Courting No Favors

courthouse 0119Here in Gunnison County, we needed a new courthouse long before we got one. As with most things in government — probably all of Life — what seems like a simple statement of fact quickly becomes mired in controversy and outcry. We need a new courthouse. No, we don’t. The courthouse is unsafe and falling apart. It’s historic, and a new one would be a huge waste of taxpayer money.

Now I can’t even remember if a bond initiative was attempted or not. If it was floated, it collapsed in abject failure. County commissioners started saving their taxpayer pennies in order to pay for a new building without a bond.

In the meantime — and this is the part that continues to astound me — every county entity that had fit in the courthouse started vacating it for its own space. How everyone fit in one building when they are now spread across five is a mystery to me.

When taxpayers did say yes to the school district (and we say yes to a voracious school district a lot) and a new school was built (after tons of community input, the architect did what s/he wanted, and the orientation is awful for any meaningful energy efficiencies — but it parallels the Palisades across the river, and isn’t that really what matters?), two old schools were repurposed as county buildings. Two buildings easily the size of the courthouse now host a fraction of the departments that all used to live in the courthouse.

One school is now strictly for social services, and the other contains the assessor, treasurer, clerk and recorder, and building — sorry, community development — department. I think they managed to find half a closet for the coroner.

The sheriff’s department got its own building, and it thought it would share some of that with the city — but the city police built their own building as well.

So what did all these exodii leave in the courthouse? Court stuff, county finance and administration. You’d think maybe the building could be slimmed down somewhat. But that would be foolish on your part, now wouldn’t it?

I was among those who recognized the urgent need for a new courthouse. If there was a bond issue, I voted for it. (I always vote for them, it seems — and I’ll probably vote to give the school district more money when they inevitably come asking for it, because the school in Crested Butte is stuffed past its gills.)

I didn’t even go on the tours, but I could see the pictures in the newspaper of rotting infrastructure and hear the stories of water damage to irreplaceable records that were stored in the basement because there was nowhere else to put them.

And I was summoned for jury duty in Judge Ben Eden’s court, where all us prospectives were given what amount to a pitch by the judge for new quarters. He tried to be subtle about it, sort of: “If you get called to the jury box, be careful not to lean back in some chairs, because there’s a window right behind them and we don’t want you falling out,” and “I’ll try to speak up but if you can’t hear me it’s because there’s a fan blowing air down right on top of me.”

He had many other points to make about the inadequacies of the courtroom, although I don’t remember most of them. I suppose, why not lobby your captive audience?

I didn’t even get called to the hazardous jury box before others were seated. And I didn’t get called when I was among something like 600 people summoned for the trial of a prominent local lawyer. That was a circus: we all filled out questionnaires, but instead of reviewing them and excusing people who weren’t ever going to be seated, the judge, a retiree called in from another judicial district due to conflicts of interest, seemed to be enjoying himself at the center of spectacle so much that he kept many people for hours longer than he needed to.

And we kept getting shuffled around, first in the larger district courtroom, then the smaller county courtroom, then back, and back again: at some point I was seated in the airless back near a pregnant woman who was on the verge of passing out, and still we were all kept to witness the judge in action. But it was clear these were not adequate venues for this kind of trial. Maybe if the judge had been more judicious . . .

I don’t usually find myself with cause to spend much time in the courthouse, particularly after all the other departments hollowed it out, but then a young man of my acquaintance ran afoul of the law and I started attending his many, many court appearances.

The first thing you learn about the scales of justice is how slowly they tilt. I would estimate that 75 percent of his appearances resulted in “You’re here; we’re going to continue this for a month.”

But it did allow me to track the progression from old courthouse to interim (Webster Hall, with the world’s squeakiest floors and far worse acoustics for the soft-spoken yet fast-talking Judge Eden) to finally, the long-awaited New Improved Courthouse.

To which I have to say: why were we waiting for this?

I am forever astounded at Gunnison’s predilection for awful choices in public architecture, and this courthouse may just be the centerpiece. What a waste of space.

In an attempt to appease the conservationist crowd, and to honor our heritage, it was planned to retain the original 1880-ish core, which had been completely subsumed by later, rectangular renovations. That plan lasted only until the bricks crumbled as soon as they saw daylight.

In the melange of architecture that is the new building, the middle is still a replica of Early Courthouse, flanked by glass walls, much of which points toward the north, surrounded by limestone or faux-limestone blocks. It looks like the team at the architectural firm couldn’t make up their minds and tried to appease everyone.

But at least it says, Here is a modern building. When you walk inside it says: What a waste of space. You walk into the biggest, emptiest, loneliest, most unused lobby in the entire world. The entire Early Courthouse section hosts nothing but the empty lobby, marble stairs (in honor of Marble’s marble quarry), an elevator and the second-floor commissioner meeting room. That’s it.

To the north and south there are huge, empty hallways bracketed by offices and the raison d’etre: the courtrooms. Three of them. All of them inadequately small and completely windowless. In addition to my trips with the young man (scheduled to — at long last — get off probation in about a month, keep your fingers crossed), I spent an entire day in one of them, when I was at last selected as a juror for a trial. (We found the drunk driver not as guilty as he surely was, but guilty enough.)

What a soulless place to have to work. Judge Eden, who is now retired, must have been completely disheartened — at least, prior to the start of the drunk driver’s trial, we got yet another mild diatribe about courtroom inadequacies, but this time I couldn’t fault him. There are windows behind the courtrooms — the room where our jury deliberated was quite lovely. But these courtrooms — ish. All that wasted hallway space and the ugliest courtrooms in America. There are your tax dollars at work, which is probably why public building projects upset so many people. This one upsets me, and I voted for it. (If there was a vote.) I was in favor of a new courthouse. But not really this one.

Tune in tomorrow (perhaps) for a rundown of Notorious Murder Trials, Past and Future, taking place in Gunnison’s assorted iterations of courthouses. I can’t wait — how ’bout you?

About the photo above: Everything you see between the two white sections, except for a meeting room upstairs, is hallway. That’s it.

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