Order at the courthouse

A new plan for an old building.

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click to enlarge TAKE NO PRISONERS: The proposed east entrance on Marion Street is where the sally port -- the holding area for prisoners -- used to be. - Aia Tampa Bay
Aia Tampa Bay
TAKE NO PRISONERS: The proposed east entrance on Marion Street is where the sally port -- the holding area for prisoners -- used to be.

Fix It Now

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For nearly a decade, Tampa's old federal courthouse has sat empty, its stately classical façade a backdrop for drivers whizzing by on Florida Avenue. Plans to reuse the space have cropped up from time to time, including a brief flirtation with the idea of relocating the Tampa Museum of Art there, but nothing has come to fruition. Now, a plan that may be the most promising of all has come from the Tampa Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects: Members want to restore many features of the 1903 building to their original condition and adapt the structure as a mixed-use facility to house AIA offices and other businesses.

Last fall, Mayor Pam Iorio agreed to let the architects study the building's potential for adaptive reuse during a six-month exploratory period; last week, they unveiled their design.

The project, if completed, would be a significant victory for the nonprofit group, which has ramped up its efforts in recent months to link preservation with the newly popular concept of sustainability.

"There's nothing greener than the restoration of an historic building," says architect Vivian Salaga, who leads the committee that developed the courthouse plan.

In the proposed design, the west façade of the courthouse on Florida Avenue would remain unchanged, but the building's eastern frontage on Marion Street would get a new, canopied entryway. Construction crews would demolish the high wall that currently separates the rear of the building from the transit corridor, a relic from the area's use as an unloading site for prisoners. "We don't need that kind of barrier to the community any more," Salaga says.

Inside, the most elegant feature of the proposed restoration is the refurbishment of a central light well that runs from an historic skylight at the top of the building down to the first floor, where a coffered ceiling of wood panels on louvers permits the adjustment of air circulation and natural light levels. Other green features include retaining the functionality of the building's large windows for ventilation and the installation of an efficient new air-conditioning system.

Because the building's historic corridors are so wide, the total usable space is much smaller than the building's 98,000 square feet. footprint would suggest, Salaga says. The AIA estimates that its own offices will occupy 4,000 square feet, leaving approximately 64,000 square feet for use by other occupants. So far, architecture and law firms, the Tampa Downtown Partnership and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts have expressed interest. If the mayor and City Council approve the plan, AIA Tampa Bay would sign a 99-year lease with the city, Salaga says; construction could begin next year, and the restored building might re-open as soon as the beginning of 2010.

To make the case that their plan is viable, the group still has to clear a major hurdle: securing financing for the project's estimated $18 million construction costs by May 15, the conclusion of the six-month exploratory period. As of last week, how much had they raised? "Not much," says Dawn Mages, executive director of AIA Tampa Bay. The group has culled $28,000 from their members to recoup the costs of the study and hopes to receive a state grant to match the amount. Approval of the grant is now in the hands of the Florida legislature.

An exhibit of the design renderings, accompanied by black-and-white photographs of the courthouse by Todd McDonald, continues through June 1 at Gallery AIA, 200 N. Tampa St., Suite 100 in downtown Tampa. Hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, go to aiatampabay.com.

Check the "What you can do" section of fixitnowtampabay.com for more information on how you can help solve Tampa Bay's Top 10 civic problems.

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