Thursday, April 16, 2015

The District Courts Building in Staunton, Virginia

With all of the attention and discussion being paid to the eventual fate of the Augusta County Courthouse here in Staunton, there has been little thought given to the other piece in this drama, the District Courts building across the street.

This building was constructed in 1950 in the streamlined moderne style, in this case it could be called "federal moderne", as there was a proliferation of buildings with some of these features constructed by federal and state governments between the 1930's to the 1950's.

Many people disdain this historic building because it is a mid-century modern structure and doesn't fit their idea of what architecture is in Staunton. Actually there are a lot of architectural styles from different eras present right in downtown, including from this era. Many of the historic storefronts downtown are in the art-deco style, even in the googie moderne style (One example of this is at 107 W. Beverley Street). Art Deco can be seen at Yelping Dog. There are also houses with this kind of design and detailing-see my post on a house in Newtown below.

A vibrant architectural scene should be composed of architecture from many eras, reflecting the entire history of the city, not just a frozen snapshot of one period. The District Courts building is a historic structure, and it must be treated the same as any other historic architecture in Staunton. Below, I will attempt to highlight some of the design features of the building, and why they are significant.

Here is the building as seen from the front of the Augusta County Courthouse:

The building is a composition of asymmetrical balance, and further it is that in three dimensions. It's ornament is all in the composition and in the materials themselves. This is a typical feature of modern architecture.

The building on this side is anchored by the off-center tower, which in turn, has it's own design elements. The tower is offset to the left in order to balance the weight of the larger field of the building on the right. That segment consists of a field of punched windows bounded by bands of cast stone that extend from the tower and wrap around the corner into the other facade.

The tower itself has a field of stacked-bond brick with a cast-stone section on the left. That section also has punched windows bounded by cast stone bands, and also wraps around the corner, this time to the left. Above is a round cast stone medallion that acts as an exclamation point.

At the bottom the tower curves around, guiding one up the stairs to the recessed entrance. The roof over the entrance cantilevers to the left, pierced by the flagpole. Ignore the copper metal roof: this is a misguided addition that does violence to the architectural scheme. I don't know why it was added.

To the left are more punched openings bounded by the cast stone bands, this time wrapping around the left-hand corner.

In this facade there is a conscious attempt to break spatial boundaries, to carry the themes around corners and even to punch through features, giving the building a kinetic energy typical of the style. It contrasts well with the building across the street, which is all gravity and stolidity. In fact, it enhances the impact of the older courthouse, setting it off against the "newer" design.

 Here are some more images, with the same elements inherent:

This building, like the older one, has not been maintained or treated properly by the county over the years, but this building could be renovated and even added on to: the 1980's addition is not historic or architecturally significant, and could be removed or modified to suit.

So as these discussions continue, keep our District Courts Building in mind. However the story ends, it is going to be there, part of our historic downtown fabric.


You might note that I have written nothing about the inside of the building. I have never been inside it, but since I wrote this, I've spoken to a couple of people familiar with the interior of the building. I've been told that inside is a warren of small offices and walls that may have been changed and modified many times over the years. It sounds like quite a mess and I'm not sure from the description how much of the original interior remains. It would likely be necessary to gut out much of the interior in order to update the building to current standards and needs.

I also realized that I failed to mention the added accessible ramp along South Augusta Street. The addition of this ramp was obviously necessary due to the implementation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the clear need to accommodate wheelchair access to the building. It is also the crudest possible way to deal with the problem. If the building is made-over in a major way, I have no doubt that a better solution possible.