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New Tarrant County civil courts building mixes modern interior with classic exterior

New Civil Courts Building

County readies new six-story civil courts building that includes landmarks from the past but also has futuristic technology. (Star-Telegram/Special Brandon Wade)
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County readies new six-story civil courts building that includes landmarks from the past but also has futuristic technology. (Star-Telegram/Special Brandon Wade)

Walking around the Tarrant County civil courts building on the north end of downtown, you can easily get a whiff of that new-building smell.

A pungent, chemical odor comes from the new carpet and furniture being moved into the $74 million, six-story courthouse that is scheduled to open to the public July 20, almost 10 years after voters approved its construction.

Workmen are checking out mechanical and electronic systems, cleaning crews are polishing railings, and civil court staffers are stopping by to make plans for moving day. While the courthouse is opening four months later than planned, it is being completed on budget.

County officials are proud of the 231,934-square-foot courthouse, saying it is a technological marvel that meets the needs of a modern civil court system. To give the interior design a trial run, the judges even used a mock courtroom built in a warehouse to see how it would all fit together.

The exterior also was carefully crafted, from the 40-foot-tall Indiana limestone angels hanging on its sides to the pink Texas granite from the same quarry that provided rock for the historic Tarrant County Courthouse nearby.

State District Judge David Evans served on the building’s advisory committee beginning in 2008, spending hours poring over plans, consulting with his judicial colleagues and meeting with county officials. He said the courthouse’s beauty is more than skin deep.

The courthouse, unlike many modern structures, was built to last at least 100 years.

“As you use it, you like it more and more,” Evans said.

Architect Arthur Weinman, who has done renovation work on the landmark Tarrant County Courthouse, praises this latest addition to the city’s skyline, saying it is far better than its predecessor, a 1950s boxy design that had silver metal louvers covering windows from the second floor to the roof. Weinman once described it as the ugliest building in Fort Worth.

“What we had before looked like a Budweiser cooler without the Budweiser label on it,” he said. A faux finish was added in the 1980s to spruce it up, but it got mixed reviews.

“I applaud the county. It is a good addition to the built environment downtown,” Weinman said.

Honoring the past

The courthouse — officially named the Tom Vandergriff Civil Courts Building, in honor of the late county judge and Arlington mayor — is between East Belknap and Weatherford streets, two of the central city’s main entrances and exits.

Looking west from the courthouse’s front door on Calhoun Street are Tarrant County College’s sunken plaza and waterfall. The county’s family law court building is across the street.

Linking the new courthouse to the past are three of the four angels that once graced the outside of the previous civil courts building, which was demolished in 2013. Two of the angels are on the Calhoun Street side of the building; the third is on the courthouse’s back door on North Jones Street.

In the lobby and behind the judicial benches is Jura stone, a limestone imported from Germany. The lobby floors are made of a smooth, elegant terrazzo. Large windows on the western side offer a majestic view of the old Tarrant County Courthouse, one that acknowledges its presence.

“We worked hard to fit it in with Fort Worth,” said Steve Brookover, an architect with HOK Architects, the firm that designed the courthouse. “It is a blend of modern elements, but with the brick and granite that is contextual with Fort Worth.”

Brookover called the courthouse a complex building, one that had to meet the demands of many, but eventually all the parts and pieces, from the roof to the basement, came together.

Order in the court

Bringing this kind of order to the court took nearly a decade.

The Tarrant County Commissioners first approved the new civil courts building in 2005, and voters approved the bonds to build it in 2006. It originally had a $62.3 million budget, but by the time construction began in 2012 the cost had climbed to more than $74 million.

It was built to serve the county’s needs today and into the future. There are 13 courtrooms spread out over four floors. While the county currently has only 10 civil courts, two district courts were added and outfitted in anticipation of future growth.

To handle complex, multiparty litigation like the numerous lawsuits filed against Chesapeake Energy over royalty payments, the 13th courtroom has 2,800 square feet and can seat up to 120 people. A typical district court can handle about 50. All of the judges will be able to use the large courtroom.

To accommodate the 2nd Court of Appeals — which will remain at the Tim Curry Justice Center for now — a 32,000-square-foot unfinished sixth floor was added to the courthouse at a cost of about $4 million, said David Phillips, the county’s facilities director.

Eventually, it will cost an additional $4 million to complete that floor, he said.

Some of the building’s other external and internal elements also have not been cheap.

At least $500,000 was spent dealing with the angels from the old civil courts building. The biggest challenge was removing them. Then they had to be cleaned and a structure designed on the new building to carry the weight of each angel’s 25 stacking pieces, Brookover said.

Designing the building’s 21st-century courtrooms also upped the price tag, and the complications.

“One size fits all in baseball caps, but not courtrooms,” Evans said.

County officials visited the William & Mary Law School’s Center for Legal and Court Technology in 2010 to assess the courthouse’s needs, and a courtroom model was built where judges gave their verdict on the architect’s design, Phillips said.

In the end, to fit in a larger jury box with a writing surface and a bigger “well” where the lawyers work, the courtrooms grew to 2,200 square feet, 500 square feet bigger than those now used by most civil court judges in the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center down the street.

The county also spent about $1.5 million — or $100,000 per courtroom — on audio-visual equipment, including annotative monitors that allow attorneys to write on them from a central podium, Phillips said. To make sure jurors can see what attorneys are doodling, each jury box has nine monitors for 16 jurors.

“You can use chalkboards and butcher paper in a courtroom, but that doesn’t facilitate the education process that needs to go on during a trial,” Evans said. Making it easier for jurors to understand what is going on will shorten trials and eventually save taxpayer dollars, he said.

When the building opens to the public later this month, it will be about four months behind schedule because of last-minute changes to the metal ceilings in the lobbies, repressurizing the stairwells and elevator shafts for fire safety, and relocating traffic signals around the building.

But as Phillips walked around the building one morning, he said he’s proud of what has been accomplished.

“This building is built to last 100 years. It is certainly meant to be here a long, long time,” he said.

Max B. Baker, 817-390-7714

Twitter: @MaxbakerBB

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