A historic courthouse got a facelift just in time for the trial of a police officer accused of plotting to kill and eat women.
A six-year gutting of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, which first opened in 1936, readied it for the next century with modern lighting, heating, cooling and security to support a famed exterior. Its six-story base includes a sprawling granite staircase and Corinthian columns that form a large entrance portico. Above it, set back to merge into the skyline, is a 31-story tower where justice is the daily business.
The building reopened in January, and the trial of 28-year-old Officer Gilberto Valle on charges that he conspired to kidnap and take information illegally from a national crime database will be its first major one in years. Accused of planning to kidnap up to eight women, Valle claims he was sharing fantasies and nothing more with others with like interests. Opening statements are set for Feb. 25.
The trial will occur in the same courtroom where homemaking diva Martha Stewart was convicted in 2004 of lying about a stock sale. Much of the building is inhabited by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, whose nearly two dozen judges have mostly already returned after spending recent years crammed into a federal courthouse next door that opened in the mid-1990s.
"For us, it was a homecoming," Circuit Executive Karen Milton said. "We're finally back together again in the courthouse."
The Manhattan courthouse was completed in 1935 and opened the following January. It was designed by Cass Gilbert, a prominent architect who also designed the Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, and the U.S. Supreme Court Building, finished in 1935. The courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
Over the years, Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried as traitors in the courthouse. Numerous terrorism trials there resulted in the convictions of Islamic militants in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, a plot to blow up five New York City landmarks and simultaneous bombings in 1998 at two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, including a dozen Americans.
Chief Judge Loretta Preska said judges and others were "delighted to be returning to the beautifully restored, historical trial courtrooms in the Thurgood Marshall building," named after the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
"This courtroom space should speed the resolution of cases," she said.
Preska said 10 trial judges will move to the building in the next two months from 500 Pearl Street, a modern courthouse that has been home to more than 70 judges during renovations.
Judge Paul A. Crotty, like other judges, will no longer have to share a courtroom with another jurist and will find other improvements when he moves to larger quarters in the 500 Pearl Street courthouse later this year.
"I don't like to talk about our creature comforts but the bathroom is down the hall," he said of restrooms that are usually inside chambers. The move, he said, will "make a big difference."
Renovations to the old courthouse have included upgrades to heat and air conditioning systems, lighting and security, along with the installation of bullet-proof glass walls that separate people going through security screening from people elsewhere in the courthouse.
Milton said it was as if the outer walls of the building were pealed back and a new infrastructure was inserted that retains the neoclassic, art deco look of the building, including marble that was gathered from every state in the country during the Great Depression.
She said better lighting had improved the ambiance in a building that had seemed "almost cave-like on some floors."
Some courtrooms are nearly large enough for a basketball court with decorative plaster ceilings and windows resting within a pattern of ornamented wood paneling.
"In essence, it's an old historical courthouse that now has a 21st century infrastructure," Milton said. "If you think about it, it was nothing short of amazing how this was done."
The changes came at more than four times the $50 million it cost to construct the building.
Despite the new look, the sense of history is not lost on judges.
2nd Circuit Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs told the New York Law Journal that he and four other appeals judges escorted the busts of two famous Manhattan federal jurists from the last century — Henry J. Friendly and Learned Hand — when they were carried from the new courthouse to the Thurgood Marshall building.
"Some of the judges thought it was not just a job for movers — these were guided spirits for our courtroom," Jacobs told the Law Journal.