Posted: March 5, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The complaints about the mice have faded, and the cat that once roamed the 11th floor is long gone.

In the six months since the New Castle County Courthouse opened, there is no longer so much barnyard-like chattering about it as teeth chattering.

The place is really cold.

The justice center at 5th and King streets in Wilmington, the biggest and most costly building the state of Delaware ever has built at more than $130 million, remains a curiosity after a half-year in operation, a boxy, looming structure that the bench, bar and public have yet to warm up to -- literally or figuratively.

It is 12 stories of McBuilding, a setting with all the charm of an airplane hangar. Its limitations are acknowledged even by Edward G. Pollard Jr., the justice center's administrator who knows its quirks and crannies better than anyone and is doing his best to make the courthouse a home.

"The space is very functional. It's not elaborate. It does need soul," Pollard said.

Others are less charitable. On first impression, one visitor cracked, "It looks like a steamship office in the front and a railroad station in the back, so you can ship them in and railroad them out."

Pollard's most pressing problem these days is the temperature in the yawning entryway that includes the courthouse lobby and the area around the escalators connecting the lower three floors. While the rest of the building seems comfortable enough, the entrance is so cold that the security detail and the people at the information desk wear winter coats, hats and gloves to stay at their posts.

It means that going into the courthouse has all the appeal of a visitors' center in Siberia.

Pollard puts the temperature in the front of the building in the high 50s or low 60s most days, although there is one spot near a doorway where the readings generally hover in the 40s. The situation appears to have something to do with air pressure balance -- cold air rushing in, instead of warm air rushing out, when doors open -- but why it is happening and which contractor should fix it have yet to be sorted out, Pollard said.

Aside from an obvious problem like the cold, the courthouse still does not feel settled in. Many of its offices lack permanent signs, and there are any number of unpacked cartons here and there. Pollard himself has been so busy with everyone else that he has yet to outfit his own office with much more than a rickety table with a sawhorse for legs.

Some problems have been more serious. The courthouse had its first escape in November, when a 19-year-old defendant reacted to his 10-year sentence for armed robbery by jumping over the courtroom bar and racing away. Authorities caught him a few weeks later in Atlantic City, but it was not a good beginning for a justice center that state officials had predicted would be a model of security.

There is also the matter of having a courthouse that does not look like a courthouse. It is still too new for there to be stories that will give it the aura, if not the appearance, of a courthouse, and the memories of the old place, the Daniel L. Herrmann Courthouse on Rodney Square, are still too fresh.

That was a courthouse that looked the part with its ponderous columns, its granite and marble, and its darkly paneled courtrooms. As if to make that point, all through the new courthouse there are framed prints of the old one.

Still, there are certain signs of appreciation for the new one. The workers are no longer crammed together the way they were, and the building is designed for 21st Century technology, not retrofitted for it imperfectly like the Herrmann Courthouse, which was nearly a century old. The acoustics in the new courtrooms make it easy to listen, a welcome change from the dead spots in the old ones.

"I'd much rather be here than the old courthouse," said Robert Golebiewski, who works in the pre-sentence office.

Golebiewski does not miss the bat that he and his co-workers left behind in the Herrmann Courthouse, and he likes having the space to accommodate the 200 or so files that the office adds to its records each month.

If the new courthouse has a saving grace, it is the view. From its highest floors, Wilmington stretches below in panoramic display, the Delaware River to the east and the populous hills to the west, all the way to the distinctive top of Rockford Tower. In the spacious corridors with a promenade of windows overlooking the city, it is possible to think the courthouse may not just be an odd appendage to the Wilmington skyline, but may come to belong.

In the meantime, Ed Pollard has to figure out how to make the courthouse entrance warmer. While he works on the mechanics, he has another solution in mind. He calls it "Spring."