Peering out the window at the roof that covers the interior space of the federal courthouse in Indianapolis, Judge Sarah Evans Barker would often remark how nice it would be if that industrial-looking slab was made pretty and accessible.
What she described as “idle chatter” has become a reality. The roof of the internal courtyard space at the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is now covered with 80,000 individual sedum that add an extra layer of insulation and reduce the urban heat-island effect.
With a rooftop that is flush with flora instead of a dark heat-absorbing membrane, the courthouse becomes one of just 15 historic buildings in the U.S. General Service Administration’s inventory across the country to have a “green” roof.
The greening – literally – of the rooftop is part of a $66.8 million upgrade of the building with funds coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Work on the roof along with additional upgrades to increase the energy efficiency of the facility as well as to improve the public safety system began in December 2009 and was substantially complete on Aug. 27, 2012, according to the U.S. General Services Administration.
Barker explained it like this: The art restoration project undertaken for the 2003 centennial celebration of the building “put a new dress and coat of makeup on the old grand dame. This time, we gave her a hip replacement.”
Much of the current refurbishment is not visible to the public, but the structural improvements are intended to extend the use of the building.
The project included:
• Replacing the roof and restoring the exterior windows;
• Upgrading the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, temperature controls, plumbing, electrical service, and lighting;
• Improving the fire protection and alarm systems throughout the building;
• Renovating the public and jury restrooms to meet accessibility requirements.
Environmentally friendly additions expand beyond the green courtyard roof to a rainwater harvesting system that provides the water for the public toilets and ultra-low consumption plumbing fixtures. The rainwater system is expected to reduce water usage by as much as 30 percent.
Except for a few years in private practice, Barker has spent much of her legal career in the Bayh building, going back to her tenure as an assistant U.S. attorney. To her, being able to work in that structure has been a “wonderful gift.”
“Nobody comes within the halls and walls of this place and is not touched by it,” Barker said.
The grandeur of its design makes the building a transformative place, she continued. The space does the vital work of making the defendants and litigants feel small, reducing their egos so they can move into a new understanding of themselves and their relationship with society.
Laura Briggs, clerk of the court, also noted the impact the building has on people. Even during the day when the courthouse staff is busy, there is still a feeling of quiet reverence. When people come inside to conduct their business with the court, they get a sense of reverence and respect for the federal judiciary system.
“It’s overwhelming,” Briggs said. “You could never recreate (this building) today.”
Construction of the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse between Ohio and New York streets began in 1902. Originally, the Beaux Arts structure was U-shaped and housed the main post office along with the federal courts and offices. The north wing addition, completed in 1938, closed the U-shape and created an interior courtyard.
In 1974, the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2003, it was renamed in honor of U.S. Senator Birch Bayh.
During the recent structural upgrade, the judges returned to their circuit rider roots as they switched courtrooms and vacated their chambers to accommodate the construction. Clerks and staff members were also jostled around, each spending several months in swing space.
“It was a little inconvenient but it was not a bad thing,” Briggs said. “Everybody enjoyed the time to meet other people and everybody benefitted from weeding out extraneous possessions collected over the years.”
One part of the renovation that added to the beauty of the building was the restoration of the historical murals in the southwest corner of the third floor. Painted by Hoosier Grant Christian in 1935 working under the Treasury Relief Art Project, the murals depict historic and patriotic scenes from Indiana.
The artwork, in need of aesthetic and structural repairs, was removed from the wall and transported to the studios of Page Conservation Inc. for treatment. There, the murals were given an extensive cleaning to remove the yellowed varnish and grime that had accumulated on the surface. Also, the old adhesive was taken off and a linen interleaf was applied for additional stability.
Then the murals were transported back to the courthouse and re-mounted to the newly repaired plaster walls.
“They look so much better,” said Doria Lynch, the court historian. “It was a delightful day to come back as they were being reinstalled. It was tremendous.”
In addition, the historic murals in Courtroom 202 were conserved for the first time as a comprehensive whole, repairing flaking plaster and cracking as well as cleaning years of dirt and grime.
Over the years, Barker has witnessed what she called the “magical way” juries respond to the building as they look wide-eyed at the paintings and stained glass windows. And she remembers those who have made special trips to see the space, like retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who arrived a day ahead of her scheduled lecture to law students just to tour the building.
Visitors to the building today will see a garden, rather than black tar, on the interior roof. The plants were put there for the practical purpose of conserving energy and reducing utility costs, but Barker noted another, less concrete, benefit.
When she recently peered out a window in a colleague’s office, she did not have to muse about what could or should be. Instead, she felt happy at being able to look at something that is green and growing.•