• 1960: Civil rights lawsuit, Mapp et al. vs. the City of Chattanooga Board of Education, filed in court, leading to desegregation of city public schools in 1962.

• 1964: Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa convicted of jury tampering.

• 1980: The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse is added to the National Register of Historic Places.

• 1981 The U.S. General Services Administration assumes ownership of the building and renames it in honor of Joel "Jay" W. Solomon, a Chattanooga native and GSA administrator from 1977 to 1979.

THE BUILDING

• Architect: Reuben Harrison Hunt (1862-1937). The federal building was one of his last major works.

• Initial cost: $493,000 (equivalent to $8.5 million in 2012)

• Construction: 1932-1933

• Design: Art Moderne style typical of government buildings in the 1930s. The five-story building has a steel structure, clad in white marble. Penthouses are set on projecting towers at the northwest and southwest corners.

• Tenants: Two U.S district courts and two magistrate judges plus court clerks; federal probation and parole service office; downtown post office; U.S Secret Service; Frank Wilson law library; and offices for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann

U.S. District Court Chief Deputy Clerk John Medearis looks to the ceiling of the third floor courtroom where there was previous water damage inside the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

With its terrazzo floor displaying geometric patterns beneath metallic, cone-shaped lights, the first-floor lobby of Chattanooga's federal building resembles the main floor of the majestic Empire State building in New York City.

But these days, the lobby of the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building in Chattanooga also looks like a crime scene, with ribbons of yellow tape strung across the lobby to prevent visitors from walking beneath a giant hole in the water-damaged ceiling.

"Unfortunately, these kinds of problems are all too common," said U.S. District Court Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice, whose office is down the hall from the latest water leak. "This is a beautiful old building, but it is an old building."

Chattanooga's 80-year-old courthouse and post office, which stands behind Miller Park downtown, is showing its age. Tenants and previous studies agree it no longer has the size, access or security for a modern-day courthouse.

The U.S. General Services Administration, which constructs and maintains most federal buildings, put a new Chattanooga courthouse on its five-year construction plan in 1999.

But it will be at least four years from now before any money could be available even to identify a site for a replacement courthouse.

The four judges, their clerks and the probation officers who now occupy what was built as a single courtroom facility will meet this week with U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., to make their case for a new Chattanooga courthouse.

But President Barack Obama's budget for next year does not include funding for any new courthouses, and Fleischmann and other budget-conscious members of Congress have been reluctant to push for major building projects.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has a district office in the Solomon building, said Obama's push for more infrastructure spending has not extended to most federal buildings.

"Tight budget times have slowed down construction for all courthouses," he said.

Maintaining the aging building is a challenge. The basement is below sewer, water and stormwater lines and often floods.

"We recently had a foot of standing water down here," said Elizabeth Miller, supervisor for the U.S. Probation Office.

That and persistent problems from rats and other rodents forced Miller to move some of her employees into two small towers on the north and south ends of the fifth floor.

Most of the four active judges in the building use courtrooms, chambers and jury rooms too small or insecure to meet federal standards.

"There are some beautiful aspects of this historic building, but I certainly wish it was more secure and we had some more room for some of the cases we hear," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Lee, whose fourth-floor courtroom is challenged by cases with multiple defendants.

Judges and probation workers frequently must walk past prisoners in hallways and in the small back parking area.

"We're in very close contact at times with prisoners and their families, who in many instances may not be at all happy with our decisions," Mattice said.

That doesn't happen in new buildings, where judges and other employees don't share entrances and hallways with prisoners. Today's security standards also call for deeper setbacks from the road and facilities for underground transport of prisoners.

Ronald Gibbs is chief deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service, which is responsible for building security. Gibbs said his office's policy "is not to discuss courthouse security."

But GSA was forced to revamp the building's holding cells for prisoners. The layout still fails to meet federal standards for prisoner transports and security in new buildings.

Last month, a prisoner in leg irons was injured walking down the 18 steep steps from the back parking area to the basement holding cells.

Empire Symbol

For all its current woes, Chattanooga's federal courthouse stands as an imposing symbol from an era of bold government building projects.

Amid the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury commissioned federally funded architects to design ambitious structures.

That generated a staggering average of one new federal building erected somewhere in the country every day.

The Chattanooga federal building was one of those projects. In the third-floor original courtroom, a sweeping mural titled "Allegory of Chattanooga" was painted by J. Hilton Leech as part of the government-funded art projects of that era.

The building was added to the National List of Historic Places in 1980. Most of the other government offices, such as Social Security, Veterans Affairs and even the U.S. Attorney's Office, have moved out of the Solomon building as more courtrooms, clerks and probation officers were added.

But the space still could be converted for other federal or commercial offices, Mattice said.

Budget Battles

The Judicial Conference of the United States wants Congress to appropriate $1.6 billion over the next five years to plan or begin building 11 new federal buildings. But since 1995, Congress has appropriated only $177 million toward such projects. Obama has not recommended any major funding for new federal courthouses in the past four years.

TOP PRIORITIES

The current five-year funding plan for new federal courthouses identifies cities most in need of new federal courthouses.

• 1. Mobile, Ala.

• 2. Nashville

• 3. Savannah, Ga.

• 4. Norfolk, Va.

• 5. San Antonio, Texas

• 6. Charlotte, N.C.

• 7. Greenville, S.C.

• 8. Harrisburg, Pa.

• 9. Anniston, Ala.

• 10. Toledo, Ohio

• 11. Chattanooga

• 12. Des Moines, Iowa

Source: Executive Committee on Behalf of the Judicial Conference

Most of the building also doesn't meet today's handicap accessibility standards, Chief Deputy Clerk John Medearis said.

Even the building's crown jewel -- the third-floor courtroom adorned with burled-oak paneling and hand-carved cabinetry beneath a giant courtroom mural -- has suffered water damage from roof leaks.

U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier recently had to put buckets out in his chambers to capture leaking rainwater -- after a new roof was installed.

The Nashville courthouse, which has a higher priority than Chattanooga's, is projected to cost $144 million. A new federal building in Chattanooga likely would be in the same range, depending on the site and design.

The Judicial Conference previously identified nine possible downtown sites and recommended $21.5 million be provided for site and design work by fiscal 2017. An earlier proposal to put the building on the Civic Forum block was abandoned because it was too small.

Getting money for site selection and design work for a new Chattanooga federal building recently was complicated by a new method of prioritizing courthouse projects.

Based on caseloads, a recent Government Accountability Office study showed that more than a dozen other projects not in the current five-year plan now rank above Chattanooga. That includes Macon, Ga., where GAO said the need is more urgent.

GAO auditors said their review "calls into question the extent to which the projects on the five-year plan represent the Judiciary's most urgent projects" and suggested Congress hold off on funding courthouse projects until they are re-evaluated.

But the Judicial Conference insists that a new Chattanooga courthouse remains a priority regardless of GAO's study.

In a previous "Urgency Evaluation" list, Chattanooga ranked No. 1. Four more courtrooms are needed to meet federal standards, accommodate senior judges and respond to a growing caseload.

"The bottom line is this: under either scoring process. ... Chattanooga qualifies for placement on the five-year plan," U.S. District Judge Michael Ponsor, chairman of the Judicial Conference committee on space and facilities, told a House panel studying courthouse projects this spring.

"A further moratorium on congressionally approved courthouse projects would be unfair to the communities affected, would waste taxpayer funds and would increase risk to court staff and the public."

But with budget deficits projected for the next decade, there appears to be limited support for spending the $3.2 billion the GAO estimates it will cost to build 12 new courthouses.

Even congressional members in Tennessee -- the only state with more than one federal courthouse on the list of identified cities -- aren't leading any effort for new buildings.

While Fleischmann has urged funding for projects such as the Chickamauga lock and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his district, he has not pushed construction of courthouses.

Mattice said he understands the priorities.

"I understand that we don't have a natural constituency to push for this project like the barge or recreational boaters do for a new Chickamauga lock," Mattice said.

"But even those in the tea party who believe in limited government based upon what our Founding Fathers said would have to agree that the judiciary is one of the three co-equal parts of government. I think the folks back in Philadelphia who founded our country would want our judiciary to have adequate and secure facilities to operate."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 757-6340.