Project U.S. Federal Courthouse in Mobile, Alabama
Design Architect Lee Becker and Carl Holden, Hartman-Cox Architects
Architect of Record Rodrigo Hurtado, AECOM
During the following decades, the city and its architecture grew up around the white limestone building that is named for the local resident who also served as a state representative and U.S. Supreme Court justice. The citizens of Mobile had long recognized the need for a larger building to dispense justice and had set their sights on erecting a new federal courthouse in the downtown district that would complement the existing edifice.
In 2015, Yates Construction of Biloxi, Mississippi, Hartman-Cox Architects of Washington, D.C., and AECOM of Arlington, Virginia, were declared the winners of a design and build competition that brought the city’s vision to life. The project also included the renovation of the Campbell Courthouse, which is still underway.
For Hartman-Cox, which has received over 150 design awards, this was the fourth courthouse project. Previously, it designed the U.S. Courthouse in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Circuit and U.S. District Courthouses in Lexington, Kentucky.
The new Mobile building has six courtrooms and nine judge’s chambers for the U.S. District and U.S. Magistrate Court. There’s also tenant space for the U.S. Marshals Service. “The General Services Administration, which commissioned the building, and everyone else involved, including the Mobile Historic Development Commission, wanted it to be in a traditional style,” says Lee Becker, FAIA, the Hartman-Cox partner in charge of the project. “We designed a building that fits into the context of the architectural heritage of the city.”
In designing the five-story, 158,000-square-foot courthouse, the team looked not only to the neighboring Campbell Courthouse but also to the Commercial Business District it resides in, whose other structures are large in scale and include contemporary structures.
Hartman-Cox also took cues from the adjacent DeTonti and Dauphin Historic Districts, whose 19th-century residential buildings are in the Federal, Greek Revival and Italianate styles. “We were asked to design all sides of the courtyard,” Becker says, adding that the landscaping incorporates live oaks, the same trees that define the two historic districts. “The people in the neighborhood didn’t want to see dumpsters in the back. So we depressed the service area.”
The white Alabama limestone of the new building links it visually to its historic Neo-classical Revival-style peer, which is next door and is only 115,000 square feet, while its Greek Doric columns, entablature, and profiles reference other historically significant public buildings downtown.
“The Alabama limestone was key,” Becker says. “We used hand-set stone with eight-inch pre-cast concrete behind. This accommodates security rules related to blasts. The precast also acts as a vapor barrier and heat sink to maintain the temperature of the building. The assembly method also shortened the production schedule.”
Once the façade material was selected, the team tackled one of the project’s bigger issues: making the courthouse look smaller so it didn’t overwhelm the surrounding streetscape.
The building’s positioning was predetermined—GSA rules for building U.S. courtrooms mandate, for security reasons, that the structures be set back approximately 50 feet from the streets, and flood-plain regulations required the occupied floors to be roughly six feet above the surrounding sidewalks. “We took advantage of the setback to create gracious entry steps that elevate the entrance sufficiently above the flood plain while providing a contextual relationship to similar civic buildings in the neighborhood,” Becker says.
The steps set the stage for the entry pavilion, which has a Greek Doric portico in front of a glazed lobby wall. Stacked windows in the style of 19th-century American architect Andrew Jackson Davis link the first and second, as well as the third and fourth floors, a design device that mitigates the building’s scale as does the lower, attic-like top floor.
The roof features a parapet topped with scallops whose curves play hide-and-seek with the sun as it moves across the building. The mechanical penthouse, constructed of pre-cast concrete with a finish that matches the tone of the limestone, is set back so it cannot be seen from street level.
Decorative elements, notably metal panels adorned with five reeds that represent the five rivers of the Tensaw Delta and stone panels that feature the Great Seal of the United States and the Scales of Justice with the inscription Magna Est Vis Veritatis (Great is the power of truth—a quote from Cicero), complete the classic touches.
One of the more striking features of the courthouse is the curved portion of the front façade, which literally embraces visitors as they enter. “This was added because I didn’t feel there was enough definition between the working spaces of the building, which are on each side of the façade, and the public spaces,” Becker says. “The curve reinforces the entrance and tells this story.”
Inside, the exterior curve is supported by Greek Doric columns that separate the entry from the elevator lobby and mezzanine. “From the curve on the upper floors, you can see sweeping views of the City of Mobile and the river,” Becker says.
The courthouse lobby is clad in the same limestone as the exterior and also serves as an art gallery, with permanent installations of glass mosaics that depict local flora.
Becker says that one of the greater challenges presented itself before the project even started. “We had to design and price everything in only 12 weeks,” he says. “We also had to adhere to a vast number of security rules and regulations that governed everything from elevator placement to the inclusion of so-called street screens that surround the city’s civic buildings like Christ Church and the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception that are a few blocks away.”
There also were environment and flood regulations that had to be met. Hydraulic flood gates and percolation tanks that store stormwater were added to the raised planting beds that surround the courthouse.
Becker, who made a speech at the courthouse on opening day in the company of political luminaries, says it was gratifying to create a building that contributes to the city’s skyline without calling unnecessary attention to itself. “From overall composition to scale, it works with the neighborhood and fits right in,” he says.
Construction Company Yates Construction
Custom Millwork and Paneling Mortensen Woodwork
Electrical Edwards Electric Service
Spandrel Panels Tate Ornamental
Pre-Cast Concrete Structural Panels Gate Precast Co.
Interior and Exterior Limestone Vetter Stone Co.
Granite North Caroline Granite