Book One / 12
Midway into the warm summer months a few courthouse workers began to complain of a strong odor entering the building through their first floor windows.
The offices where the odor had first appeared lined the southern wall of the twelve-story building. The remaining three walls abutted sidewalks that immediately gave way to streets and busy traffic, but along this fourth wall the county had retained a small park between the building and a narrow circular street. The park was the primary remaining evidence of the majestic original design that had situated the county’s courthouse atop a small slope, and then gifted the main façade with a sweeping southward view of an immense snowcapped mountain several miles away.
Despite an original intent to impart symbolic significance to the site, over the years this early twentieth-century recognition of the importance of architectural first impressions had eventually given way to more modern demands. The volume of paperwork in courthouse and trial administration grew, requiring new office spaces; earthquakes periodically undermined the structure, resulting in a retrofit that conformed to code if not architectural integrity; the growing volume of traffic noise from the streets resulted in windows being covered by large brass panels; and modern public security concerns developed, distorting the building’s appearance with each new measure taken in mitigation of future violence.
With the passing of each decade different administrations confronted different problems, and each addressed its own with one eye on immediate needs and the other on justifying the expenditure of public funds. As a result of this myopic approach to repair, the building’s architectural design grew more brutalist, in an unattractive patchwork pattern. The maintenance of the structure outside began to mimic the development of policies and procedures inside, as both exterior and interior design were forced to adapt to serial constraints beyond any ability to manage with a consistency of purpose or appearance.
Finally, at the height of the national trend to disregard the public inheritance of an architectural commons, the aging front façade was covered over and converted into a loading dock. Ingress and egress were diverted permanently to the busy avenues along the east and west walls.
The grassy park along the southern slope remained, but it no longer provided the principle pathway through which the county’s residents approached their main courthouse. Slowly, through neglect and lack of use, it had become the province of people unwelcome elsewhere. Despite a history more appropriate to the building it introduced, the park was now used almost exclusively by the clients and residents of the Downtown Emergency Services Center located across the street.
Homeless and mentally ill men and women slept in the courthouse park throughout the day. They would spread their few possessions around them on the grass, or stack them more privately in piles near their heads. Frequently they spent the days drinking or dealing drugs in the park, aware that implicit in their occupation of the area was the understanding by courthouse officials and public security officers that they had nowhere else to go. Both they and we were all safer by their ability to congregate on the courthouse lawn.
Perhaps due to the small field of grass that still grew, and the enormous old oaks that provided shade in the summer, or merely the immediate proximity of the park to a provision of required services, the residents and clients of the emergency services center found what they needed in the park. In this way, the park had become one more symbol of the connection between the shifting public purpose of the courthouse and the city’s expanding population of the homeless mentally ill.
Additionally, as a result of these individuals taking most of the room in the park, courthouse staff did not themselves hang out there. Employees referred to the park as “Muscatel Meadow” in reference to a cheap, fortified wine. And they went out of their way to avoid the area in the dark winter evenings as they walked to their buses at the end of the day.
The security concerns of staff were in no way diminished by the announcement in mid-July that a dead body had been found in the utility well of the loading dock adjacent to the park, and that upon discovery the body had already been dead for three weeks. Despite the anonymous threats regularly received by judges, despite the type of traffic and activity outside the building at all hours, and despite the dangerous nature of many of the proceedings that occurred daily inside the courtrooms themselves, only the reported odor of a decaying body had been sufficient cause for suddenly patrolling, with actual scrutiny, the building’s perimeters.