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April 2008

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Pioneer Courthouse Landmark for Portland

The Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, has won the John Wesley Powell prize for historic preservation, awarded by the Society for History in the Federal Government. The prize commemorates the explorer and federal administrator whose work demonstrated the importance of historical preservation and historical display.

The Pioneer Courthouse, opened in 1875, is the oldest existing federal building in the Northwest and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The building was originally designed to house all offices and services of the federal government in Portland. Its major tenant is now the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Although the building saw an expansion in 1903 and several restorations since, the most recent, undertaken by the General Services Administration, began in 2002.

"The last courthouse renovation was in 1973, part of the project to prepare the building for occupancy by the Court of Appeals and the Bankruptcy Court," said Robert Walch, facilities program manager for the Ninth Circuit. "After 30 years, the building badly needed freshening up. Community sensitivities for the courthouse's historic value also had increased in that time. The people of Portland are enormously protective of their landmarks. We wanted to bring it back to its original grandeur and improve the building's functionality for the court."

Inside, the original terrazzo flooring, ornate plaster work, and oak woodwork were uncovered and restored. Scratch tests on walls determined the original interior color palette, a range of federal blues, dark reds, golds, and mossy greens last seen in the courthouse between 1895 and 1905.

"The success of the restoration and rehabilitation of the Pioneer Courthouse is largely the product of great teamwork between the General Services Administration, the architects, skilled crafts people, and our own court project managers," said Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain (9th Cir.), chair of the Pioneer Courthouse Committee.

Alongside the historic restoration, there was a complete modernization of building systems. "This building is now as modern as any new courthouse," said Walch. "We've added infrastructure including wireless Internet and conferencing space for judges and attorneys, and in the courtroom we've concealed state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment behind custom grill work. We've also converted a former law library into an Alternative Dispute Resolution Suite with full audio-visual and teleconferencing capabilities."

The rehab included a seismic retrofitting. In 1993, the courthouse was damaged in the Scotts Mills earthquake, the largest earthquake in the Pacific Northwest since 1981.

"To protect the courthouse," Walch said, "75 ground base isolators were installed on a new foundation system. These isolators allow the building and the ground to move separately during an earthquake, minimizing the potential for damage to the historic structure and possible injury to its occupants."

Outside, the courthouse is the backdrop to Pioneer Courthouse Square, known as "Portland's living room," the most visited site in the city. The courthouse invites the public in with displays, organized by its Historical Society, that focus on the architecture of the building and the history of the American system of justice and the Ninth Circuit. "We're open for public visits from 9 to 4 everyday and an average of 10,000 people a year, including entire classrooms of school children, come through on self-guided tours," Walch says. "It's a great way to help the public understand the Judiciary and how it serves our nation."