The courthouse is almost in session
Salem’s Ruane Judicial Center to open Nov. 21
SALEM - Standing inside the former First Baptist Church one recent day, John H. Ronan craned his neck to marvel at the sanctuary’s restored wooden balconies and chandeliers.
The vacated church building was moved 150 feet to become the law library for the new J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center in Salem, in what was not just a historical moment for the 205-year-old structure, but for Ronan as well.
“I think he’d like it. I think he’d like it very much,’’ Ronan, 52, said of the gleaming new $109 million courthouse, the library of which carries the name of his grandfather, the late Supreme Judicial Court justice James J. Ronan. His grandfather’s name is also on the old Superior Court law library farther down Federal Street.
“He worked in the other library all the time; he lived at 348 Essex St. and would walk down to that library every day and work there and write his decisions and thoughts,’’ said Ronan, a Salem city councilor whose law office sits across the street from the new courthouse.
Ronan and his council colleagues, along with Salem state Representative John Keenan and other community leaders, toured the new 195,000-square-foot courthouse on Nov. 4.
The full courthouse complex is named after Ruane, a Salem state representative who died in 2006 after three decades in the State House. It has 11 courtrooms and will house Essex Superior Court, the Salem District Court that is currently housed in cramped and decrepit 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.
Superior Court is slated to open on Nov. 21 while the other three courts should all be open before Christmas, according to Richard L’Heureux, manager of planning, programming, and design for the Trial Court of Massachusetts.
“Those of you who have seen the old Superior Court, well I can’t even describe it,’’ L’Heureux said while leading the tour through the building. He had no problem, however, describing the new courthouse: “The light, air, tranquillity - that is the thing that is needed when you’re under the stress and duress of the amazing trials they are in.’’
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.
“This was her last project,’’ L’Heureux said of Goody. “Her design is a tribute to her skills and the sensitivity she felt for Salem as a community.’’
The old facilities also 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.
L’Heureux also said the probation department has its own drug-testing facilities so people don’t have to give urine samples in public restrooms, a requirement that brought “a loss of dignity,’’ he said.
The courtrooms are designed so lawyers can see the jury and witness at the same time. The witness stand has a seat for an interpreter. And the judge is able to see the entire courtroom at once.
“The judges told us they really read everybody’s body language,’’ L’Heureux said.
While the narrow hallways and stairways in the old buildings didn’t meet handicapped-accessibility standards, the new building is 100 percent accessible. In the old buildings, computer wires and phone lines were taped to floors, and access was gained by drilling holes through walls and desks. There was also no central heat and air conditioning, so the noisy window air-conditioning units had to be turned off when court was in session.
“The other building, the heat was put on in October and stayed on until May,’’ L’Heureux said. “There were two temperatures: too hot or too cold.’’
Despite its quirks, Ronan said the old Superior Court will always hold a special place in his heart. He said he would like to see it converted into a City Hall annex.
“I’d be delighted if the city could get ahold of it,’’ he said. (No plans have been made for either the old Superior Court or the old District Court building.)
Ronan’s father, John T. Ronan, is a retired Superior Court judge. Asked what his father would think about the new courthouse, the younger Ronan was at a loss for words.
“He’s down in Florida now,’’ Ronan said. “When he comes back this will be open; he’ll see it when he comes back for Thanksgiving.’’
By that time decorative items from the old library, including portraits of judges, should be moved into the new library, which will also showcase the court’s records from the 1692 witchcraft trials.
“I’ve been watching this for years; I’m really excited about this,’’ said Christina Sullivan, chief executive of the Enterprise Center at Salem State University, during the Nov. 4 tour. “I do think the law library deserves the national preservation award. That’s absolutely spectacular.’’
L’Heureux noted that the shutters in the law library will be open as often as possible to make sure light always streams through the windows.
“The old [library] was dark because nobody cleaned the skylight,’’ Ronan said.
“I don’t think we’ll have that problem here,’’ L’Heureux said.