Wheeling, WV, is a city rich in history. The seat of Ohio County and situated along the Ohio River, it became a manufacturing and commercial center in an area abundant in coal and natural gas. Its many industrial products included steel, iron, chemicals, ceramics, glass, tobacco, plastics, and textiles. In 1818, Wheeling became the western terminus of the National Road; following that, it became a port of entry in 1831 and a railhead in 1852.
In addition to its present-day attraction as the site of Fort Henry, the scene of one of the latter skirmishes of the American Revolution, Wheeling offers its citizens and visitors spectacular late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture that celebrates this heritage. Throughout the city and its downtown historic district, these structures each convey a story about the hopes and dreams of the community. However, one tale – the recently completed and sensitive expansion to Wheeling’s federal courthouse – is a promise about the city’s future.
The Wheeling Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse was originally constructed from 1905 to 1914 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A handsome Beaux Arts facility, it was first expanded – in the same style – in 1937.
In 1994, $36 million was appropriated for construction of an annex, as well as the repair and alteration of the existing facility. Unfortunately, in 1995, Congress rescinded $28.3 million from the original appropriation. As an interim solution, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) used the remaining funds for repairs to the existing facility and to construct a 16,500-square-foot addition to provide vertical, private, and secure circulation routes for the U.S. Courts and U.S. Marshals Service. The addition was completed in 1999, and that same year, Congress appropriated $29.3 million for construction of an annex to the existing facility. In 2001, GSA acquired five properties north of the existing courthouse in preparation for the long-awaited annex project.
To achieve top-quality design talent throughout its property portfolio, the GSA instituted the Design Excellence Program, which includes a streamlined two-step architect/engineer selection process, and the use of private-sector peers to provide feedback to the lead design architect. The program stresses creativity and a goal of rejuvenating downtown cities. It also streamlines the way the GSA hires architects and engineers, substantially cutting the cost of competing for GSA design contracts. That was meaningful to the Wheeling project, recalls the Honorable Frederick P. Stamp Jr., U.S. District Judge. “We, being the judges and court personnel in this building, regarded the construction of this annex as a very important project, not only for our court, but for the community. It expresses something very significant about a future for Wheeling.”
Once the design philosophy and body of work from a number of architectural teams were reviewed through the Design Excellence program, the GSA selected as design “partners” Boston-based Goody Clancy as lead design architect and the Bethesda, MD, office of HLM Design as architect of record for the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse Annex project. Of further significance was that the District Court hired an architectural professional to represent the court’s interest as well. Synergy and a common objective prevailed. “Our goal,” notes Joan E. Goody, principal, Goody Clancy, “was to make this city block ‘whole’ and to create a building that was in harmony with the existing building.”
The approximately 108,000-square-foot annex has been designed to expand the total complex to 194,000 square feet in size and to satisfy the immediate space requirements of federal courts and related agencies: one U.S. District Courtroom and office space for the U.S. District Court, U.S. Attorneys, U.S. Marshals, and Congressman Alan B. Mollohan. At the same time, the expansion has been planned to ensure space flexibility as needs arise. Budgets were closely monitored throughout the process – the result of a team that took a holistic approach from the beginning, says Pete Obarowski, project manager at HLM Design. Mike Malane, GSA project manager, concurs, noting that the project duration – from original appropriation through construction completion – was long, requiring keen oversight and value engineering to manage the original funding. The rising cost of materials and labor, increased security concerns, and other factors were never planned in the original appropriation, he says, “but all the team and agency tenants worked very well together to make it happen. That was certainly a big plus.” Space allotments in back office areas, as well as parking allocation, were adjusted accordingly to keep the project on track and within budget.
Additionally, because of the historical richness of the site, the team had to carefully work around existing archeological artifacts. These elements required dexterous removal before they were turned over to the state historic preservation office.
The site was also constrained by the adjacent existing courthouse and public buildings. There was not much room for storage and sorting of materials. The limited site space issue was resolved by storing some materials off-site at a rented location. Other materials were scheduled to arrive just in time for use. This required careful planning of the work sequence and strategic coordination of materials with labor tasks. The Wheeling team also strove to gain the cooperation of the city and neighboring community to ensure that the project progressed with as little disturbance to them as possible.
To minimize delays, the GSA went from its original plan to wrap all construction work into one contract – demolition, foundation work, and more – to separate packages. “We went to one of our small minority businesses and had them do the demo during the same time some of the archeology was going on,” recalls Malane. “We also asked the designer to design the foundation as a separate package so we could get that out on the street. We tried to make up time by breaking these things out, and it did help a lot.” Malane adds that the GSA has an excellent relationship with the small business community.
The Plot Unfolds
Blending the new with the old was central to the success of the Wheeling project. As such, the design team of Goody Clancy and HLM Design worked hand-in-hand. HLM documented the existing building and reviewed GSA record documents to address spatial continuity and material re-use and integrity concerns, while Goody Clancy created a design “that grew out of an understanding of the surroundings,” explains Goody.
Although decidedly modern in its detailing, the new structure features a granite base and limestone façade that closely matches the original granite building in color and echoes the vertical and horizontal composition of the Beaux Arts courthouse. Linking the two is a rather dramatic glass-and-steel atrium which, according to Goody, has two functions. “One is to express the transparency and the openness of the courts to the public so the building really felt like it belonged to the people of Wheeling. Secondly, the design and materials express the fact that Wheeling is part of the steel-and-glass industry of the Ohio River Valley,” she says. “Although some of our first thoughts were to [design] something fairly conservative, after working with the judges and the [Design Excellence] peer reviewers, we concluded that the most enlivening and ennobling kind of entry would be one that had the life of a contemporary building.” The resulting portico consists of glass with 25 huge 5- by 5-foot images of the Great Seal of the United States. The combination of an exterior sidewalk extension and bollards, low seating walls, and trees and planters minimizes the entry’s vulnerability to traffic or security threats.
In the middle of the atrium, a Grand Stair “recalls elements of traditional courthouse steps, but in ways that work for our time,” says Goody. The “River of Life” artwork by Brookline, MA, artist Mikyoung Kim features fiber optics to mimic not only the city’s glass history, but to celebrate its Ohio River location. The atrium – an inner courtyard – also gives light to surrounding spaces so the new courtroom and historic courtroom both include windows that receive plenty of daylight but are protected.
However, the most important space in the building – the new courtroom – is the heart of the building. “It’s what the building is about, the judicial process taking place,” says Goody. “This courtroom is located just opposite the historic courtroom; it is not only predominantly wood paneling inside, but also wrapped in wood. It is clearly the ‘sanctuary’ or sacred part of the building, and visible and identifiable as such from the street.”
Of course, the new courtroom includes the latest in communications and electronics equipment: a recessed computer on the judge’s bench; display screens for every two jurors’ seats in the jury box for the presentation of evidence; digital AV for presentations; a full access floor for plug-and-play from anywhere in the room; and more. Although court stenographers are still required in federal court, the courtroom is also capable of inserting cameras to do video and audio recording of court proceedings and translating that information right into court docket information.
The new courtroom includes a flexible configuration. “The judge wanted us to be able to reduce the gallery (audience) area to accommodate the attorneys’ area for larger court cases, so we designed a movable millwork rail that looks permanent but can be moved along with the pews,” explains Obarowski. Such attention to detail and expandability underscore the fact that this courtroom will continue to set a benchmark for 21st-century courts.
From the support and reaction of the citizens of Wheeling, to the sensitive and insightful input from the judges and court personnel; from the widened horizons envisioned and expressed by the Design Excellence peer reviewers, to the creativity and commitment delivered by the project’s owner, designers, and construction professionals: This tale can’t conclude without chronicling its most important element, “the people.” Great stories, like great experiences, are valued and revered, and the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse Annex in Wheeling, WV, has given us both.
Linda K. Monroe (email@example.com) is editorial director at Buildings magazine.