Courthouse Repairs Imminent
by Thomas MacMillan | Sep 17, 2012 6:07 am
After four years and three contractors, the Goddess of Justice may finally be released from her net.
The goddess, who watches over Elm Street from her perch on the Beaux-Arts facade of the 1914 state courthouse, has been behind netting for years, awaiting workers who will stop her from crumbling further.
With the approval of state bonding money on Aug. 31, the workers may reach her as soon as November, beginning a $3.2 million restoration project.
The netting, along with scaffolding on the Elm Street and Church Street sides of the Superior Court building at 121 Elm, went up several years ago in anticipation of repairs that were originally scheduled to begin in 2008. As the repair job stalled, the setup proved hazardous: Nearly two years ago, a piece of wood from the scaffolding fell and hit a judge on the head. Read a background story here.
An earlier, more modest plan for building repairs hit a snag when a hawk’s nest was discovered in the pediment above the six columns that face Elm Street. The repair project was later expanded to include work on not just the columns and stairs but the roof and windows as well.
The work will happen in three phases, said David Barkin, an architect with the Hartford firm that’s designing the work.
The funding for the first phase is finally coming into place. It was delayed by problems with two contractors. After a request for proposals, the lowest-bidding contractor we later disqualified because “our specifications were very specific” due to the historic needs of the facade, Barkin said.
The second-lowest bidder withdrew its proposal. More bonding was necessary to meet the third-lowest bid. That money—$336,105—was approved by the state bonding commission on Aug. 31, thanks to the efforts of New Haven state Sen. Toni Harp.
Harp also helped get bond money for renovations to the city library next door, and money for environmental clean-up at the old CT Transit bus terminal on James Street, which the state is preparing to sell.
While all the money for restoring the courthouse has now been secured, the final contract has not yet been signed, said Jeff Beckham, a spokesman for the state Department of Administrative Services.
Barkin said he’s hoping work will start as early as mid-October. Beckham said work is expected to start in November. The first phase will focus on the Elm Street facade and part of the Church Street facade, Barkin said.
The Elm Street courthouse is “the best Beaux-Arts building in Connecticut,” Barkin said. The Beaux-Arts style of architecture, characterized by sculptural decoration and classical details, was in vogue in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. The Elm Street courthouse “was probably one of the largest and most ornate of those structures constructed in that time period” in Connecticut, Barkin said.
The courthouse is also noteworthy for being designed by a local architecture firm that beat out the competition in a national search, Barkin said. The building was designed by architects William Allen and Richard Williams, according to the state judicial website.
At the time, Cass Gilbert was a prominent national architect. He designed the public library next door and New Haven’s Union Station. “And yet the guy who won [the courthouse contract] was this local architect,” Barkin said.
Work began in 1909. Five years and $1.3 million later, New Haven had a new Beaux-Arts courthouse.
A century later, all three phases of restoration will cost about $5.3 million, with the first phase costing $3.2 million, Beckham said.
He said the first phase will take 14 to 16 months. It will include fixing windows and doors as well as re-pointing masonry and mitigating any crumbling. Workers will attend to the figures carved into the pediment above the columns, including the Goddess of Justice, who is flanked by Progress, Statutory Law, Common Law, Precedence, and Accuracy.
Over time, acid rain and pollutants wear away the details of the marble carvings through a process called “sugaring.” The surface becomes granular and can turn black, as the marble turns into gypsum.
“It’s not going to be restored to ‘as new’ condition,” Barkin said of the carvings. In the absence of accurate photographs of the way an architectural carving looked when it was first installed, it’s not “desirable from a preservation standpoint” to try to restore all the detail through speculation, he said. That would be “creating a false sense of history by doing that.”
Workers will instead focus on halting any further crumbling through a process known as “consolidation.” They’ll treat the carvings with a penetrating sealant to protect them from the elements. They’ll also gently clean the carvings to remove pollutants, and install spikes to deter birds from roosting and pooping.
“Things like the column capitals will be actually recarved in the same stone—new stone from the same quarry, preferably, and of similar age,” Barkin said.
When the work is done, the scaffolding will disappear from the courthouse for the first time in years. The “blue thing” will be removed from the Church Street side of the building too, Barkin said.
The two gentlemen seated out front, the Lawmaker and the Advocate, will have to wait their treatment until a later phase.
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