The stately building poised to open its doors on 19th Street east of Mill Creek Park is a federal courthouse, but if the people who built, designed and will occupy it have their way, it will be appreciated for much more than that: as an architectural jewel of downtown Bakersfield that will be treasured for generations -- a "100-year building," as federal officials call it.

"The expectation is that it will become a landmark in our community," said U.S. Magistrate Jennifer Thurston, who will preside over the building's one-room court.

The federal courthouse is being built with a $28.5 million allocation from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as economic stimulus funds, by a collaboration between Gilbane Building Co. and NBBJ Architects of Seattle, under the U.S. General Services Administration's expedited Design and Construction Excellence Program.

"We are building a 21st century courthouse designed for the federal government, which has a very precise notion of how federal buildings purport to the values and integrity of our nation," explained Steve McConnell, of NBBJ.

McConnell explained architects balanced the need for the courthouse to be sensitive to its location at the edge of Mill Creek Park with three key design goals: connecting to a founding tradition of American justice symbolized by the dignity of a one-room courthouse; reflecting California's modernist architectural legacy; and incorporating high-performance innovations to create an energy-efficient building.

"Our goal was to construct a public building that reflects the integrity of the justice system; a courthouse that is clearly built to last," said McConnell. "Permanency is a guiding principle."

'It may not be everyone's concept of a courthouse'

More the $5 billion in federal stimulus funds have been committed throughout the nation to put Americans to work constructing new public buildings and making existing public buildings more energy efficient. Unlike the public works projects of the Great Depression, however, there has been no attempt to impose a uniform design style similar to the FDR "New Deal" architectural legacy, which still is visible on many public buildings in Bakersfield today.

Instead, the legacy of today's massive stimulus fund spending is a diversity of styles and an emphasis on green construction.

Clearly the Bakersfield U.S. Courthouse reflects this diversity. The building respects not just the guiding principles of federal construction, it respects the building's location in Bakersfield's downtown park.

"I love the site," said McConnell, explaining that the courthouse's Mill Creek Park location creates a modern interpretation of the quintessential courthouse on the village green.

Bakersfield architect Marley Sherry recently toured the nearly completed federal courthouse. Sherry is associated with Ordiz Melby Architects and is on the board of the Golden Empire Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

"I think it is a fabulous, beautiful building," said Sherry. "I think it has the potential of becoming a landmark.

"It may not be everyone's concept of a courthouse. It is a very modern building," Sherry conceded, noting that the building has a timeless quality "that will keep it looking modern 40 years from now."

She also commended the building's design compatibility with the adjacent park. "I hope it ends up attracting more people to Mill Creek Park."

McConnell noted the building's western façade, which faces the creek. "We put in (large windows) and substantial pillars. While they are contemporary and bright in color, they also address the sunshine and the potential for overheating the building," he said.

"One of the most dramatic features, particularly for the public, is the big open portico. This is where the public is invited to step inside; transition from outside to inside," said McConnell, noting that one of the biggest challenges was to make the building both secure and accessible to the public.

Addressing security

Since the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, security requirements for federal courthouses have greatly increased.

"We had to work with that," said Keith Lew, GSA project executive in San Francisco. He declined to give details concerning the extensive security and monitoring systems that have been installed in the Bakersfield courthouse.

"The biggest challenge was to incorporate (these systems) without making the building look like a fortress; to make the building inviting, yet provide the security that is barely noticeable," he said.

Several strategies were used, including the creation of an "ice cube" to house the security screening staff and equipment at the entrance.

"When you enter the building, the goal is a sense of openness, but there is a security checkpoint," said McConnell, explaining designers created a glass-enclosed structure, which he called an "ice cube," that allows the security process to occur without encumbering the entrance.

Once inside, a first floor hallway leads to offices and non-public areas. An open stairway leads to the second floor and the heart of the building -- the federal courtroom.

Magistrate Thurston said the courtroom is one of the most beautiful in the Eastern District of California.

"Maybe I'm overstating it, but it has a cathedral feel," she said, noting that the high windows that line the ceiling provide natural lighting. "It appears that you don't even need the electric lights, because daylight works so well.

"There is almost an historic courtroom-like feel; a certain reverence to the courtroom. It is really quite beautiful," she said, acknowledging that court proceedings can be held anywhere, even in a tent, where people can sit down and talk.

"But I think when you are in the room, it imports the idea of what you are doing; that you are coming to a place with a very solemn purpose," she said. "For jurors, in particular, when they come here, they will have a feeling that what they are about to do is important. It provides a message to everyone that this is not a place of frivolity. It is a place where your serious issues are going to be taken seriously."

And to help conduct that serious business, the courtroom is equipped with some of the most sophisticated electronic equipment in the court's federal district, said court network systems engineer Mark Richmond.

As an example, Thurston pointed out that each juror will share a large display screen with the juror sitting next to them. On that screen they will see all the evidence presented.

"The acoustics in the room make it almost possible to hear even a whisper," she said, adding that the courtroom was "really designed very well for the jurors (and other participants) to be able to see everything that is going on. It was designed for everyone to be able to have their eyes on everyone else. It is really amazing."

Added convenience

When asked what she likes most about the new courthouse, Thurston did not list her beautiful corner office, or chambers, which overlooks Mill Creek Park. Nor did she say it was the new-found convenience of having her office and courtroom in the same building, rather than blocks apart.

"Seriously, what I like most are the services that come with this courthouse," she said, noting the convenience for Kern County residents summoned to federal jury duty or desiring to conduct business in a federal court. "It is really important that people in Kern County will have services that now are only accessible in Fresno."

Court, U.S. Marshals, and Probation and Pre-trial Services staffs are expected to begin moving into the two-story, 33,400-square foot building on Monday, with the courthouse open for business on July 16.

Construction of the Bakersfield courthouse "has definitely moved faster than our normal processes," explained Lew. "Usually we get a project authorized and then there is a design phase. After that, we get authorization for construction. Generally that process takes in excess of seven years.

"In this (design-build) process, the general contractor and architect are hired at the same time and work together," Lew said. "There is a lot of coordination behind the scenes. It is a much more seamless and effective process. The entire design and construction process took about 21â„2 years. That's incredibly rapid."

Douglas Hawley, GSA's onsite project manager, also credited the design-build process for the project's completion nearly two months ahead of schedule and about $2.5 million under budget.

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