Learning center hits immovable wall, lands on better design

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The future home of the Federal Court Learning Center in the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Indianapolis will be transformed to look like a courtroom. (IL photo/Eric Learned)

Every construction and remodeling project encounters a glitch.

For the new educational and exhibit space being created in the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, the glitch turned out to be a load-bearing wall. The space was designed and the exhibits as well as the displays were conceived with the wall removed.

In fact, the General Services Administration was getting quotes for the room’s renovation when the architect took a look above the ceiling and determined the wall could not come down.

The project stalled for about a month while the Indiana Southern District Court’s Doria Lynch, special projects manager, and Mary Giorgio, public outreach coordinator and training specialist, reassessed, rethought and reworked their original plan.

Lynch and Giorgio noticed that with the wall in place, the room was symmetrical, forming a square shape that mimicked a courtroom. So, they reconfigured the space to give it the look and feel of a courtroom. Then they dedicated a small alcove, separated from the main area by the wall, to host changing exhibitions of art, artifacts or student projects.

“I never would have imagined the day that I got the call to come down and be broken the news that the wall could not come down that I would have been happier with the way it turned out with the wall up,” Lynch said.

The Federal Court Learning Center will teach Indiana schoolchildren and visitors about the role and work of the judiciary along with the 100-plus-year history of the district courthouse in downtown Indianapolis. Students and adults will be able to view historical items collected and preserved by the court, learn about some of the court’s significant milestones and cases, and gain an understanding of the judicial process.

Currently, the space contains just a few chairs and end tables, but the wall displays and case file exhibits are being created. Lynch and Giorgio said they anticipate the installation will take place in November. Members of the legal community will be able to get a sneak peek of the center during a continuing legal education program scheduled for Dec. 9.

The center is slated to officially open and start receiving students in January 2023.

“It will really serve as a starting point for tours of the courthouse …,” Elizabeth “Libby” Cierzniak, retired attorney and president of the Historical Society for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, said. “I think it will help visitors better understand the context of what they’ll be learning because the whole art and architecture of this building is centered around the principles of justice.”

Glitch becomes gift

The Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis has a Judicial Learning Center that is focused on educating the public about how the courts were developed, what they do and why they are important, according to Rachel Marshall, public education and community outreach administrator for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

Opened in 2009, the center is 2,590 square feet — more than four times larger than the center in Indianapolis. But like the Bayh Courthouse, Eagleton welcomed upwards of 5,000 student and adult tour groups annually pre-pandemic.

Through displays and interactive exhibits, the Eagleton center explains the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and the difference between state and federal courts. A jury box highlights the role of jurors, and historical documents and case files tell the story of landmark rulings. Also, a video area includes oral history recordings featuring the judges.

A former teacher, Marshall said she knows a visit to the center can not only educate, but also inspire.

“I think that there’s nothing more influential than a field trip,” Marshall said, noting that years after graduation, adults tend to remember the special outings they took with their classmates. “I do think that is really the most important thing. And if you can align a field trip well with the promise to bring the content alive, then you just made a valuable, possibly lifelong lesson.”

Walking around the room where the center will be housed, Lynch motioned to where the different elements will be located.

Opposite the entry will be a clerk’s bench salvaged from the old federal courthouse in Terre Haute, and behind that will be the court seal and biographies of prominent judges. Along the south wall will be a sample jury box while the north wall will boast a picture of the William E. Steckler Ceremonial Courtroom with an interactive feature to teach about the different jobs of judges, attorneys and court personnel.

The design team from Taylor Studios Inc. stretched masking tape across the floor of their office to make a mock learning center and show their ideas for the redesign, but some key pieces, like the Terre Haute bench, were taken away. Lynch and Giorgio reworked the new concept and created a space that they said they believe actually shows more of the Indiana Southern District’s personality.

“You’ll feel like you’re walking into the court learning center and not just some museum space,” Lynch said. “It’s going to have the real sense of you’re in a courthouse, you’re here to learn about the judiciary and how it functions.”

Financial push

The historical society is spearheading fundraising for the new learning center. To date, Cierzniak said, about $66,000 has been raised through grants, private donations and law firm sponsorships.

More than two-thirds of the way to the total dollar goal, the historical society has sufficient funds to complete the center. But Cierzniak said the organization is continuing to solicit donations for future projects, such as establishing a learning center website that would give students the ability to take a virtual tour and discover the court through digitized exhibits.

On Sept. 22, the society will host a reception at Taft Stettinius & Hollister’s office across the street from the courthouse to introduce members of the legal community to the new center and encourage their financial support.

“The learning center is not the type of project that you can really get Congress to approve funding for,” Cierzniak said. “We were approached about raising funds and we enthusiastically agreed. … We see the historical society’s role on a going forward basis as supporting the court’s mission in civic education — whether we’re raising funds for additional exhibits or modifications to the exhibits, a website — and continuing to expand the learning center.”•

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