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In D.C., Old City Hall Is Expanded to Accommodate the Court of Appeals

The basic lines of the new atrium work so well in front of the old courthouse that one wonders if architect Hany Hassan took more pains than necessary to contextualize it. Hassan, of Beyer Blinder Belle, says he "felt strongly that this addition should be of its own time."

But he also wanted to echo the older building's rhythms. Until around 1917, there had been a second, north-facing Greek-style portico where Hassan's glass box now sits. It was removed during a renovation from 1917 to 1919 -- one of several major changes to the building over its history -- and the box recalls its proportions. Its six front-facing support columns are drawn out away from the glass wall so that they read like classical columns.

It's an elegant, respectful gesture, but once you begin overthinking a glass cube, you almost inevitably end up reducing its minimalist power. A great concern for transparency was always a part of the project, says Judith Robinson of Robinson & Associates, a historical survey firm that studied the site in preparation for its renovation. But Hassan's columns, and the horizontal cross structure that holds the glass in place, limit see-through. The pavilion becomes more monumental, and loses some of the inexhaustibly appealing miracle of pure glass.

It's a small thing, and the box is transparent enough that the irony of its primary function -- as an atrium for security -- is still poignant. Security is given its unfortunate, symbolic due: It is the first and foremost architectural concern, the space that precedes all other spaces.

The reorientation of the building has two other effects. On the inside, it helps make sense of the building's multiple levels. But Hadfield's magnificent south portico is now purely ornamental. From the beautifully renovated interior central hall, a doorway that exits onto the grand old porch is now triggered with an alarm. Unless you walk around to what is now the "back" of the building, and ascend its purely decorative staircase, you'll never realize that it has one of the most interesting views in downtown Washington.

From the Mall, looking back at the old courthouse, the view is even more impressive (especially in winter when the leaves are down), with the relatively modest Hadfield building surmounted by the massive roof of the National Building Museum. It looks like a little Acropolis, a striking contrast to the denatured and bland civic architecture that surrounds it.

Hadfield's city hall has been so often changed over the years that no one can feel a glass box violates its historical integrity. It has been preserved not as a relic, but as a functioning piece of civic architecture that will once again witness the minutiae of our legal quibbling. The public will even have some minimal access to the building, with a large open hall on the lower floor used for exhibition space and other public functions.

On Indiana Avenue, on the building's south side, a historical marker recalls the glory days of Old City Hall, when Washington's streets flowed with mud and muck. It includes a picture that shows the structure with a dome that was never built and it notes that the building is empty and awaiting a new use by the District of Columbia. It's happy news to report that this marker is now out of date.

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