"We had the modest goal of creating a courthouse with a relationship to nature and to the formal space of the city," said James Ingo Freed, partner-in-charge of design for Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. "Stone is a material of considerable duration and durability -- it is something that speaks to timelessness. The stone here was deliberately put into the whole image of the courthouse to represent the steadfastness and continuity of the law, and the protection that law provides for us."
According to Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the winning firm of a national selection process, this courthouse was undertaken to provide the federal court system with expanded, more suitable and advanced facilities in downtown Omaha, while serving as a catalyst for the development of the surrounding central business district.
"The underlying goal of this project was to satisfy the strict functional demands of the federal courts, now and well into the future, while fulfilling civic aspirations and reinforcing the central importance of jurisprudence with a courthouse designed to be open and inviting, equally accessible to all," stated the architect.
All of this was accomplished within the limited budget provided by the federal government. "We would have done the whole thing in natural stone if we had the budget," Freed said. "Instead, we had stone enfolded around precast concrete, meshing granite and marble with brick. Going to brick was difficult, but we had to make the most of what we had in the budget. We had to find a way to mesh different types of stone, and we negotiated every bit of stone we could into this building through the judges. We used quite a few varieties of stone, and they worked quite harmoniously with each other."
To accent the brick and precast stone, Carnelian granite was selected for the trim on the exterior along the belt-course level, according to Robin Taff, senior associate of design at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. "This purplish-colored granite was chosen because it complemented the color of the brick," Taff said. "The brick was custom fabricated to look like limestone. It has subtle tones of purple, pink and gray in it as well."
The Carnelian granite was supplied and fabricated by Cold Spring Granite Co. in Cold Spring, MN. In addition to being used on the belt course of the building, granite was used for the paving outside the main entrance, the coping on the planters and low walls in the main plaza entrance and the sign proclaiming the name of the building with "V" cut, carved letters. The stairs in the plaza area are Carnelian granite as well, and on the base of the building where the vertical wall meets the horizontal ground, there is a border of this granite, said Taff. "Granite was used where people could touch it -- on lower levels and in the plaza area," she continued.
"The courthouse is in its very essence a public building," said Freed. "Being a public building, it needed a public setting." Although not very obvious, since it slopes down 35 feet from front to back, an appropriate site was found within a block each of the county courthouse and the convention center.
To enter the building, one must pass through a grove of 36 trees. "The fundamental relationship of man to nature is thus set forth, but trimmed down in a balance of man and urban space," Freed said. "When the grove is grown fully, the trees will be understood as passage through the woods into the civil world of the law."
Inside the great hall, the central organizing space of the courthouse, the building "vibrates" with sunlight. "Above, a skylight is sheltered and shaded by four umbrella-like tree structures -- protected by the law," said the architect. "The sun seeks out the spaces and reflects on the glass and marble interior."
Surrounded by four courtrooms on each level, the central hall is defined by eight columns that generate a quasi-circular space that is asymmetrically imposed upon by a bridge at the far end, said Freed. According to Taff, a 42-inch high wainscot of Fior di Pesco marble with a subtle projecting cornice and recessed lower edge circles the atrium. ASI Stone Imports of Birmingham, AL, supplied this marble.
In addition to the marble, two types of terrazzo supplied by Spencer Tile Co. of Memphis, TN, were used to create a strong, steadfast presence in the public areas of the courthouse. "Venetian terrazzo, 3 inches thick, highlites", the flooring on the ground level -- the most public space," Taff said. "A number of bronze divider strips were laid in the terrazzo in a radial pattern reflecting the geometry of the building."
Again due to budget restrictions, a less expensive epoxy terrazzo was used for the floors on the upper levels. "A lot of work went into having the color of the epoxy terrazzo look compatible with the marble," Taff said. "A second color of epoxy terrazzo was used to emphasize openings and doorways. Epoxy terrazzo, only 3/8 thick, typically doesn't require as many divider strips, but we added some for design purposes."
The human-scaled design of the building was created to make the courthouse grand but not overwhelming. "The public is invited inside and can approach the courts -- the space of jurisprudence -- through the central hall -- the social space of man," Freed said. "There are other occupants in this building, but the emphasis here is on the proceedings of the legal system that protects us all."
Credit BoxRoman L. Hruska U.S. Courthouse
Architect: Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, New York, NY; DLR Group, Omaha, NE
Stone Supplier & Fabricator: Cold Spring Granite Co., Cold Spring, MN (granite); ASI Stone Imports, Inc., Birmingham, AL (marble); Spencer Tile Co., Inc., Memphis, TN (terrazzo)
General Contractor: Clark Construction Group, Inc., Bethesda, MD