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Workers finishing historic courthouse renovation

old courthouse renovation 7_14_14

Solano County Courthouse project architect Jim Degener, right, of the San Francisco-based architectural firm Hornberger + Worstell, stands inside what was the original 1911 courtroom of the building. The building is currently in the last stages of renovation and is set to open in September. It will house civil courtrooms and offices. (Robinson Kuntz/Daily Republic)

By
From page A1 | July 20, 2014 |

FAIRFIELD — Amid its rebirth, the century-old Solano County courthouse on the outside looks like the same old, granite-clad, neoclassical monument to government.

Inside is where the big changes are taking place. Workers are putting the finishing touches on the building’s transformation, with a grand reopening scheduled Sept. 18.

The old courthouse will once again have courts. It most recently housed county offices only, until the county left in 2005 after completing the $100 million county Government Center across the street. The courthouse has sat vacant since.

California bought the courthouse from the county in 2010 for the price of a mere $1. Solano County didn’t want a building that, however impressive, needed earthquake retrofitting and other repairs and wasn’t needed for county offices.

Solano County Superior Court, meanwhile, needed more space and saw the old courthouse as a good location for civil case courtrooms and offices. California runs the courts. The state is renovating the courthouse at a cost of $26.9 million.

Workers inside the courthouse are making the interior look brand-new old. It’s a building for the 21st century that retains many of the architectural flourishes of the early 20th century, such as vaulted ceilings in two hallways near the lobby.

“There were certain parts of the building that were like a labor of love by people who cared,” said project architect Jim Degener of the San Francisco-based architectural firm Hornberger + Worstell.

For example, the old version of the courthouse near the lobby had a grand marble staircase with a large clock mounted on the wall of the landing. So does the new version, with the clock now synchronized with the courthouse clock system.

An ornate, bronze-colored mailbox by the Cutler Mail Chute Co. also remains near the entry, though it no longer takes outgoing mail dropped through a chute from the second story. Instead, people will be able to use it for a drop box to the clerk’s office at times when the building is open and the clerk’s office is closed.

“It’s a good repurpose of a historic feature of the building,” Solano County Superior Court Executive Officer Brian Taylor said.

The courts had no practical use for the old, metal vault doors manufactured by Herring-Hall Marvin Safe Co. of San Francisco. In a touch of whimsy, the vault doors are now used as the entrance doors to the mediation and settlement conference room section.

The 1911 version of the courthouse had both county offices and the lone courtroom the county needed at the time. That lone courtroom over time was converted to the Solano County Board of Supervisors chamber. Now it’s been converted back to a courtroom, with the look based on an old photograph.

A chandelier and other light fixtures are new, but look like the originals. The ornate ceiling remains. The courtroom railing is based on a section of old railing found in the basement.

People who came to the courthouse in 1911 would have found the courtroom looking much the same.

By the 1940s, the county added another courtroom that in time was converted into county offices. This courtroom too has been recreated to retain the spirit of the original version, down to such touches as plaster walls.

In total, the new version of the courthouse will have three courtrooms, in addition to such areas as a jury assembly room and offices.

Architects faced challenges in updating the old courthouse for today. For example, the building didn’t meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Building a wheelchair ramp to the top of the outdoor granite stairs at the main entrance would have proven problematic, given the length and number of switchbacks needed.

The solution: A short ramp near the granite stairs leads down to the basement. From there, people in wheelchairs can take an elevator to the security screening area in the lobby.

While the old courthouse needed significant strengthening to meet today’s earthquake standards, it didn’t need extensive structural repairs. Taylor said the century old building was in good shape.

Workers in 1911 built the imposing Solano County courthouse to last – and they built it fast, too. The cornerstone was laid in March 1911. The building was finished by late summer and only a delay in getting furniture pushed the move-in date back to November 1911.

The reborn courthouse is to have its grand reopening ceremony from noon to 1:30 p.m. Sept. 18, which is a Thursday. At 1:30 p.m., the moving of files and office items from the civil courts in the Hall of Justice across the street is to begin.

On Monday, Sept. 22, the reborn courthouse is to be open for business.

Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling has been a reporter with the Daily Republic since 1987. He covers Solano County government, transportation, growth and the environment. He received his bachelors of art degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and his masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.
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