For nearly four years beginning in early 2005, while federal Judge J. Rich Leonard presided over his usual docket of bankruptcy hearings, he also immersed himself in the world of 19th century architecture and design, obsessing over paint colors, carpet patterns, and period light fixtures.
The result of Leonard's long obsession - and of the hard work of scores of other devoted architects, contractors, and millworkers - is the beautiful reconstruction and renovation of historic courtrooms and meeting rooms in the Federal Building on Fayetteville Street.
The Federal Building, which houses the downtown Raleigh post office and federal bankruptcy courts, was a marvel when it was completed in 1878, boasting 19 marble fireplaces, rich mahogany trim, and what many believe to be the city's first indoor toilets.
Over the years, sections of the building fell into disrepair, and the third floor eventually was closed. When the state needed new courtroom space for an additional bankruptcy judge, Leonard looked upstairs.
What he found was a space that had been largely empty since the 1960s, with caved-in roofs from leaky pipes and floors eaten away by termites. He wasn't scared off.
"I'd always loved this building," he said. "Even though it had fallen on bad times, I had always been attracted to it."
Leonard and his staff discovered 79 boxes of construction documents in the National Archives in Washington detailing the day-to-day construction of the building, including linen blueprints Leonard says they had to unroll and stand on chairs to photograph.
They learned that the original courtroom and chambers had been located on the third floor, and that the larger second-floor courtroom had been added when the court doubled in size in 1915. They took care poking through the mess of rotted dropped ceilings and modern paneling, eventually discovering treasures such as the marble fireplaces and the original 1870s plaster crown molding.
A few of the original fireplaces, covered over during the 1915 renovations, were found inside the walls with nearly 100-year-old coal ash still in them.
"Then I got extraordinarily excited," Leonard said.
Leonard and his team read everything they could find about the building's architect, Alfred B. Mullett. They visited other buildings he designed and went through boxes of construction documents to learn about Mullet's favored finishings, furnishings, styles and colors.
"It's not a complete historical renovation," Leonard said, "because there are some things we just don't know about and had to guess what to do."
But there were many things they did know. They knew Mullet used Tennessee white marble for all his mantels, so they had replica mantels made based on those found in a Mullett building in Knoxville. They knew Mullett used six-globe chandeliers, so they ordered those from a replica chandelier maker. They found an 1876 order form for mahogany blinds, so they used mahogany blinds throughout. And they implemented one of Mullett's most famous architectural details: two-tone wood paneling with mahogany inset into walnut.
Because the 1915 expansion deconstructed the building's third floor so severely, contractors were unable to put the third floor courtroom back in the same spot Mullett had it. Instead, they mimicked it on the other end of the building in an area that previously held office cubicles, and the grand entrance to the courtroom was rebuilt as it was originally drawn.
Still, there were some areas where they weren't quite sure how to proceed.
"It was frustrating," Leonard said, "because we'd read these newspaper files, and some of my female law clerks would say, 'If there had just been one woman reporter who would write about the drapes and the carpets!' "
The description of the courtroom, from an 1878 newspaper article on the day it opened, described the courtroom only as "elegant and commodious."
The historic feel of the courtroom is impressive, particularly for a technologically advanced court that hasn't used a paper file in 10 years.
"It's been nice to try to implant all that technology into a place that feels like a 19th-century courtroom," Leonard said. "It's brand new, but we did everything we could to mimic an old feel. We've done as much as we knew how to do."
The larger second-floor courtroom got a sprucing at the same time. Bad fluorescent lighting was replaced with period-appropriate chandeliers, and the room got new benches and fresh paint. It retains its distinctive red leather porthole doors, original to the 1915 construction.
Leonard, who said he climbed scaffolding every afternoon to mark X's in spots where paint or plaster needed work, and often went to bed with books about Victorian office furniture, loves the results and feels the attention to detail paid off.
"I was pretty obsessed," he said. "I want it to be right for the city. This is a wonderful old building, and it's got such a history."
Not long after construction was completed in 2009, court staff came up with the idea to give free public tours to share the work with the taxpayers who footed the bill.
"It ought not to be just for the benefit of those of us who get to work here and those unfortunate enough to have to come to court here," Leonard says. "It ought to be for everybody."
So each Friday at 2 p.m., a staff member guides folks through the renovated areas of the second and third floors, recounting the history of the building and the role of the court during the time of the building's construction. The Federal Building hosts Boy Scouts, school groups, and various social clubs.
But these tours are not the first given in the historic building. Two weeks before the Federal Building opened, the city conducted what it called "Ladies Tours" because, according to Leonard, "they thought ladies probably would not be coming to the courtroom on a regular basis."