The six-year renovation of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse at 40 Foley Square is nearing completion at a time when space is needed to accommodate a record number of federal judges in lower Manhattan.

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will hear its first oral arguments in the courthouse since the judges moved to temporary quarters across the street at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse at 500 Pearl St. in December 2006, and the first of several Southern District judges will join their circuit colleagues in a building that has been completely rewired, relit and resecured.

Lobby of the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, 40 Foley Square. See more photos.

The Neoclassical structure, designed by Cass Gilbert, was completed in 1935 and dedicated on Jan. 21, 1936. With nearly 1 million square-feet of space, it sits 38 stories high with a six-story base and three interior courtyards.

The renovations originally were budgeted by the General Services Administration for $229 million and ended up costing the GSA $317 million. That figure does not include add-ons that may come in the future from court budgets or from other agencies, such as the U.S. Marshals Service. The original cost for building the courthouse was $50 million.

The project was due to be completed two years ago this month, but court officials long ago acknowledged the job would take longer than anticipated.

Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs will preside on today on one of two panels to hear arguments in the circuit’s 15th and 17th floor courtrooms. Jacobs is now in the final year of his seven-year term as chief, with most of that time spent at 500 Pearl St.

“I’m winded—this is a huge project,” Jacobs said with a smile. “I’m an architecture freak and New York’s history is a passion, so for me it was a wonderful opportunity to be involved in the restoration of a New York landmark. This building was built by hand in the Depression and there is nothing prefabricated, nothing cookie cutter and that has added a lot of suffering to the whole process.”

The historic courthouse is where federal prosecutors secured the convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for spying for the Russians; and four of the men charged in the Osama bin Laden conspiracy that included the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and injured thousands.

By the late 1990s, problems with the infrastructure had to be addressed—bad wiring, broken pipes and flooding, and an ancient heating system required a top-to-bottom fix, offering the opportunity to restore an architectural gem that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

A new heating system is now in place and old window air conditioning units have been removed and replaced with central air. The ceilings, adorned with the type of rosettes that Gilbert also used on the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., have been restored.

The ornate ceilings and walls made the renovation job trickier, as some 5,000 miles of wiring was installed in trenches dug into the floors. The marble hallways have been cleared of temporary cubicles once used by staffers, and four rooms with conference tables have been set aside for mediation sessions.

New, recessed lighting, some of it buried in the rosettes, has been added to brighten the halls and courtrooms of what was sometimes a gloomy, cave-like building. Handicapped access has been improved and public restrooms have been upgraded. A few elevators have been sacrificed to serve as the conduits for the electrical and other systems.

Second Circuit Executive Karen Milton said last week that the building’s ancient systems were falling apart and had to be replaced—all “without touching the ceilings or the walls.”

“The fact was, we couldn’t use large amounts of the building because spaces leaked, there was no heating. We were running a modern court system on 1930s wiring,” Milton said. “If this building had been fully occupied, we would have had brownouts.”

Secure Courtrooms

In addition to regular courtrooms for the Southern District, there are three secure courtrooms on the building’s first, third and fifth floors that face three internal courtyards.

Southern District Executive Edward Friedland said the larger courtrooms will be used for multi-defendant trials, trials requiring extra security, and special proceedings such as immigration swearing-in ceremonies.

Courtrooms with external windows have “bomb blast” curtains. Bullet-proof glass walls in the lobby separate the metal detectors and security screening lines from the main lobby.

“Certainly in terms of the building itself, with the new security features that have been added we have a much better level of security for the lawyers, the jurors, the employees and the public,” Friedland said.

The restored Marshall courthouse will house as many as 21 district and magistrate judges. An arraignment court has been added on the building’s third floor and an adjunct clerk’s office for the Southern District is nearly complete.

There are now 60 active, senior and magistrate judges in the Southern District. While four judges—Richard Owen, Leonard Sand, Lawrence McKenna and Barbara Jones—are retiring this year, there already are five vacancies, with four nominees for those vacancies before the U.S. Senate.

Southern District Chief Judge Loretta Preska said the renovated courthouse is coming online at just the right time, as judges will no longer be sharing courtrooms or, in some cases, chambers.

“We are fortunate beyond belief because otherwise we would be hanging people in closets,” Preska said. “Because our district court judges will no longer have to share courtrooms, trials will be able to be scheduled more quickly and dispositions will pick up.”

The first wave of nine district judges, most of them recent additions to the bench, and two magistrate judges will be moving in right away.

The Second Circuit’s office began moving its operations to the Marshall courthouse in mid-December, but it kept its public window in the Moynihan building open until Jan. 4. The public windows in the Marshall courthouse open today.

The move will ease congestion for attorneys and the public as they enter the Moynihan courthouse, where long lines of lawyers and litigants waiting to clear security have been fairly common.

Friedland said of the renovations, “For us it’s critically important that the Southern District be at full operational status. The shared courtroom is a model that doesn’t work and this gets us back to making sure that everything can be heard in a timely manner.”

The Southern District grand jury will return to the old courthouse, and a reshuffling and reconstruction of office space will continue over the next 18 months, as temporary chambers will be broken down and the district’s Probation and Pretrial Services departments will return from their temporary quarters in the Woolworth Building.

Returning to the Marshall courthouse from the Woolworth Building are the circuit’s staff attorneys, as well as attorneys with the court’s Civil Appeals Management Program, which explores pre-argument settlement in all federal agency cases, save a subset of immigration cases.

Rich History

Jacobs said that, when architect Gilbert got the commission, it became “the first courthouse built by the United States entirely for use as a courthouse and not as post office or a custom house as well.”

The building initially also housed the Southern District U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Jacobs said that Gilbert “invented a system of hallways that became a template for other federal and state courthouses” with separate elevators and hallways “that serve the judges, the public and persons in custody in criminal cases.”

Jacobs said there may be a mention of the move when the circuit returns today but there will be no ceremony.

Nonetheless, Jacobs said he and some fellow judges made a bow to history after the last session of the Second Circuit at the ceremonial courtroom at 500 Pearl St. on Dec. 21, where, for the last six years, the circuit’s busts of Judges Henry J. Friendly and Learned Hand have sat while the circuit heard oral arguments.

“Some of the judges thought it was not just a job for movers—these were guiding spirits for our courtroom,” Jacobs said.

So Jacobs and Judges Gerard Lynch, Denny Chin, Guido Calabresi and Pierre Leval (who clerked for Friendly), escorted the busts back over to 40 Foley and up to their home on the 17th floor, where they once again face each other from either side of the courtroom.

Leval, now in his 20th year on the Second Circuit, was clearly pleased to be in the old building. Last week, he beamed as he exited an elevator and headed for chambers with a wave.

“It’s good to back,” he said.

@|Mark Hamblett can be reached at mhamblett@alm.com.