Midtown Raleigh News

New Wake Justice Center has the grandeur of a courthouse without the name


Wake County Chief Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens has no training in architecture, but he knew what he wanted to see in the new Justice Center.

“Make it look like a courthouse,” he told the design committee.

Since Wake County was carved out of Johnston, Cumberland and Orange counties in 1771, it has used a series of buildings to house that most American of institutions, the local courthouse. Some of those buildings have looked more courtly than others.

According to Elizabeth Reid Murray’s authoritative two-volume “Wake: Capital County of North Carolina,” county leaders had the first courthouse built on a site in what is now Boylan Heights, west of present-day downtown. But the simple log structure wasn’t yet complete in June of 1771, so the first session of court was held nearby in the home of Joel Lane.

Two decades later, the county had outgrown the log structure, and leaders wanted its replacement built closer to the center of Raleigh. They ordered “a large and elegant courthouse” and levied a tax to pay for it.

The site for that building was an acre of land on the west side of Fayetteville Street with two owners, local planter and Revolutionary leader Theophilus Hunter Sr., and James Bloodworth of New Hanover County. Hunter transferred his plot to the county outright, but Bloodworth added a clause on his that has vexed county planners since: If it ever stops serving as site of the courthouse, the land reverts to Bloodworth’s heirs.

That building – wooden with a cupola – wasn’t quite finished when it was put to use in June 1795. Besides a place to hold court, the building hosted auctions, military recruitment, voting and the guests of an innkeeper who rented space when court was not in session.

A fire in 1832 that destroyed county record books got leaders thinking of a less combustible building. An 1835 budget surplus allowed them to designate $10,000 for a new red-brick courthouse, a columned, temple-form building that opened in 1837.

It wasn’t fireproof – more records were destroyed by flames in 1856 – but it served until 1883, when it was deemed too small. A large Second Empire-style addition across the front changed the face of the building and extended its life another 30 years.

By 1913 that, too, was too small. It was torn down and replaced with a four-story Neoclassical style structure of granite-colored terra-cotta with 10 Corinthian columns stretching over the second and third levels. When it was dedicated in 1915 with a three-hour ceremony, a reporter called it “a temple of justice.”

It might still stand today except that the state legislature overhauled court operations in the 1960s, consolidating a mishmash of smaller courts into a system overseen by the state and housed in courthouses all counties are required to build.

A wrecking ball started chipping away at the 1915 building in 1967. In 1970, it was replaced with the 12-story concrete-aggregate Brutalist-style office tower that stands on the former Hunter-Bloodworth tract on Fayetteville Street today.

Often unrecognized as a courthouse, the building has undergone a series of renovations to try to accommodate more than 5,000 people a day. Judges say courtrooms still sometimes have people standing against the walls because there isn’t room for them to sit.

To prevent activation of Bloodworth’s reversionary clause, that building will remain the Wake County Courthouse in name and function when the new Justice Center is dedicated at the corner of Salisbury and Martin streets on Monday. The courthouse will be home to civil and family courts, juvenile services, and estates and wills, while the criminal court system and many county administrative functions will move to the Justice Center.

Designed by O’Brien/Atkins Associates in Research Triangle Park, the building of concrete, glass and stone reaches for a sense of grandeur and importance beyond its 11 stories. Staff and visitors have two entrances to the building, one at Martin and Salisbury, the other at Martin and McDowell, that open into a five-story atrium.

Some will never have to leave the first floor.

As designers, “Our role in all of this is to speed justice,” said David Goodwin, director of the county’s general services administration, by making the building navigable and eliminating bottlenecks. Toward that end, designers put the busiest courts on the lowest levels; most traffic violations will be handled in a dispositions court off the atrium that exits into the cashier’s office. An ATM for cash withdrawals is right outside.

If they’re not sure where to go, visitors can search for a name on scrolling electronic court dockets mounted to the walls like airport flight schedules. District and superior courtrooms are stacked on the tower floors, with one floor left unfinished for future courtroom expansion. Depending on the county’s population growth, that could be 30 to 50 years or more from now.

Courtrooms reflect judges’ desires for a space that commands respect, with warm wood paneling and furnishings and black trim. Unlike the courtrooms in the old courthouse, where jury members struggle to hear testimony, Justice Center courtrooms have such fine acoustics that builders had to add an optional electronic white noise function that judges can use to cover whispered conferences at the bench.

At 577,000 square feet, the Justice Center is now the largest building in the county’s inventory. And it does look and feel like a courthouse, says Tom Davis, president of the Wake County Bar Association.

In any county seat, Davis said, “It’s the courthouse that defines American society. You don’t want the public to feel that you’re wasting their tax dollars on a building that’s frivolous, but it needs a little bit of grandeur, a little bit of awe, for people to understand the magnitude of law to society.

“This building provides a certain feeling that you’re in the presence of something more important than just your individual self.”