Supreme Court building reopens following restoration project; Justices offer rare tour of third floor living quarters

By Bethany Krajelis | Aug 28, 2014

SPRINGFIELD -- One year, two moves and thousands of boxes later, the Illinois Supreme Court building in Springfield has reopened after receiving a nearly $16 million makeover.

The project that restored parts of the century-old building while updating others began last summer, forcing the court’s 50-plus staff members to work from another location and the justices to move their last five terms to Chicago.

“All of us, justices and staff, are glad to be back home,” Chief Justice Rita Garman said Wednesday, before she and Justice Ann Burke joined members of the media on a tour of the building that is now open to the public and will once again host oral arguments, starting next month. “This is home.”

Not only did the tour include a room-by-room recap of the project, but it featured a rare look into justices’ living quarters on the third floor that is typically closed to the public and media.

The third floor serves as the justices’ home away from home during the court’s five, two-week terms. They each have a suite that includes a bedroom, bathroom and work area.

Court spokesman Joe Tybor said Illinois is one of the few states that provide its Supreme Court justices with living quarters. He said their recent stints in Chicago over the past year proved their on-site suites are economical and efficient.

Each suite is named after the first justice who lived there after the building was constructed in 1906. A plaque listing all the justices who have used that room hangs outside each suite.

Burke, for instance, stays in the “Farmer Suite,” which is named after William Farmer who served on the high court from 1906 to 1930. After warning members of the media that her suite was “kind of a mess,” Burke let them inside.

Her suite included several pieces of furniture that she said she bought from Widow At Windsor Antiques, a local shop in Springfield. Burke and Garman stressed that the justices have to pay for whatever they want in their suites, like their television sets and decorations.

Garman said her suite “is the best one.” She stays in the “Carter Suite,” where Orrin Carter stayed during his tenure behind the bench that spanned from 1906 to 1924. According to the plaque, the late Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow stayed there until her 2006 retirement.

The third floor also includes a kitchen and a dining area, where Garman said the justices sit by seniority and don’t talk about court business. She said they discuss sports, movies, trips and other topics that build collegiality.

Garman said the justices usually stay in their living quarters Monday through Thursday for each of their two-week sessions, during which time they generally have two meals prepared for them each day.

The meals are good, but nothing fancy, she said, noting that Mary, the third-floor supervisor, makes great soups. Lunch might be chicken noodle soup paired with a grilled cheese sandwich while dinner might include grilled salmon, potatoes and a vegetable, meals like what “Mom would fix you," Garman said.

Although their individual suites were dotted with family photos and decorated in their own personal styles, the walls in the dining room and rest of the third floor were blank as the yearlong project included a new paint job.

The justices said a fresh coat of paint was pretty much the only improvement made to the third floor as part of the multi-million dollar restoration project.

Garman said she and Burke plan to propose to their colleagues that they put up some historical, court-related photos on the third floor, similar to one hanging on the wall of the conference room that includes shots of former justices sitting at the table they sit at to discuss cases and other business.

The conference room was also part of Wednesday’s media tour, and another aspect of the court that is typically unseen by the public. It is located behind the door, behind the bench in the courtroom and is where Garman said most of the court’s work is done.

Sometimes, she said, they will have their meals brought down to the conference room if they are busy working. On the middle of the table is a plaque with a quote from former Justice Thomas J. Moran that reads, “Nothing is politically right which is morally wrong.”

Like other parts of the Supreme Court building, the conference room was restored during the recently-completed project in order to make it look how it did when the building was first constructed.

"We tried to keep everything as original as possible," said Kathy O’Hara, assistant director of Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts (AOIC). O’Hara led Wednesday’s media tour, pointing to improvements made from the basement to the second floor.

Garman said it used to look like she was walking into a “dark tunnel” when she went into the conference room, but that is much brighter now, thanks to new lighting, a paint job and cleaning provided by the recently-completed project.

The changes may be difficult to see to those not extremely familiar with what the building looked like before, given that the results of the restoration portions of the project simply enhanced colors of the murals and paintings on the walls and ceilings, as well as details in the woodwork and other fixtures.

But, for Garman and Burke, the project has made a huge difference in what they see from their seats behind the bench.

Garman said she watched the mural on the ceiling of the main courtroom get “worse and worse” as cracks, a bubble and other imperfections became more apparent over the years.

Now, she said, the once faded artwork and dark wood carvings are more emphasized, making them even more beautiful than she said they were to begin with.

The chief justice said she was surprised with the new color palette of the courtroom, as well as in other parts of the building. It used to be made up of more blue and red tones, and is now filled with light greens and tans, something that the project revealed were the actual colors used back in 1906.

Burke said one part of the project she immediately noticed was the repair made to the wood pillar on the far left side of the courtroom. She sits in the seat closest to that pillar, which she said used to have a crack in it so big you could put your entire fist in it.

Not only did the recent work make much needed repairs, but Burke said she is thrilled it has been brought back to its original state, something that will allow future generations to see the building in the way it was intended to look.

Visitors to the recently restored Supreme Court building may notice that all of the building's windows were replaced, the marble, murals and paintings got cleaned, and the doors, hardware and light fixtures were refurbished.

An improvement that visitors probably won’t notice, but required a large chunk of the project’s price tag is a new central HVAC system in the basement, O'Hara said.

O’Hara led Wednesday’s media tour, which was attended by several court officials, including AOIC Director Mike Tardy, and Tom Brauer of Chicago-based 4240 Architecture.

They said the project came in under the $15.9 million budget that was allocated and approved by the General Assembly in 2009, but don't have a final total yet.

In addition, sprinkler, fire alarm and surveillance systems were added or upgraded, the roof and parking lot were modified, energy-efficient lighting was put in and bathrooms were added in the basement, as well as in the conference room, which previously didn’t have a separate women’s bathroom given the historical all male makeup of the court.

The court’s library, clerk’s office and attorneys’ room also received facelifts.

While the walls of the attorneys’ room, which is located just outside the main courtroom, still feature photographs of former justices, the photos are now all the same size and the walls are a light green color.

The clerk’s office looks very different than it did before the building closed last June. It is a lot brighter and there is now a locked door and wall separating the office from the public area, rather than just a counter.

Carolyn Taft Grosboll, the court’s clerk, said she is happy with the results of the restoration project. She said the clerk’s office had to use more than 3,000 boxes to move all of the court’s files, which are now safely back in place in her office or in storage in the basement.

The library also had quite a bit of work when it came to moving out and back into the building. Librarians said they used 3,500 boxes in the move. It appeared that they were still unpacking some of the books as of Wednesday.

The year-long project also included some technology upgrades, including the creation of a room dedicated for the building's technology, a new cable infrastructure and a few new cameras and a recording system that will be used to record arguments, as well as other court events available for viewing on the court's website.

The court’s upcoming September term will mark the first time arguments will take place in Supreme Court building in Springfield since May 2013.

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