It’s been over a year since the design for the new federal courthouse in downtown Greenville was unveiled at William Alexander Percy Memorial Library.
Now, according to architect Roy Decker of Duvall Decker Architects PA, courthouse construction on Stein Mart Square is set to commence in April 2021.
“This past October, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) gave us the go-ahead to start the construction documents. There’s a contractor already on board and there’s an April start date for construction so it’s coming fast,” he told Greenville Rotary Club members on Thursday.
Decker attended and spoke during Thursday’s regular meeting of the Rotary Club by invitation of Rotarian and architect Emily Poole and former Ward 3 Councilman Bill Boykin.
An invitation that had to be followed through much later than anticipated because of the COVID-19 pandemic Decker said.
Decker began his presentation by acknowledging and thanking the numerous individuals and entities responsible for making the federal courthouse project possible.
“These projects are not easy to land in a community of any type but Greenville was seen as a valuable place to remake the new courthouse, which by the way is very rare across the country,” he said.
Decker expressed gratitude to the Greenville city council, Congressman Bennie Thompson, local, county and state officials.
“These projects require a coalition of leaders to come together to support every effort both politically and physically in these projects to make them real,” he explained.
He also thanked Levee Board commissioner and chief engineer Peter Nimrod and the board for helping with the acquisition of the permit to build in the community.
CEO Daniel Boggs and senior project manager Nathan Benzing of Greater Greenville Housing and Revitalization Association were among the many Decker thanked for their contributions as well.
He highlighted the importance of using the services of the city’s consulting engineers, Bill Burle and Daniel Martinek, as they have been designated as the civil engineers for the federal courthouse project.
Decker said that it is important for people to understand that such projects are the result of many hands working together in unison to make something truly unique.
Decker’s vision and intent is for the new federal courthouse to be a legacy project for the future of Greenville.
He explained in-depth about how a project such as the construction of the federal courthouse emerges and how its meaning will be tied to the community.
“When a selection is made of an architectural design team, the GSA puts out a request across the country and some 50 firms apply to be the architects for this project. That selection process is narrowed by a board of reviewers which does include Judge Sharion Aycock, Chief U.S. District Judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi) and it’s narrowed to a short list, he explained. That short list is then interviewed in Texas, not in Greenville, and then a selection is made and we were very fortunate to be selected.”
Subsequently, extensive research takes place and as Decker highlighted, there are three key people who are heavily involved in the development of the project — Hon. Judge Aycock, Hon. Debra Brown, District Judge for the Northern District of Mississippi and Hon. Jane M. Virden, Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Mississippi.
Decker said jokingly but warmly, “Working for three women judges has to be the hardest project client I’ve ever encountered and also the most inspiring, most generous, most thoughtful and the most committed to this project being a Greenville project.”
Decker heavily emphasized the significance of “meaning” to the project.
He illustrated as it relates to the architecture of the project, meaning is not something one can simply declare, but has to actually be pursued.
“And, if you’re lucky and you’re dedicated, meaning emerges out of the daily work that you do because you get it inside of you,” Decker said.
He also explained that in the initial research stage of the project, he consulted with renowned architect, Dr. Michael Fazio.
Decker said with there being no actual written history of Greenville, there were three things Duvall Decker asked Fazio to provide — the history of the community’s architecture, the history of the people and history of the courts.
“Michael did a great job and his document is the beginning of a good dissertation of the history of the community,” Decker said.
He continued, “Meaning is a profoundly important part of this project to get right, so we’re in pursuit of meaning, not trying to make meaning. The African American experience is important here and the idea of what justice means to everybody, equal justice under the law, is not always presented equally through court buildings around the country. So, it was important to us, the judges and the court and GSA to find a voice for this building that acknowledges the importance of a federal court building in our country as a part of all federal courthouses around the country, but also acknowledges that access to justice is a basic right as fundamental to everyone no matter who you are.”
As many Rotarians and long-time residents may have been hoping, Decker affirmed that Stein Mart Square’s integrity and substance will be maintained, even though the courthouse is being built at the site.
As his presentation photos suggest, the new federal courthouse is essentially a wooden building inside of a glass enclosure, providing for an abundance of natural light and sustainability.
It will be made of fluted cast stone walls with large bay windows in between them and as Decker pointed out, the bay windows will have projections that shade the sun, making it “environmentally sound and ecologically mature.”
“This building will be on track to meet the 2030 challenge for low carbon emissions,” Decker said. “It will be one of the most sustainable buildings in Mississippi.”
He revealed that construction actually started in February, right before the pandemic was declared.
“Some of you are curious about when this construction is going to start, but I want to tell you first, construction has already started,” he said, creating curious suspense, “we’ve already started building the courtroom and in your community.”
He continued, “Last February, before the virus, we got access to the hangar out at the airport and Mayor, council, Bill Boykin and others helped us to get access to a hangar.”
Decker explained that as part of the process, his team needed to build one of the courtrooms and somewhat make all of the final adjustments dimensionally.
Because of the various factors to consider such as the height of the judges, optics and what not, Decker said the courtrooms have to be tuned beyond the ability of them to make drawings to represent it.
Hence, building a full scale mockup of the courtroom last February in Hangar 450.
He clarified the need for such thoroughness saying, “When a judge is at the bench and they’re looking out at the jury, the lawyers, the defendant, the visual connections that they have to have are very precise…it was an extremely thorough review to tune this courtroom to function at its highest possible level.”
One Rotarian did ask as to why the decision was made to start in the spring when the water table is historically high in the Mississippi Delta as to opposed to the fall, when it is historically low.
Decker responded, “We would’ve loved to start construction now, but it was just not in the cards in terms of the progress and the documents and the preparation. We are hoping that that river stays below flood level.”
He added, “The critical thing for the construction in relation to the levee is the drilling and the piles. There’s about a hundred piles that go down 90 feet that the building is founded on and some of them on the west side of the site cross the incline plain of the levee and that’s really the critical thing — we don’t want to disturb the levee so, if we had total control of everything we would’ve started last summer.”