FAIRFIELD — Solano County’s Hall of Justice building is marking its 100th year with the normal flurry of activity that takes place there.
Judges pound gavels and oversee cases ranging from drug charges to murder to burglary. People come to look at files on various civil court cases. There are crowded rooms and crowded hallways, all reached after going through a metal detector at the entrance.
The exterior is fitting for a building of civic importance. Granite steps lead to a towering porch with columns in the classical revival style, much the same as with the old county courthouse across the street.
But the building at 600 Union Ave. was constructed a century ago for a much different purpose than dealing with the weighty matters of justice. What is today the Hall of Justice started its existence as Armijo High School.
When local resident Guido Colla sees the Hall of Justice, he remembers the old Armijo High School. He was born in Cordelia in 1924, moved to Suisun City in 1928 and attended school at Armijo from 1938 to 1942.
“It brings back a lot of fond memories to me,” Colla said. “I enjoyed the school.”
Construction crews built this substantial building quickly. They laid the cornerstone in early April 1914. By August 1914, they had nearly finished with the structure.
“Every dweller in this section, be he large or small, young or old, educated or uneducated, is proud of the new high school building,” the Solano Republican said in an Aug. 14, 1914, front-page article.
The newspaper went even further, saying everyone “wishes once more to be young and privileged to attend school in such a palace of convenience for study and research.”
All of this came with the price tag of $85,000.
The old Armijo High School building in its original glory looked even grander than today. It had a couple dozen windows visible along its front. Today, most of the windows are gone, with two metal screens breaking up the monotony of the huge, white walls.
Students started their school days by going up granite stairs and passing through the neo-classical columns to a lobby with a marble floor. The 16,000-square-foot building had 37 rooms and included an auditorium and the area’s new library.
“To the voters who so generously gave us our new high school building,” said the title page of the 1914 edition of “Mezclah,” the Armijo High School yearbook.
Much of the grandeur went up in smoke in a Sunday, Dec. 8, 1929, fire. Smoke poured out from the columns of the main entrance near the roof. Firefighters had no ladders long enough to scale the walls to reach the fire.
People went into the library and handed books out the window until forced to leave by the smoke and fire. The Napa and Vallejo fire departments rushed to help the Fairfield Fire Department, but to no avail.
The roof collapsed and the building got gutted, with losses estimated at $200,000. Armijo High School had to move to temporary quarters in such places as the firemen’s hall and the school gym, creating what some said resembled a college campus with students running here and there.
Professor J.E. Brownlee of Armijo High School said faulty wiring undoubtedly caused the fire. But Napa Fire Chief Otterson disagreed. He said someone could have placed a slow-burning torch in the attic above the main entrance.
A fire insurance adjuster also suspected arson, saying 11 public buildings in the region had recently been destroyed by fire. He claimed an arsonist could have placed a certain chemical that ignited within 24 hours in the attic.
Colla said he can barely remember his parents driving him as a child out to see the burned-out Armijo building. He didn’t go inside, but remembers seeing smoke damage on the outside.
The building still stood proud, having survived the fire, Colla said.
Armijo High School got rebuilt. This is the version of the building that Colla recalls. He described the location of the English classrooms and the study hall and government classroom and the auditorium, which had its entry off Texas Street.
“It was a beautiful auditorium,” Colla said.
By the 1950s, though, the school was ready to leave its grand building and move to its present-day campus a short distance away on Washington Street, on the other side of Texas Street.
It was a slow transition. Armijo began building the $500,000 gym at the new site in 1952. By 1956, the school planned to modify three homes on Washington Street as classrooms. By 1959, most of the classes for the 1,094 Armijo students took place on Washington Street, though students still had to cross Texas Street to the old building for science, mathematics, music and arts classes.
The old, majestic Armijo High School building in subsequent years sat deteriorating. Even so, the building still got used by the community. Some rooms had offices. Social organizations met there. Theatrical groups used the auditorium.
By 1966, the county needed more room for its offices and decided to buy the old Armijo building. But the Armijo Union High School District didn’t get a great price for such a grand building at such a key location.
Only a public building can be on this particular property as long as Fairfield has the county seat. That stipulation comes from a deed restriction dating back to the birth of Fairfield in the 1850s, when city founder Robert Waterman conveyed the land to the county.
In addition, the 1893 deal that had the county give the land to the Armijo High School district said the district could only use the site for a school.
Given all of this, the district sold the old Armijo High School building to the county for a mere $11,700. The Armijo district didn’t even get this relatively small amount. Because of past state loans to the district, the state took the money.
With a historic building in hand, the county had to decide what to do with it.
County Counsel James Shumway said the building was deteriorating quickly. County officials didn’t know if the building could be saved and talked of possibly razing it and building something new.
Solano County decided to save the old school building. It spent $1.4 million transforming it into a new Hall of Justice, originally with four courtrooms, district attorney’s offices, public defender’s office, probation offices and other offices.
By June 9, 1970, the work had been finished. County supervisors toured the building and county offices began moving in.
Colla had gone on from Armijo High School to become a teacher and become superintendent of the local Crystal School District. He just happened to be in school offices down the street from the Hall of Justice when the 1970 rededication ceremony took place, so he walked down to see his old school.
The ceremony took place on the first flight of outdoor stairs, near the landing area where Colla used to hang out during lunch while a student there.
On the outside, the Hall of Justice still appears much as the Armijo High School building that got constructed in 1914, with the exception of those metal screens and lack of windows.
But Solano County Superior Court Executive Officer Brian Taylor sees little of the 1914 version of Armijo High School remaining on the inside. The building might still have the original inside steps near the entry, he said.
In one sense, the Hall of Justice building is a mere 44 years old instead of 100, given the extensive 1970 remodel.
“It definitely shows its wear and tear,” Taylor said. “We regularly have to watch the maintenance, the roof and windows, just general things you have to do with any building of this age. In general, I think it’s in decent shape.”
On its 100th anniversary, the Hall of Justice is a busy building that continues to serve the public.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.