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Ruane Judicial Center opens for business in Salem

Posted by Justin Rice  November 21, 2011 02:29 PM

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Justin A. Rice for Boston.com

The new $109 million J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center in Salem opened its doors today.

Alba Nunez never thought she’d see the day when the new $109 million J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center in Salem opened its doors.

“I never thought I’d make it, I thought I’d be retired,” the probation officer in the Essex Superior Court for 19 years said this morning from her new office overlooking the North River. “Ever since I got [to the probation department] they said ‘We’re going to get a new building, we’re going to get a new building.’

“To actually see it is like, ‘Wow.’”

The new 195,000-square-foot courthouse named after Ruane, a Salem state representative who died in 2006 after three decades in the State House, has 11 courtrooms and will house Essex Superior Court, the Salem District Court that is currently housed in cramped quarters on Washington Street, the Juvenile Court that leases space at Shetland Park, and the Housing Court. The Superior Court serves Essex County, while the District Court serves Salem, Beverly, and Danvers, among other communities. Juvenile Court serves Salem, Peabody, Danvers, Middleton, Beverly, and others.

While Superior Court opened today, the other three courts should all be open before Christmas.

In addition to giving the new five-story structure sweeping views of Salem’s steeple-stacked skyline and the North River, the courthouse’s architectural firm, Goody Clancy, took painstaking efforts to follow the SJC’s design guidelines. Those guidelines require as much natural light as possible in new courthouses, especially in the courtrooms. Principal architect Joan E. Goody, who died midway through the three-year project, was able to bring natural light to some of the courtrooms in the building’s interior by carving a courtyard into the middle of the building that also collects rainwater and filters it to underground storage tanks.

“It feels like you’re breathing, even though you’re coming to court the modern setting makes it less frightening and intimidating,” Nunez said before adding, “It wakes you up whether you like it or not.”

The old facilities did not meet national safety standards that require separate facilities for the public, courthouse employees, and prisoners. The new building has separate elevators and restrooms and hallways to move prisoners through the building without crossing paths with the public.

“Today they are getting all the kinks out so they can be ready to go, it’s beautiful, it’s very exciting,” State Representative John Keenan (D-Salem) said this morning.

Keenan said while the official ribbon cutting will likely happen this spring, he is trying to organize tours for members of the public in the coming weeks.   

“Considering it used taxpayer money I want to give anyone who wants to a chance to see it,” said Keenan, who took Ruane’s widow, Helena Piecewicz Ruane, for a tour of the building on Friday. “She was thrilled. She couldn’t be happier with the way it came out.”

Keenan said there is finally a plaque in place in place to memorialize the late Judge Samuel E. Zoll, who  was chief justice of the Massachusetts District Courts for 28 years. Keenan said he is working on taking Zoll’s widow on a tour of the courthouse too.  

Nunez said the employees only gripe was the lack of parking. Keenan said he’s working on the parking issue.

Chief probation officer Martin Wallace said 15,000 files were moved into the probation department’s new office space on the third floor over the weekend and they are practically up and running already.

He did say that even though he is thrilled that the new building was able to be completed in tough financial times and the consolidation of all the courts into one building will be more efficient, he will miss the old building.

“It was a beautiful building, it had a lot of history, it’s sad to leave,” he said of the old courthouse located down Federal Street from the new courthouse.  “I had an emotional attachment. It’s where I started my career. But frankly it makes more sense fiscally and space wise [to have a new building] and we can work together [with other departments].

“If you walk around here there’s a buzz. Some American know how has gone into here.”

Wallace said he had a bigger office and a conference room in the old building but the views of the North River more than make up for those loses.

“That can make a bad day feel better,” he said. “Take a look at the North River and see the tide coming in. I was here Saturday night and I was like ‘Wow, spectacular.”

Justin A. Rice can be reached at jrice.globe@gmail.com.

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