- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

The Supreme Court, constructed in 1935 for just under $10 million, is about to get a 21st century update for 12 times what it cost to build.

Plans include a "first option" to add an outside security pavilion where court police would screen tourists to better protect the high court from bombs and bullets.

The justices say their classic marble building designed to house 150 workers in an era of fewer law clerks, scant concern for security and no air conditioning never was modernized and has become hazardous because it failed to keep pace.

Its now harbors 300 workers and hosts a million tourists each year.

When the $122.3 million modernization starts next April, with a completion target of September 2008, the most expensive changes should be invisible.

"Architectural and design details of the building will not be disturbed. They don't plan to touch the courtroom itself; it will remain completely intact," said Karen van Lengen, dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture and a consultant to the justices on the project.

"The architects have been extremely sensitive to the aesthetics of the building and will be very sensitive to in any way altering any features of it," Mrs. van Lengen said in an interview, stressing concerns for preserving architect Cass Gilbert's design for the landmark that faces the Senate side of the Capitol across First Street NE.

The court also asked for $200,000 to determine what is needed to restore marble carvings on the East and West Pediments and other sculptures damaged by pollution and moisture.

One option for the visitor pavilion calls for nestling a separate building on the court's broad lawn next to Maryland Avenue. Depending on "blast studies and security analyses," a second option would locate the visitor center in the ground-floor center hall that extends beneath the historic courtroom.

Although initial appropriations were approved three years ago, officials quickly realized their cost estimates of $7 million to $20 million were inadequate. They will need another $110 million to accomplish just three-fourths of their to-do list, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy says.

A review of the monumental building revealed inadequate fire protection, a faulty air-conditioning system and antique pipes and wiring that must be replaced.

The $27.85 million budget for security improvements includes a new underground headquarters for court police, who are now scattered in corridors or crannies under staircases.

The security budget also includes a $2 million program to install windows that can resist bullets or explosions.

The overall $122.28 million estimate exceeds any courthouse renovation in the nation by at least $30 million.

"When we received the present cost estimates, which at first were well in excess even of the $110 million [extra] now proposed, we were shocked," Justice Kennedy said in asking Congress to make all the money for the project available next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Budget documents indicate contractors will begin by tunneling under the court's north lawn to create underground working facilities "which will serve as swing space" where staff members will be assigned while their offices are refitted.

Justice Kennedy said that would allow a single contractor to have a "master plan" providing musical-chairs arrangements to move virtually everyone in the building at some point.

"An additional, overriding consideration for conducting it this way is so that the court can remain in the building during construction," Justice Kennedy said.

"Although the building has not yet had a major failure, we are now at serious risk," said Justice Kennedy, who noted that both the Capitol and White House have been modernized. "Like the White House and the Capitol, we like to think that the Supreme Court building occupies a special place in American life and in the constitutional system."

That special place is relatively young compared to most of official Washington. Before the court got its own home in 1935, justices worked in homes that had office space for secretaries and law clerks as well. Court convened in the old Senate chamber, often on Saturdays when Congress recessed.

Even now, justices' chambers are not large enough to house staffs far smaller than any member of Congress. Some law clerks work on different floors from their bosses and office colleagues.

Alone among the justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg chose to put her chambers on the isolated top floor to keep all four clerks close by for easy consultation.

Except in the ornate main courtroom, ceilings will be taken down and replaced after installation of new electrical and computer circuitry and plumbing. Most work on air-conditioning ducts will be done in the walls to avoid architectural changes.

The present balky air-conditioning plant is said to be like the one blamed by the Centers for Disease Control for the 1977 fatal outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease at Philadelphia's Bellevue Hotel. It requires daily maintenance for health reasons.

The proposed renovation also calls for state-of-the-art fire alarm and sprinkler systems, with special protection for wooden roof supports above the law library. The new setup will add escape routes for staff and visitors and include emergency ventilators to purge the building of smoke or fumes.

One part of the plan devotes $309,000 so the court can comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations requiring "fall protection" safety nets and hook systems for laborers working more than six feet from the ground.

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