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Design Doctrine: 1990s—U.S. Courthouse in Old San Juan

By Elizabeth Milnarik

“Specific attention should be paid to the possibilities of incorporating into such designs qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located.” —Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles”

Federal government buildings in Puerto Rico are particularly loaded with meaning as political statements about America’s commitment toward its island territory. In the 1990s, the GSA faced obsolete facilities at the U.S. Courthouse in Old San Juan, the first federal building constructed in the territory, and chose to preserve the historic structure in recognition of the building’s role in bringing federal authority to the island.

In 1914, the Office of the Supervising Architect completed the courthouse. Facing the city’s harbor, the three-story, U-shaped, stucco-clad structure has overhanging eaves and wide loggias supported by columns with traditional capitals, which integrate the local Spanish Revival idiom with details representative of the federal government’s dominant Neo-Classicism.

By the mid-1990s, the courthouse was due for renovation under the GSA’s new Design Excellence Program. Begun in 1994, the program was established to realize the goals Moynihan put forward in his “Guiding Principles.” Panels of independent peer reviewers--including architects, engineers, and other relevant professionals—would weigh in on the selection of the design team and review design documents. The GSA also prepared new guiding principles to encourage efficient processes, sustainability, and a consideration of life cycle and demolition costs, remarkably prescient goals for the time.

The GSA and its expert panel selected Maurice Finegold, FAIA, and his firm, Finegold Alexander + Associates, to perform the renovation. Building on the GSA’s new Guiding Principles for Sustainable Existing Buildings, Finegold and his firm developed a project that satisfied a number of goals within the footprint of the existing structure. They revised the plan to provide separate circulation for the public, judges, and detainees. Shear walls improved seismic performance. The most significant historic spaces were preserved, and they reopened the historic loggias to optimize access to natural light and air

“Inspired by decorative tiles and ironwork throughout the building, the team designed hand-fired tiles for the new courtrooms, a more durable and sustainable finish,” says Sherman Morss Jr., AIA, an associate principal at Finegold Alexander. Rechristened the Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, the rehabilitation reinvigorated an excellent federal facility, providing for decades of further use.

Back to Design Doctrine: Five GSA Case Studies >


U.S. Courthouse in Old San Juan, in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith, Photography, Inc./GSA.


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Back to AIArchitect April 27, 2012

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