Changing Skyline: Family Court: It's not all bad

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Updated: Sunday, October 19, 2014, 1:09 AM

The Family Court building at 15th and Arch streets, the city's first new courthouse in a generation, is a mass of glass blandness. The $222 million project's design, by EwingCole, has been widely criticized. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Riding the escalator in Philadelphia's new Family Court after last week's ribbon-cutting ceremony, I overheard a woman remark that the building didn't turn out as bad as she expected, given the grubby scandal that accompanied its creation. I concur.

The Family Court building at 15th and Arch Streets, the city's first new courthouse in a generation, is a mass of glass blandness. The $222 million project's design, by EwingCole, has been widely criticized. JESSICA GRIFFIN /Staff Photographer
Inside the building are conference rooms, a playroom, a spacious lounge. Cases will be heard starting next month. INGA SAFFRON / Staff
Photo Gallery: Changing Skyline: Family Court: It's not all bad

Sure, Philadelphia's first new courthouse in a generation is a dispiriting example of bland, office-park architecture plunked in the civic heart of the city. The exterior has all the charm of a cardboard box - and the proportions to match. Its failings, I submit, are evidence that this town, for all its gains in population and sophistication, still tolerates the mediocrity bred by cozy insider politics.

But considering how the $222 million project at 15th and Arch Streets was mismanaged by Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, the woman on the escalator is right: The results could be worse.

Because the design by Philadelphia's EwingCole has been so widely criticized, let's note that there is real compassion hidden behind Family Court's cheap, corporate-looking glass veneer. Despite the barriers thrown in their way by the city's power brokers, the architects, together with family law advocates, fought hard to ensure that the building was equipped with several important amenities.

When the court begins hearing cases in the building Nov. 17, there will be a sunny playroom where young children can distract themselves during bitter custody hearings, a spacious lounge where beleaguered parents can collect themselves over coffee, and conference rooms where abuse victims can have the dignity of privacy when they confer with their lawyers. The court also managed to make space for a small computer room, where litigants can research court records.

Of course, in cities where courthouses are built the way they are supposed to be, there would be no need to call out such routine features as victories. Other than those comforts, the general ambience is spartan and institutional. There isn't a single work of art to break up the long white walls - visible from LOVE Park - although officials insist that is coming.

One reason the courthouse isn't worse is that the Art Commission stepped in at the last moment to demand crucial design changes. Its members are the ones who insisted that in addition to an entrance on 15th, there also be one on Arch, rather than a featureless wall. They demanded that the architects use metal fins to give the flat glass facade a bit of depth and shadow.

Still, for those who have experienced the Third World conditions in Family Court's current two buildings, the best thing about the new building is that it promises to be clean and safe. There is so little space at its 11th Street location, where domestic relations cases are heard, that battered women and abused children are forced to wait in the same cramped waiting room as their assailants. Physical attacks were not uncommon, officials say.

The "Family Court" that most Philadelphians know is the columned, neoclassical affair on Logan Square. Beautiful as it looks, the facilities have become woefully outmoded. Having the court functions split between locations caused endless havoc. The city should have built a new courthouse a decade ago, but could never come up with the money.

That problem was remedied in 2006 when Gov. Ed Rendell and State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo managed to persuade the legislature to pony up $200 million for a new building. Somehow, in all the horse trading, Castille ended up managing the design - and the money - even though he had never overseen a building project.

What followed was a classic Philadelphia story of powerful elites rushing to cash in on consulting contracts. An Inquirer investigation in 2010 revealed that Castille had allowed a Republican Party insider, lawyer Jeffrey B. Rotwitt, to serve as both the court's legal representative and the courthouse's private developer. That's like a home buyer hiring the seller to serve as his real estate agent.

Castille was so lax in his management that he started paying Rotwitt and his development partner, Donald W. Pulver, before they even signed a contract to develop the courthouse. Castille left all the design decisions up to Pulver, a developer of bland office buildings, including the selection of EwingCole as the architects.

Through it all, no one seemed concerned that this prominent civic building was being designed with the aesthetic sensibility of a spec office, and not even a particularly current one.

Courthouses aren't like other buildings. They are symbols of our democracy rendered in three dimensions, and we expect the architecture to express the constitutional values we hold dear: fairness, transparency, compassion.

After the Inquirer series exposed the unorthodox financial arrangement, Rotwitt and Pulver were dismissed. Castille sued to recover some of their fees. He also paid yet another lawyer, his friend William G. Chadwick, $1 million to conduct an investigation that was never made public. As a result, we'll never know if Castille was scammed by Rotwitt or simply turned a blind eye.

Other unanswered questions remain. Included in Fumo's legislation was a clause that imposed a 20 percent surcharge on every court filing in Philadelphia to pay for design and other necessities. But neither Castille's spokesman nor the head of Family Court, Judge Kevin M. Dougherty, could say how much money had been raised, how it had been spent, or whether the surcharge would be lifted once the courthouse opens. "I'd like to get that information myself," Dougherty told me.

You would never have known from attending Thursday's ribbon-cutting that Castille's role almost doomed the courthouse. "I still have the flogging marks on my back" from the ordeal of getting it built, he told the crowd as he described his perseverance.

As a reward, State Rep. John Taylor plans to introduce a bill in January renaming Family Court as the Chief Justice Ron Castille Center for Family Justice.

In his honor.

215-854-2213 @ingasaffron

Inga Saffron, Inquirer Architecture Critic

Read full story: Changing Skyline: Family Court: It's not all bad

More Coverage:

Castille sues over Family Court plan

Castille sues lawyer, firm over deal

$60M cheaper, still no bargain

Castille pushed aside doubts on court deal