It is a challenge faced by courts throughout Indiana: matching the modern day needs of the courts with the limitations of historic courthouses. But in Allen County, an abundance of will and ingenuity found a way to tackle the problem.
After struggling for years with limited space and aging technology, Allen Superior Court Judges embarked on a project with the County Commissioners and others that resulted in a cutting-edge courtroom experience for judges, staff, litigants and jurors.
Courtroom 107, located on the first floor of the Allen County Courthouse, had not been renovated or expanded since the early 1990s. Opportunities to expand the courtroom were limited. It was wedged in between a law library and offices of the Courthouse Preservation Trust, the historic preservation arm that oversees upkeep of the courthouse.
“When our courthouse opened in 1902, no one thought of the needs the judiciary would face in the 21st Century,” said Superior Court Judge Stanley Levine. “This courthouse is a tribute to art, architecture, and grandeur and a treasure in our community. But those attributes do not always provide the tools we need in today’s world.”
In 2014, a committee of Judges including Stanley Levine, Nancy Eshcoff Boyer, and Frances Gull, set out to tackle a problem that was daunting in every way.
Between Allen Circuit and Superior Courts, 23 judicial officers juggle 14 courtrooms. Thirteen of those spaces are either land-locked or grand, ornate courtrooms that cannot be expanded or altered in significant ways. The Allen County Courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places and has also been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Only Courtroom 107 offered any hope of expansion.
Courtroom 107 is used mainly by Civil Division Judges, whose complex calendar of cases need modern audio/video presentation and recording systems, ample jury and spectator spaces, and access for the disabled.
As it existed, Courtroom 107 was cramped, with limited seating and space for, at most, six jurors. Its presentation technology was outdated and jurors had to head elsewhere in the courthouse for breaks and deliberations. Even the judge’s bench was positioned at an angle that made it hard to conduct business.
The Judges had a vision for the courtroom, and sought the advice of Fort Wayne architect Ed Welling of Grinsfelder Associates Architects, to help design what Allen County’s Buildings and Grounds Department would eventually build.
“Allen County’s building department does incredible work,” said Judge Boyer. “But we wanted to make sure this project would meet the Court’s needs now and for many years to come. So we invested additional resources in the help of an architect who could optimize the space and design it around the flow of the courtroom process.”
The project would need more than great ideas and a modern design to work. It needed the support of the County Commissioners and of the entities that sat on either side of the courtroom. The judges partnered with Commissioner Linda Bloom, who for many years has been the commissioners’ point person on courthouse operations, to negotiate the reallocation of precious courthouse space.
“While Allen County has grown by leaps and bounds, its Courthouse hasn’t grown an inch in 115 years,” said Judge Gull. “In order for our courtroom to grow, someone else had to give up space. The generosity that greeted us really showed what can happen when we work together to implement significant priorities of our courts.”
The Allen County Law Library gave up much of its square footage, a change made possible by the prioritization of its law book collection and the online availability of information. Even the Courthouse Preservation Trust relocated as part of the project.
Allen County Buildings and Grounds builders, electricians, and carpenters worked three shifts a day to complete the project, which lasted from October 2016 until February 2017. Vance Hernandez, Director of Buildings and Grounds, worked in tandem with the Judges and Commissioners to make sure the project went to plan.
When the dust settled, the project resulted in a facility that is already attracting visitors from around the state interested in seeing the latest in cutting-edge courtroom technology and design.
According to Welling, the courtroom more than doubled in size, to 1,945 square feet. A newly built jury room is accessible directly from the courtroom, without having to pass through public spaces. The jury room also doubles as conference space for the judges. The larger courtroom also allowed for expansion of space for plaintiff and defendant attorney tables.
- Growing the jury box from 6 to 12 seats. The additional juror space made the courtroom more flexible for use by criminal division courts as well as the civil courts.
- Doubling the amount of spectator seating, where potential jurors wait to be selected.
- Making the courtroom, including the judge’s bench, fully ADA compatible.
In addition, the vendor that provided the old courtroom’s digital presentation and recording system invested significant time, energy, and enthusiasm to update the system and create a showcase of how technology can make the courtroom experience more effective.
“This project is a step forward for our courts that will make an enormous difference for litigants, staff, and judges,” Judge Gull added. “It seemed like something that might just be impossible. I guess it never hurts to ask.”