The last of 300 employees began relocating Saturday into the new federal courthouse on West Nueva Street.
The move takes them from a windowless, repurposed rotunda and other aging buildings at Hemisfair to a modern, custom building in scale with the massive judicial district it serves. In recent weeks, nine federal judges and the probation and pretrial employees have set up shop in the new facility.
The new halls of justice, open after nearly two decades of effort, serve as a showcase for the deeply rooted traditions of law and history while meeting the needs of present-day legal proceedings for the Western District of Texas, a 93,000-square-mile area that stretches to El Paso.
The $144 million, limestone-clad structure along San Pedro Creek replaces the John H. Wood Jr. U.S. Courthouse, originally constructed as the United States Pavilion for the 1968 world’s fair before it was remade into a courthouse in the 1970s.
Under construction since spring 2019, the four-story courthouse with eight courtrooms and 13 chambers was completed in December and consolidates a number of court functions that operated in a complex of three buildings at Hemisfair.
The facility houses offices for the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Public Defender, Federal Probation and Pretrial Services, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the General Services Administration (GSA). It also features state-of-the-art technology and provides a much-needed security upgrade.
While some touch-up work continues, and portraits are waiting to be hung, the courthouse is already in use and open to the public.
On Wednesday, the first trial to be heard in the federal courthouse ended with a jury deciding that University Health and Bexar County are not liable in the 2018 case of a mentally ill woman who died in jail.
The new courthouse was 18 years in the making, an effort spearheaded by U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez.
It took an act of Congress to get it going.
“When I first took this job, the courthouse essentially was number five on the Administrative Office of the Courts’ national list for new projects that should be built,” Rodriguez said. “But just because something’s on the list doesn’t mean it simply gets funded.”
Congress must appropriate the funds and that’s where the project got stuck, he said.
The judge took his case to the nation’s capital. Rodriguez argued that based on the workload and prisoner counts of the San Antonio-based courthouse, one of 94 in the U.S., it had outgrown the retrofitted theater building.
Working conditions were cramped and there were serious security concerns with the old building. “There was just no appreciation of just how many prisoners were going through a building that was never designed to be a courthouse,” he said.
In 2016, the GSA announced that San Antonio would be among eight cities named to a $947 million courthouse investment project. The new courthouse was constructed by Brasfield & Gorrie at 214 W. Nueva St. on the 6-acre lot of the former San Antonio Police Headquarters, razed in 2012.
Through a land swap, the City of San Antonio turned that parcel over to the GSA, which constructs and manages federal government buildings, in exchange for GSA buildings on East César A. Chávez Boulevard.
“It’s been a long labor of love,” said the San Antonio-born Rodriguez.
The judge recently led an early-morning tour that began in the secure lobby, where a plaque bears the names of every individual who worked on the building, and continued into a grand hall at its center.
In this space, natural light pours through skylights onto the patterned terrazzo floor. Three levels of offices and training rooms open onto the interior courtyard-like hall.
At one end, the jury assembly room has been elevated from its confined space in the basement of the former courthouse to a second-floor loft area overlooking the San Pedro Creek Culture Park.
Every space in the courthouse straddles the old and the new, and every room has a dual purpose, Rodriguez said.
The land where the courthouse sits was in colonial times part of the El Camino Real, a royal road that ran between San Antonio and Mexico City. Casa Navarro sits just north of the site. Etchings on the elevator doors reflect the area’s history.
Designed by architecture firm Lake Flato with construction administration by Muñoz & Co., the courthouse is intended to be as aesthetically pleasing as it is functional.
Laredo artist Thomas Glassford designed twin pendulous sculptures — one a bronze piece that descends from the roofline in front of the building and the other a string of colored glass bulbs that drops from the ceiling inside. The art piece represents the scales of justice.
Another Glassford piece, a bold mural adorning the east end of the great hall, is meant to depict the concept of “letting justice flow like rivers of righteousness,” Rodriguez said.
From there, a large stairway leads to the jury assembly area, which is lined with wood-carved screens designed by artist Lynn Ford and brought from the previous courthouse. That area also will be used for employee training.
The first-floor stair landing can be used as a stage for naturalization ceremonies. “In this area, we’ll be able to swear-in 200 to 300 new citizens [at a time],” Rodriguez said, something judges could never do in the former courthouse.
The new courthouse offers security features the old one lacked.
The sally port, a place where inmates are brought by U.S. marshals into the courthouse, is enclosed by an iron fence and, unlike the Wood courthouse, is not visible to the public.
In addition, judges and staff no longer have to share corridors and elevators with prisoners, and deputies have adequate holding cells to separate prisoners.
There are eight courtrooms in the building, all with identical layouts to make them interchangeable for varying court activity, and all outfitted with touchscreen panels that can be controlled by the judge.
Behind the bench, a floor-to-ceiling, tufted-leather panel mimics the courtroom doors in the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse at 615 E. Houston St., and conceals the judge’s entry door.
In the hallways behind each courtroom are the judge’s chambers and the most sound-secure spaces in the entire courthouse: the jury deliberation rooms.
On the third floor, a niche has been created to display the robe and other items that belonged to U.S. Judge John H. Wood Jr. The former courthouse was named for him shortly after he was assassinated in 1979. It’s not known whether the new courthouse will again bear his name; Congress has not yet named the new building, according to a GSA spokeswoman.
Also on this level is a gallery wall designated for judges’ portraits and a law library that remains mostly unfurnished due to shipping delays. The library will also serve as office space for law student interns.
Walking the hallways, courtrooms and staircases he knows so well, Rodriguez can’t help stopping to examine every detail of the project he patiently shepherded to completion. He figures that won’t change anytime soon.
“That’s one thing bad about being the judge on a project — I catch every little thing,” he said.
This article has been updated to clarify the roles of Lake Flato and Muñoz & Co. in the design and construction of the courthouse.