FROM THE ARCHITECTS:
The Chatham County Courthouse is sited on the edge of Savannah, Georgia’s historic district. The courthouse forefronts the remnants of one of Savannah’s historic squares. The court campus is one large city block bounded by Montgomery Street to the east, Martin Luther King Boulevard to the west (which defines the western edge of the historic district), and by Broughton Street and Oglethorpe Street to the north and south respectively. Located on this site are three structures that make up the County Courts Campus. Occupying the center of the site is the county courthouse structure, a rather imposing late 1970s precast concrete building that fronts Montgomery Street. To the north of the courthouse is a nondescript parking garage, which also houses grade-level child support enforcement services; to the south of the courthouse is a vacant decommissioned detention center.
What is unique about the courts campus is its setting in Savannah. The city’s world-renowned historic district, one of the finest and most well preserved urban environments in the country, is defined by gridded organization of streets and squares designed by James Oglethorpe in the mid- 1700s. Of the city’s original squares, as planned by Oglethorpe, only two have been lost to development. Adding to the character of the city is the uniform character and scale of the structures in response to the hierarchy of the Oglethorpe plan, which is composed of trust lots and tithing lots. Trust lots faced the squares and were sites for prominent civic structures such as government buildings and churches. The tithing lots were reserved for the tax-paying public and are background buildings supporting the civic presence of the buildings fronting the square.
Given the events of the last 250 years, it is remarkable that so much of the plan and the city’s architecture remain intact and true to the original intent. With little exception, the city’s grid aligns with Oglethorpe’s plan and the buildings are for the most part true to their roles in regard to the siting of civic versus private structures. The city has survived the march of General Sherman, who occupied Savannah and, unlike other towns and cities in his wake during his march through Georgia, spared the city from devastation. Almost as remarkable is Savannah’s avoidance of the pitfalls of 1960s and 70s urban renewal, which frequently resulted in the loss of rich historic fabric in Modern architecture’s quest for heroic sweeping reform.
However, Savannah has not completely
avoided the pitfalls of modern reform. Two
major civic initiatives in the 1970s altered
the Oglethorpe plan, the city’s Arena and the
county courthouse. Each project is responsible
for the loss of one of the original city
squares and the violation of the historic street
grid. Both buildings severely encroach on the
city squares they front; both buildings have
also compromised the street grid of the city’s
plan. Additionally, both buildings have a scale
that is incompatible with the scale and texture
of the existing city. In the case of the arena,
the building’s large sprawling floor plate indiscriminately
tramples over Savannah’s grid.
The remnants of what was one of the original
squares is now overtaken by the massively
scaled portico covered drop-off that fronts the
main entry. Fortunately, a new arena is being
contemplated and the existing facility will at
some point be razed and the historic grid and
city square can be recaptured at that point.
Oglethorpe’s plan and the buildings are for the most part true to their roles in regard to the siting of
civic versus private structures. The city has survived the march of General Sherman, who occupied
Savannah and, unlike other towns and cities in his wake during his march through Georgia, spared.
This brings us to the existing courthouse, the development of which in the 1970s also resulted in the degradation of Savannah’s historic city plan. The existing courthouse fronts directly on the remnants of Liberty Square, the second of only two of Savannah’s compromised original squares. In Oglethorpe’s original plan, Liberty Square was defined by Montgomery Street, which was (as was the method by which all the squares were defined), routed around the open space defining the square. Montgomery Street was straightened in the 1970s as a part of the courthouse development and now runs directly through Liberty Square, bisecting the remnants of the square into two halves. A municipal parking deck was later constructed in the 1980s on the original Montgomery Street right of way along the eastern edge of the square, further violating the original layout of the Oglethorpe Plan and Liberty Square. Unfortunately, at this point given the political sensitivity of razing a fairly new parking structure constructed by the city, it would be extremely difficult to fully reclaim the original square as it requires significant demolition of the municipal parking structure to accommodate the rerouting of Montgomery Street back to its original location. However at some point, when the structure has reached the end of its useful life, the city will no doubt look to re-establish the historic plan and Liberty Square.
The footprint of the courthouse further violates the street grid by encroaching on York and State Streets. This expanded footprint resulted in the closure and abandonment of these two original streets. Where the roads once adhered to the historic plan, a five-foot sidewalk is now set within a suburban lawn that spans between the courthouse and the parking garage to the north and abandoned jail to the south.
Recognizing the significant damage to the historic fabric of the city caused by the courthouse, parking garage and jail campus development, the county set out to right as many wrongs as it could as it faced the need to address the growing space needs of the existing court functions within the court campus.
The requirements for the new Chatham County Trial Courthouse are the result of a programming and master planning effort conducted for the county’s court operations, which, as discussed above, are fully housed on the court campus. The purpose of the planning effort was to study the needs of the courts and submit a recommendation for addressing the court’s space shortfalls and deficiencies and recommend how best to address the needs of the courts within the confines of the existing court campus.
The existing courthouse was woefully inadequate to support current court operations; space was needed to address current shortfalls as well as additional space needs for projected growth of the courts. After a review of a broad range of options (including the construction of a new courts complex on a new site, and additions to the current courthouse), it was decided that the best option for the courts and for the revitalization of the Oglethorpe plan was to construct a new trial courthouse on the site of the vacant jail and to renovate the existing courthouse for the non-trial courts and court support agencies including the District Attorney, and to do so in a manner that can best re-establish the historic layout of the city.
The design of the new trial courthouse was the first step in the restoration of the Oglethorpe plan. The design is respectful of the historic city plan, responding directly to Savannah’s original layout. The planning concept for the building and the planned improvements to the site are derived directly and adhere stringently to the pattern of streets, squares and lanes that are the basis of Savannah’s rich architectural heritage.
The courthouse complex, which includes the existing courthouse, vacant jail and the parking deck, occupies what was originally three separate city blocks. In Oglethorpe’s plan, York Street, State Street and the associated York and Broughton Lanes ran continuous through the courts campus and terminated at Martin Luther King Blvd, the western edge of the historic district. In the course of the development of the existing courts complex these streets and lanes were terminated at Montgomery Street, resulting in the oversized city block that severely violates Savannah’s historic fabric. The concept for the new trial courts building was to reinstate, to the greatest extent possible, the original historic fabric and have the courthouse itself respond directly to the parameters of Oglethorpe’s plan.
As a part of the proposed master plan, enhancements are proposed to help redefine Liberty Square so that it once again reads as a square in the city. Planting enhancements are planned, and Montgomery Street is narrowed down to two lanes and equipped with speed-reducing street paving to minimize the impact of the street as it passes through the square. It is anticipated that at some date, relocation of Montgomery Street around Liberty Square, in alignment with the original city plan, will be fully implemented at a date when modifications to the city’s parking garage can be implemented.
York Street and State Street are re-established on the courts campus as “streets” in a manner consistent with Oglethorpe’s plan. Due to security concerns, the roads will not be open to vehicular traffic but will visually link to Martin Luther King Boulevard as was the original intention of the city plan. Street paving and associated sidewalks will visually reinforce the reintroduction of York and State Streets into the context of the city.
These moves re-established Oglethorpe’s plan within the court complex by recreating three distinct city blocks that align with the original street grid. The new trial court building further reinforces the city plan through its massing and design. In Oglethorpe’s plan, each block is bifurcated by a lane which results in a consistent negative space in the center of the city’s blocks. On the site of the new courthouse, York Lane defined this negative space in the original plan. The new trial court building utilizes the urban negative space implied by York Lane to organize the courthouse into two distinct halves around a central atrium that aligns directly with York Lane. The void resulting from the placement of the atrium reflects the negative space of the original York Lane. It also divides the building essentially into two halves of four levels each. The resulting massing of the two four-level structures is in keeping with the scale and character of the current buildings in the city. This allows the courthouse to deploy the large building program on the site while being respectful of both the city plan and the existing scale and massing of the surrounding built structures. The façade of the atrium is fully glazed to strongly reinforce the concept of the negative space of the “lane” running through the courthouse. Each of the flanking halves on either side of the atrium is skinned with limestone and punched openings, detailed to emphasize the vertical dimension and respond to the existing context of other prominent civic structures. The exterior treatment of the two halves of the courthouse is reflected in the interior facades defining the atrium to reinforce the concept of two separate and distinct structures defining the negative space of York Lane. The simplicity of the limestone elements of the parti is reflective of traditional civic structures in Savannah, which feature a restrained exterior material palette to announce their civic importance in the city. Other exterior elements such as iron lattice sun screens and trellises further reflect the character and context of Savannah’s unique architecture.
The courtrooms are housed on the northern side of the atrium in a simple rectangular form; specialty court support spaces and the special proceedings courtroom are located on the southern side of the atrium in an irregular shaped block which responds to the bend of Oglethorpe Street. The exterior mass of the two resulting blocks are aligned with the principal facades of the buildings within the city so the courthouse can reinforce the well-defined building edge that is another strong defining feature of the city’s character.
The building’s entry fronts on Oglethorpe Street, as this is the principal public face of the recreated city block on which it is sited. The entry is defined by a contemporary portico capped with a broad trellis, reflective of the historic precedents of columned and pedimented courthouse façades found in many traditional southern court buildings. The special proceedings courtroom is prominently located directly behind the colonnade covering the building’s portico, providing welcome cover for the entrance to the courthouse. A latticed sun screen controls sunlight from the south into the courtroom.
Once one enters the courthouse from the portico fronting Oglethorpe Street, there is a lobby/queuing space that directs the public to the security screening checkpoint. After passing security, one enters the atrium and can access all the public functions in the building utilizing a monumental stairway that runs parallel to the atrium serving all four floors of the courthouse. The waiting spaces for the courtrooms run parallel to the atrium and enjoy expansive views into the space. Balconies, which recall exterior balconies prevalent throughout the city, are located along the courtroom side of the atrium to allow the public to ‘step’ into the atrium to participate more fully in the main public space from multiple levels.
Level One of the courthouse houses the Jury Assembly function on the south side of the atrium and the Clerk of Courts for both the State and Superior Courts on the north side. Levels Two through Four on the north side of the atrium house the standard State and Superior courtrooms. Levels Two through Four on the south side of the atrium house a variety of specialty support functions for the courts as follows: Level Two houses the Special Proceedings Courtroom, Snack Bar, and a large multipurpose meeting room; Level Three houses the Staff Attorneys; Level Four houses Superior Court Administration and the Judge’s Conference Room. The roof deck of the Special Proceedings Courtroom is used as an outdoor terrace and is accessed from Level Four through the Judicial Conference Room.
The basement of the courthouse houses secure parking for the judges, remote file and record storage and the building’s central mechanical systems. A pair of tunnels connect the basement level to the existing courthouse and the parking structure located on the north end of the campus. One tunnel is reserved for secure inmate movement into the courthouse from the central holding area located in the existing courthouse. The second tunnel is a service tunnel for delivery of material into the new courthouse from the loading area located in the existing parking deck. The second tunnel is also used for limited staff movement between the buildings on the site.
The proposed site improvements associated with the new trial courthouse will recreate much of the original historic city plan of Savannah by improving the presence of Liberty Square and fully restoring the blocks of the courts campus back to their original layout. The design of the new trial courthouse will further reinforce the city plan through its respectful site placement, massing and recognition of York Lane. As a result the new trial courthouse will be a welcome addition to the rich city planning and architectural heritage of the city of Savannah.
The much-needed re-cladding of the exterior of the existing courthouse is also planned for a later
date. The character as established in the new courthouse will be reflected in the existing courthouse
to aid in the creation of a unified court campus. The re-clad courthouse will be more reflective of
the character of Savannah as well as more demonstrative of the important civic role the courthouse
plays within the community. An attempt will be made to mitigate the scale of the building through
the introduction of a tripartite organization both vertically and horizontally. When fully completed the
courthouse campus will be in alignment with the historic city plan of Savannah and better reflect the
permanence and dignity of the courts. Chatham County and the City of Savannah are to be complimented
for their commitment to the revitalization of Oglethorpe’s visionary plan and their commitment
to the support of the judicial process.