An historic federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, where spies and international terrorists have stood trial, may be nearing collapse due to decades of neglect and disrepair. Two federal judges have launched a campaign (this past week) to save the building, located a short distance from the site of the World Trade Center, which collapsed in the September 11 terrorist attack.
The courthouse, opened in 1936, holds a unique position in U.S. history as the venue of famous cases. It was the place where the passions of the early Cold War were played out with the trials of Alger Hiss, then Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (The Rosenbergs were found guilty of spying for the Soviets).
Just this past year, the eyes of the world were again focused on the lower Manhattan building, as the workings of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network were revealed during the trial of the terrorists who bombed two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Complex business disputes and key questions related to securities law, labor law, contracts and copyrights have found their way into the federal courthouse, decade after decade.
Its Corinthian columns, granite floors and marble halls look sturdy enough. And they almost certainly inspire awe. But they mask an aging, frail infrastructure that has largely been in place since the beginning. Water pipes often burst, heaters leak and electrical circuits fail too easily.
And there is more. Judge John Walker, one of two judges seeking money from Washington for comprehensive repairs, says even what looks solid on the outside is not necessarily so.
Reporters en route to a news conference in the courthouse recently were told just how perilous their journey actually was. "The phalanx of stairs that you climbed to enter the courthouse this morning are in fact held up by temporary wooden supports," he said. "The concrete supports have weakened to the point that, without these wooden supports, this massive staircase threatens to collapse."
Judge Walker believes it is in the U.S. national interest to restore the building. He said there is more to the courthouse than celebrated cases. "It is not history, but necessity, that dictates the urgency of our task," he said. "It is here that rights are protected and wrongs are remedied. This courthouse is a vital center of our nation's federal justice system. Its functions protect our American way of life."
The significance of the courthouse is not in contention. It was declared a national historic landmark over 10 years ago. This year, it was renamed in honor of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who presided as judge there before moving on to the country's highest court.
And yet, the courthouse has been denied funds repeatedly, despite claims that the building is near collapse.
Judge Michael Mukasey argues it makes economic sense to repair the courthouse, because the cost of putting up a new one would be astronomical. "Since we have to have a courthouse here, the real comparison, in my view, is between the cost of fixing this one up, or knocking it down and building a new one," he said. "In today's economy, a building of this quality and detail simply cannot be constructed."
There is a positive mood for restoration in lower Manhattan since September 11. Judge Walker and Judge Mukasey are hoping that generosity will make its way to their courthouse, at long last.