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.

Floor coverings include similar excesses. On the third floor, in Courtrooms One, Two, and Three, contractors used roughly 400 square yards of sea-foam-green, 100 percent virgin wool carpet that cost about $100 per square yard. On the second floor, Courtroom Four got a more reasonably priced wool carpet. It was just $80 per square yard.

And how can justice be administered without the proper appointments? Lighting fixtures were specially created by the internationally renowned lighting consultant Claude R. Engle, whose firm designed fixtures for the Richelieu Wing of the Louvre and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Engle's firm designed the new chrome and frosted glass fixtures in the library, and the bronze and pewter reproductions that were cast to replace the 1905 originals that had been damaged.

Clocks from the pre-earthquake building were deemed unsuitable for the new structure, as they did not reflect the historic style of the building. Thus, 88 new clocks were purchased at a cost of $850 each, or $75,000. The GSA installed two white marble lavatory tops in a fourth-floor public bathroom, for a mere $1,800. The new leather covering for the judges' bench in Courtroom One, the "ceremonial courtroom," is made of premium Italian cowhide; the handrail in the judges' elevator in the 1933 wing of the building is wrapped in premium Italian calfskin.

The attention to detail extends even to the inch-and-a-half-tall letters marking the main door to the new library. That you are entering the library is spelled out in 23 karat gold leaf.

The judges' bench in Courtroom Two is no less than a work of art, a masterpiece in hand-crafted marble, wood, and inlaid Venetian glass. Made of deeply luminescent red Egyptian marble and decorated with tiny, gemlike glass tiles, it stands magnificently at the head of the marble-walled courtroom. One look at the bench tells you the federal government was by no means stingy when the 1905 courthouse was built.

In the 1996 renovation, the government didn't skimp on new furniture either. Many furnishings from the old building, like the red marble bench, were stored and then reinstalled in the redone structure. But the GSA purchased $1 million of top-quality office furniture in addition to the custom-built furnishings, including a $5,000 conference table and $94,000 of new chairs (197 at $475 apiece).

And that doesn't include the dozen or so brass-domed swing-top garbage cans found throughout the courthouse. Or the new exercise room for courthouse employees on the first floor of the building, which has free weights, exercise mats, two treadmills, a Lifestep StairMaster, and three Cybex machines.

Nearly a quarter of the $1 million went towards additional furniture for the new library. The shopping list included: 22 ergonomic desk chairs for $10,455, including four from Relax: The Back Store, at $540 apiece; 16 chairs for the reading room, $708 each; and a $1,500 filing cabinet. GSA records also list a 42-inch wooden, podiumlike stand for the library's dictionary. The stand alone cost as much as one military toilet seat: $600.

Although Congress funded the renovation of "the Palace," and the GSA managed the project, the judges of the Ninth Circuit certainly had their opportunities to provide input, attending several committee meetings and private consultations with the architectural firm that designed the redone building, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. After these meetings, the court requested several hundreds of thousands of dollars in modifications to the building. Contractors billed the GSA $81,500 in overtime, just to complete the changes.

Among other things, the judges directed architects to revise the floor plan so that there would be an internal corridor adjacent to the main public corridor, "a more discreet" entry for the judges. They also added library rooms in each of the second floor judges' suites, and redrew plans to move the utility rooms.

"The judges stated that it is not acceptable to have the utility function adjacent to judge's office," Ninth Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder wrote on behalf of her colleagues, in a June 1992 memo. Utility rooms were relocated to more "acceptable" locations -- between the offices for judicial clerks and secretaries.

The justices added marble mosaic tiling behind their benches in Courtrooms One, Two, and Three, costing taxpayers an additional $21,250.

Then came the private toilets in five nonresident judicial suites, offices used by visiting judges. Only three of the Ninth Circuit judges maintain chambers in San Francisco: Most live elsewhere, and come to San Francisco only occasionally. The toilets were put in, even though the nonresident suites are seldom used -- adding another $78,000 to the cost of the project.

The invitation to participate in the design discussions drew response not just from judges, but from at least one judicial spouse. Judge James R. Browning deferred to his wife, Marie Rose Chapell Browning, to supervise the final touches to his suite. Apparently, the judicial spouse was not happy with the architects' choice of carpet for her husband's chambers. According to a February 1995 memo from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Mrs. Browning was not shy about expressing herself. At a January 1995 meeting, she declined to approve all the varieties of high-quality nylon carpet the architects offered.

"Mrs. Browning explained that 100 percent wool of 'velvet' type cut pile with a carved border ... would be acceptable floor covering," the memo said.

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