Splendor in the Court

How lavish can $20 million in cost overruns make a federal court- house? Let's start with the $33,000 desk.

At the core of the renovated federal Court of Appeals building in San Francisco is a new library. The room is furnished in a rich, butterscotch-colored maple that stretches from custom-built bookcases to carefully framed ceiling panels. Natural light filters through layered skylights and onto a circulation desk, located near the entrance to the library. Most of the wood used in the custom-made desk is maple. The desk has birch drawers and a white Vermont marble top that is about three feet across. The desk cost taxpayers $33,000.

A first-time visitor to the newly restored offices for the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco immediately understands why this Beaux Arts building is known as "the Palace." The building, located at the corner of Seventh and Mission streets, was badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Now, though, the glorious building is restored to its original splendor -- and far, far beyond.

Excesses in federal spending are nothing new. The Pentagon has spent hundreds of dollars for a hammer, and hundreds more for a toilet seat. The massive new Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington D.C. is said to be the biggest boondoggle in the history of federal construction projects. Four years behind schedule and nearly $500 million over budget, the project now is expected to cost more than $800 million.

At $111 million, then, the renovation of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals building in San Francisco might seem relatively modest, in federal terms. But only in those terms.

In fact, the federal government spared very little expense restoring the building, a national landmark and a fine example of American Renaissance architecture designed by James Knox Taylor in the late 1890s. Under the direction of the General Services Administration, the three-year renovation was completed in October 1996. The Ninth Circuit moved into its newly refurbished building last January.

The GSA commissioned structural improvements, notably a $30 million earthquake-protection system designed to cushion the building in future temblors. Plumbing, electrical, and heating systems were all modernized and upgraded as well.

But the judges of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals went beyond earthquake preparedness and simple restoration, beyond the necessities, even beyond luxury. The appellate justices decided they would use the earthquake as an opportunity to build, refurbish, and improve upon their work quarters.

By the time the renovation project was done, the court had paid the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill $8.4 million for design services -- nearly four times the amount originally estimated for design. At completion, the $54 million construction contract for interior renovation had been overrun by more than $20 million, or about 40 percent.

Time after time, the judges of the Ninth Circuit, well-known for their left-leaning decisions and concern for the underprivileged, required premium-quality materials where standard grades would have done just as well. Of course, top-rated mahogany, carpets of 100 percent New Zealand virgin wool, imported marble, and the finest quality leathers have their prices, and those prices add up. About $12 million of the renovation project went for interior finishes alone.

Historians and architects have hailed the Seventh and Mission structure as one of the nation's finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture. The 1905 building, which housed the Post Office and the federal courts for more than 80 years, is particularly significant to San Francisco history; it was one of the only structures to survive the 1906 earthquake, and served as the city's main communications center after the temblor. Great moments in history transpired within its walls. It was here that the federal government heard such famous cases as the Tokyo Rose and Japanese Internment trials. Few could argue, then, that this significant building was unworthy of restoration after the 1989 quake.

The judges of the Ninth Circuit certainly made no such argument. Those justices, who angered Pacific Northwest logging interests by upholding decisions that protected the spotted owl and the trees it lives in, had no problem whatsoever swathing the Ninth Circuit courthouse with thousands of square feet of top-quality lumber. And the directions relating to the wood were precise. According to the specifications for the project, nothing less than premium grade maple, cherry, and mahogany could be used. And, project contractors were told, the wood used in all four stories of the 370,000-square-foot building must be "free from cat's-eyes, bird's-eyes, burls, splits, shakes, sap wood, wind checks, resin deposits, [and] mineral discolorations."

Wood window frames are made of solid mahogany, carefully kiln-dried to a designated moisture content at the time of fabrication. The judges' chambers include hand-crafted, built-in wooden filing cabinets and shelves.

In the new 46,000-square-foot library and atrium structure at the core of the building, carpenters used thousands of square feet of premium cherry to build bookcases and other shelving. Restoring Senior Judge Joseph Sneed's chambers alone took 1,721 square feet -- or $52,000 -- of cherry paneling.

Much of the original marble was carefully removed and then replaced in the building. But where new marble was needed, builders were required to match the original eight varieties of stone used in 1905. Among the types used were Panonezza marble from Italy and white marble from Vermont. Suppliers were directed to fabricate marble thresholds of the "highest grade Madre Cream, Alabama or Georgia white marble," roughly priced at $45 per square foot. But not all of the imported marble went toward restoration. There were entirely new marble furnishings -- door trim, counter tops, and in the court's executive offices, a reception desk counter made of imported Hualien green Chinese marble.

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