• An expansive corner glazed element is protected by horizontal louvers that define the courthouse’s main entry facade. - photo by Robert G. Gomez

The Alamo City gets its fourth federal courthouse.

Project San Antonio Federal Courthouse
Location San Antonio
Design Architect Lake|Flato Architects
Architect of Record SLAM
Contractor Brasfield & Gorrie
Construction Administration/Landscape Architect Alta Architects
Mechanical/Plumbing Engineer Integral Group
Electrical/Lighting Engineer CNG Engineering
Structural Engineer Datum Engineers
Survey/Civil Engineer Pape-Dawson Engineers
Technology & Acoustics Polysonics/Newcomb & Boyd
Security Consultant LattaTech
Code/Life Safety Consultant GHD
Facade Consultant Arup
Blast Consultant Hinman
Cost Estimating MGAC

The story of San Antonio’s many federal courthouses, like the story of the Alamo City itself, is long and connects to larger state and national trends. Completed in 1889, construction of the city’s first United States Courthouse was supervised by a young upstart architect by the name of James Riely Gordon who would later design many of the most beloved county courthouses in the state. As the size and scope of the federal government grew, this flamboyant Romanesque castle was demolished to make room for a facility twice its size. Completed in 1937 and designed by Paul Philippe Cret in collaboration with local architect Ralph Cameron, this grandiose second courthouse shared striking similarities to Cret’s concurrent work at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Three decades later, San Antonio hosted HemisFair ’68. Although the 750-foot-tall Tower of the Americas may be the most enduring landmark of the international exposition, other structures remained, including a circular theater that functioned as the United States pavilion. Designed by Marmon Mok, it was never intended to be converted into a courthouse, but as trust in and respect for the federal government ebbed in the 1970s, this was considered a more appropriate (and certainly a more affordable) solution for addressing the growing needs of the court.

Fitting the square peg of a courthouse program into the literal round hole of a drum-shaped fair pavilion was no easy task, and San Antonio’s third federal courthouse suffered functional issues from the beginning, not the least of which was the paucity of windows. Years of deferred maintenance and increasing security concerns resulted in calls to replace this makeshift courthouse with a fourth, purpose-built facility.

The General Services Administration (GSA) is an independent agency within the United States government that provides support for other federal agencies, including managing the construction, renovation, and maintenance of their facilities. This places the GSA in a unique position to improve the quality of architecture throughout the United States. As part of the GSA’s Design Excellence Program, the design team for San Antonio’s new federal courthouse, led by Lake|Flato Architects, was given considerable freedom to work with consulting judges to craft a building uniquely suited to its time and place. In 2009, after the development of an initial concept featuring an open-air courtyard, the project was paused for the better part of a decade awaiting funding from Congress.

Significant modifications to the design — including the elimination of an underground parking garage and the replacement of the open courtyard with an enclosed atrium — were required to meet the $144.5 million budget that was eventually allocated to the project. Costing less than other courthouses in GSA’s inventory, the new San Antonio Federal Courthouse addresses current political realities while intelligently balancing the practical and symbolic needs of such a facility.

The 235,000-sf courthouse’s main public entry occurs on the building’s west side, where an expansive corner glazed element is protected by horizontal louvers spanning between six giant order steel columns. These vertical supports provide an appropriately civic presence while subtly referencing the six Ionic columns of Cret’s 1937 courthouse. This monumental exterior gesture is immediately followed by a diminutive interior entry foyer. Here, the requisite array of metal detectors and X-ray machines are given their own dedicated space along the entry sequence, acknowledging the necessarily large role of security in a federal building.

After passing under the relatively low ceiling of this security screening area, a turn to the left reveals a voluminous central atrium that acts as the building’s lobby. A series of high clerestory windows fill the space with balanced natural daylight. In addition to acting as a circulation spine, the atrium also hosts mass naturalization ceremonies. A landing in the large stair located at the far end of the atrium doubles as a stage for these events before the stair leads on to the second-floor jury assembly area. Overlooking the recently completed San Pedro Creek Culture Park, this space also functions as an informal lounge for building employees. It features wood screen elements crafted by Lynn Ford that were relocated from the previous HemisFair Courthouse. 

The courthouse’s light-filled atrium separates its two main wings, which together serve the Western District of Texas. To the south are the supporting offices, and to the north are the eight courtroom spaces and judges’ chambers. Much of the complexity of modern courthouse design results from the need to provide separate horizontal and vertical circulation paths for judges, detainees, and the public. All this occurs efficiently behind the scenes, allowing the courtrooms themselves to remain remarkably clean considering their vast performance requirements. Judges, for example, enter the space through a hidden door in the leather cladding (itself a nod to a detail in Cret’s earlier courthouse) behind their raised bench, while a raised flooring system allows for the integration (and future replacement) of technology. Perforated wall panels provide the required acoustical tuning, and the bar separating the public from the area reserved for the attorneys, judge, and jury echoes the wood screens found in the jury assembly area.

Light and transparency play a symbolic role in the design and organization of the courthouse. According to David Lake, FAIA, the principal-in-charge of the project, “Daylight is without prejudice; it falls upon us equally.” Windows are located at the end of corridors so that occupants are always walking toward the light, while the exterior of the northern courtroom wing is broken up by inverted bay windows that metaphorically place justice on display. Security requirements mean that no courtroom space is actually visible, but clerestory windows do allow natural light to enter the courtrooms located on the top floor. One of the more notable achievements of this projectd is how many security measures are seamlessly integrated into the design. The building is set back from the street to give it a park-like setting similar to the courthouse square associated with county courthouses, while thoughtfully placed native landscape elements reduce the need for obtrusive crash-resistant bollards.  

With the exception of the western elevation, the building’s facades feature familiar compositions of metal panel, brick, and German smear limestone found on other Lake|Flato projects. The courthouse’s design is less exuberant than the firm’s Austin Central Library (see the March/April 2018 issue of Texas Architect), whose design started around the same time and shared a similarly long gestation period, but the more restrained feel seems appropriate given the more serious nature of the program. That said, the veneer has an overall feeling of thinness. This would appear to be an artifact of the project’s reduced budget, along with the interior finishes, which with the exception of those in the courtroom spaces, feel more appropriate for a corporate office than a cathedral of justice.

Even so, the new San Antonio Federal Courthouse represents a significant improvement over the facility it replaces. It achieves a lot with a little, both architecturally and environmentally (it earned both a LEED Gold and SITES Silver certification). By striving for more than its limited budget would seem to allow, it provides a snapshot, along with the courthouses that came before it, of a people’s evolving views of its government. 

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the founder of HiWorks in San Antonio and the author of “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”

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