Landmark reborn on Rodney Square

Landmark reborn on Rodney Square

January 22, 2012
The News Journal | Eric Ruth

Old courthouse is becoming law offices

WILMINGTON—Flickers of life and light are showing again along a long-dark edge of Rodney Square.

Just behind the tall granite columns of the 96-year-old courthouse, new offices and bright new spaces await the return of people. Inside the neoclassical building, a modern workspace of gleaming granite and rich wood veneer has risen in a place that once was empty and forlorn.

Nearly a century after it was built, and almost a decade after it fell silent, one of Wilmington’s premier architectural landmarks is about to come to life again.

In this new existence, and into its new future, the block-long courthouse in the city’s center will retain some of its legacy, and continue to embrace part of its past. The judges who once presided over its stately courtrooms are gone, but the attorneys will remain—all from the firm Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, the building’s sole tenant.

In creating this new future, the law firm and the building’s owners, Pettinaro Co., were also careful to honor the historic touches that define its grandeur: The gracefully curving spiral staircases in the four-story lobbies, the bronze banisters burnished by many hands; and especially the regal facade that has come to define and enhance the city’s central square. It took two years and millions of dollars to achieve, but to its owners and tenants, the expense and care were practically cultural obligations—to the city, and to its people.

That’s why its rehabilitation would come to involve so many design firms and so much effort, the people involved said. That’s why the original tall arches that frame the center of the U-shaped building were uncovered and restored, 30 years after they vanished as part in a remodeling project. That’s why ornate lampposts were hauled out of the basement and refurbished for the new grassy courtyard between the building’s wings.

At the same time, the people involved knew they had to approach it with a mind toward modernizing and enhancing as well as preserving. Architectural and design touches like tall glass panels with stainless steel fasteners add a contemporary edge to the old arches. White walls interspersed with finely grained wood panels frame a sparkling granite floor, creating an interior that’s up-to-date, but subtly so.

“The big challenge was how to incorporate a modern law firm into a building that wasn’t designed for it,” said Jamie Hammond, project manager from Philadelphia’s Francis Cauffman interior design firm. “At any given time, we had 12 people working on it.”

To accommodate modern demands, an 80-car parking garage was dug out and built between the building’s two wings. All-new mechanical, electrical, fire protection and plumbing systems were installed, and the interior was outfitted with a mind toward “green” concepts.

“The design is modern, but very compatible,” said Richard Levine, partner at Young Conaway. “It came out exactly as we wanted it. ... What we ended up with is a dream come true.”

The rehabilitation would end up taking about as long as the original construction, which cost $1 million at the time—about $49 million in today’s dollars, said Mark Hitchcock, Pettinaro’s lead architect on the project. Originally built as the home to city and county government offices, the building would evolve into a courthouse familiar to the thousands who paid traffic fines—or faced far more dire charges there—over the years.

Construction began on the 218,000-square-foot building at 10th and King streets in late 2009. The building was purchased in 2008 from Bank of America after it abandoned plans to occupy it and began scaling back its Wilmington operations after the purchase of MBNA Bank.

The structure holds a place in the hearts and minds of the many attorneys who took Delaware’s tough bar exam there; or who tried cases in its many courtrooms when it was the Daniel L. Herrmann Courthouse.

“Those of us who practiced here have fantastic memories” of the place, Levine said. “It’s the majesty of the setting. There’s a special bond between lawyers and courthouses.”

About 275 Young Conaway employees will leave their current headquarters in the Brandywine Building this coming Friday and arrive ready to resume work in the new building the following Monday. To prepare for their arrival, designers had to accommodate the special needs of a hard-charging law firm.

There’s a staff of four full-time hospitality workers and a kitchen to keep hungry lawyers fed. The old wood conference tables—marred so frequently by attorney briefcases that it cost $20,000 a year to refinish them—have been replaced by hard marble versions.

There is a mock trial room, complete with judge’s bench; a suite of offices and other accommodations for visiting attorneys, with its own entrance; and a 14,810-square-foot conference center that can be subdivided into smaller rooms.

“You can’t believe you’re in a building that was built in 1916,” said Beverly Thomes, president and owner of the interior design firm Contract Environments Inc.

But regardless of what has been added, it’s clear that the people involved are just as proud of what remains.

“This rejuvenates Rodney Square in a way that’s very important to the city,” Levin said.


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