Tuscaloosa was once the capital of Alabama, but now its regional importance comes from the state’s flagship university and its powerhouse football team. And while the design tenor of the Crimson Tide’s campus has strayed far from its 1828 beginnings—the University of Alabama was modeled on Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia—Chicago-based HBRA Architects have revived classical precedents for another locally significant civic structure, the new Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse.
The 127,000-square-foot building is part of the U.S. General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence program, and U.S. District Court Judge Scott Coogler—who served as the de facto client heading a group of the structure’s tenants—was clear about the goals for the $47.8 million project. The building had to look like a courthouse particular to its southern locale—which meant that columns, steps, and masonry were de rigueur. “This is not my first courthouse,” Coogler says. “People need to have the sense they’re coming to a place of justice, not an office building.”
That seems like a simple prescription, but the program proved more complex. The building has multiple tenants, including the U.S. District Court, the U.S. Bankruptcy court (both of which required courtrooms and support spaces), U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby’s, R-Ala., offices, the U.S. Probation Office, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the GSA, congressional offices, the Social Security Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“There were certain expectations that the building would have a clear and unequivocal relationship to classical architecture,” says Aric Lasher, AIA, director of design at HBRA. The specific model for the detailing of the building’s portico, is the Greek Temple of Zeus at Nemea. “Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Peter Behrens, and Mies van der Rohe all admired it,” Lasher says—naming three architects who practiced in highly varied modes of aesthetic production during the 19th and 20th centuries. That temple includes the three primary orders, two of which are used by HBRA for the Tuscaloosa courthouse. The Doric is deployed in the center-bay entrance portico while the Ionic is used in pilaster form in the wings. The columns on the interior are modeled after an Ionic order used at the Erechtheion in Athens.
While Greek forms are typical of many federal buildings from the early years of our Republic, there are some practical reasons for choosing Greek over Roman precedents in this particular building. “The rigid modularity of Greek Classicism lends itself to modern space planning,” Lasher says. “And GSA allocations are very precise.” To accommodate these considerations, the building is based on a 60-centimeter grid—the metric equivalent of a 2-foot module.
The building is organized around a central, two-and-a-half-story-tall atrium that bisects the building into east and west wings. The allocation of uses is clear: On the first floor, the Social Security Administration is on the right, jury assembly is on the left; upstairs, the FBI and Sen. Shelby’s offices are on the right, and the courts and judges’ chambers are on the left. Public stairs on either side of the entrance quickly access the chambers of the U.S. Judge and the senator, while centrally located elevators and a double-run stair lead to the second-floor courtrooms and other offices. The 165-foot-long atrium is relatively narrow on the first floor—only about 11 feet in width—but expands to 33 feet on the piano nobile. It’s the second floor where the building’s Classicism really sings—with Ionic columns flanking spaces in each of the cardinal directions and 16 panels of public art that tell local history in an accessible, realistic style.
“The courtroom is ‘standard’; the space is what’s allocated by law,” Coogler says, “but the quality shines through. It’s appropriately nice—not over the top.” While the interior courtroom spaces are finished in dark, but warm, wood paneling, materials are used in a methodically economical way. “The wainscot in my chambers is painted,” Coogler says. The same sort of sensible decision making informs the entirety of the building, inside and out.
If there’s one weakness to the design, it’s the domination of the second-floor public spaces over those on the first floor. The central space on the ground floor is relatively long and narrow—not much more than a decently detailed corridor that’s open to the wider space above. While there are three wide, gracious stairs that allow access to the double-height space above, many of the building’s users visit the Social Security Administration offices on the ground level and have little need to walk upstairs and see the building’s signature space.
It’s the only false note in a public building that aspires to—and attains—a grand civic gesture for Tuscaloosa. “I’ve heard architects say you have to change with the times,” Coogler says. “This building is built with different technology than in the 1920s, but it’s the style of a federal courthouse. It’s not a rocket ship—that would be an office building.”
TOOLBOX: Traditional Detailing
Constructing a genuinely classical civic building in the 21st century has its challenges. “On details, we know what’s possible and how to allow for artisanal differences,” says HBRA director of design Aric Lasher, AIA. Even though the building has quite a variety of handcrafted, custom ornamental elements, principal Craig Brandt, AIA, notes that there’s a high degree of repetition that lends itself to prefabrication, where variation in quality can be best controlled off site. Hand-carved molds were used to cast the moldings, which were then hand-painted. A full-scale mock-up program ensured that architects and builders were all on the same page.
Finishes were used where they have the greatest significance and can be appreciated, Lasher explains. The GSA’s Art in Architecture program allowed a budget of almost $250,000 for site-specific art—which led to the narrative painting cycle that fills the east and west sides of the second-floor atrium. Judge Scott Coogler worked as a member of the GSA-appointed arts council to help develop the criteria for the paintings. “We wanted to include the history of the area, the courts, and the country,” he says. The architects and the judge originally thought that the budget might only sustain smaller pieces, but artist Caleb O’Connor chose to fill the panels between the pilasters, resulting in 16 works of about 9 by 13 feet apiece.
The subjects of the paintings include the burning of the University of Alabama’s library during the Civil War, Governor George Wallace’s infamous blocking of the schoolhouse door to blacks in 1963, famed football coach Bear Bryant, and the devastation of the April 27, 2011, tornado. “We’re not aware of anything at this scale since the WPA,” Brandt says.
Another important consultant for HBRA was sculptor Kent Bloomer, who worked closely with the architects to develop the building’s ornamental details, including the acroteria and the ornamentation at the eave. “It’s classical, but it’s conventionalized,” says HBRA principal Dennis Rupert, FAIA. The roof is brushed aluminum, a relatively inexpensive but durable material in Tuscaloosa’s climate. “Kent worked out the details based on the techniques of fabrication, transforming the ornament to integrate the materials.”