Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse and Federal Building, Beckley, West Virginia

CRITIQUE The new Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse and Federal Building in Beckley, West Virginia, is an unapologetic homage to the architecture of another era. The General Services Administration jury that selected its design in a 1995 limited competition lauded its reference to 1930s WPA style, which they considered to produce “an extremely successful solution to making a public building that looks like a public building.” The project’s lead designer, Robert A. M. Stern of New York City and New Haven, Connecticut, has long admired this classical, Depression-era expression. It helped create an identifiable face for the federal government in Washington, D.C., and ultimately, as Stern observes, “spread to courthouses, post offices, and other institutional buildings throughout the country.”

The courthouse in Beckley bears some remarkable and ironic similarities to its visually very different sister facility in Central Islip, New York, by Richard Meier & Partners (this issue, page 78). The formal vocabulary employed there, which New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp has called “a fusion of Le Corbusier and de Stijl,” represents an equally unapologetic homage to a different genre of much the same era. Both buildings are erudite formalist essays penned by authors who have reveled in their respective stylistic vocabularies for decades. Both projects are preoccupied with a postmodern predilection for image and visual code. Both offer nostalgic remembrances of sophisticated architectural expressions invented by the generation of their users’ great-great-grandparents.

In the case of the Beckley project, Stern advocates his particular historicist approach because he is convinced that “the way to accomplish… the lasting dignity and sense of stability that is at the heart of the rule of law, is to approach the design of the building from a classical perspective.” U.S. District Court Judge David A. Faber, who acted as primary client through much of the project, agrees, asserting that, “Older-style buildings are more in keeping with the dignity of the court.” He also believes that citizens “associate courts and law with precedent,” making familiar forms more appropriate than new ones. Besides, Faber confesses that he is personally “enamored of old things,” and notes with pride, “I love this building because it reflects old values.”

The context of the Beckley courthouse also encouraged its client and architects to take a traditional approach. Downtown Beckley, where the building is located, reads like a page out of a history book, with virtually every structure predating World War II. Fortunately, an ideal site was available for the project at the termination of Main Street, on one side of tiny Shoemaker Square-already the focus for the county courthouse and sheriff’s office as well as the municipal police headquarters. Formerly an open parking lot, the thin, 500-foot-long site offered challenges of a very irregular configuration and a 30-foot topographical change from the square on the east to First Avenue on the west.

The architects settled the big-for-downtown Beckley building into its site skillfully. They converted the program requirement for three functional elements-the courts, an IRS center, and a civic lobby-into three modestly scaled building volumes. Originally rigidly aligned, the three pieces were skewed a bit at the suggestion of competition jurors to merge even better with surrounding streets and buildings. According to
Judge Faber, the sensitive integration of the project in the downtown fabric has impressed both occupants and neighbors; people in the community feel like it has created an infusion of new life and has contributed to rejuvenating downtown.

Though local reaction to the project is generally favorable, there is also a realization that the architectural quality of the building represents a significant diminution of the tradition it is meant to extend. People are quick to compare the new building to the 1933 U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building which it replaced, just a block away. The old building, with its stone base and fine craftsmanship, is detailed to give a sense of heft and grandeur. The new building replaces stone with limestone-color precast panels; craftsmanship is rare, and facade articulation occurs within a depth range of a few inches. The building has that insipid postmodern thinness that provides an image of a traditional building, but without the real dignity, power, and soul of its predecessors.

Grant Marani, a partner in Stern’s office who handled the project day-to-day, acknowledges that the firm had specified higher quality materials in the original scope of the project – e.g., stone instead of precast concrete, lead-coated copper instead of painted metal. The construction budget, however, got into trouble because of unforeseen foundation costs and because new and very expensive security measures were added after the Oklahoma City bombing. The result is that the quality of construction is “not the best,” according to Marani.

Economic measures are perhaps most clearly visible on the inside of the building, where, other than a handful of modest exceptions such as the Richard Haas murals in the lobby and dark-stained oak paneling in a few offices and courtrooms, the finishes are quite pedestrian. Stock interiors feature Sheetrock walls, hung acoustical-tile ceilings with lay-in fluorescent fixtures, plastic-laminate elevator cabs and countertops, and off-the-shelf contemporary hardware. The “classical perspective” is barely evident in most spaces.

Is it possible in the current era to realize a really fine public building in a traditional style? This instance paired the talents of one of the country’s most capable and experienced architectural firms working in this manner with a committed client looking to upgrade its standards. And yet the building quality of the finished product pales by comparison to its counterparts from the 1930s, even in modest Beckley.

If the federal government in our own very affluent era is going to try to create architecture with the traditional dignity and quality achieved so beautifully in the depressed economy of the 1930s, it must commit substantially greater resources and conviction than are evident in the Beckley courthouse. Working in the genre of another era only makes more evident the diminution of true pride, respect, and esteem our culture today places in buildings for institutions like the federal judiciary. Building great public buildings in a classical style has always required political and monetary commitment beyond basic needs. This has never been more true than today. If public buildings of our own time are not to seem second rate, they must either be granted that kind of special stature or seek their value from sources other than just tradition. Judge Faber rightly observes that “any architecture is representative of the culture it springs from.” The representation presented by the new U.S. Courthouse at Beckley should give us pause.