Designers detail features of new county courthouse set to open in 2021

A rendering of the new Johnson County Courthouse set to open in 2021. Renderings by Treanor HL.

The new Johnson County Courthouse will open in early 2021 with 24 finished courtrooms, up-to-date accessibility and an entry-way sculpture of multi-colored chains by Los Angeles artist Benjamin Ball, according to a presentation by design team members to the county commission.

Designers and county officials are working on final details of the building’s interior as they prepare to set the next round of guaranteed maximum price limits on the building. The entire courthouse building project is expected to cost about $175 million. Once the details are nailed down, work will begin early next year, with the building to be enclosed by fall. Substantial completion is expected by August 2020.

County commissioners got an animated preview of the seven-story, 354,000-square-foot building in an informational meeting last week. The building will be laid out in two distinct sections – a tower of mostly courtrooms from floors four through seven and an “emporium of justice” on the first and second floors. The district attorney’s office will be on floor three.

The emporium will house the court services that have the most public traffic, including hearing rooms, jury assembly, clerk’s office and one larger courtroom for high-interest cases with a media area and larger gallery.

Designed for future flexibility

A rendering of the courtroom lobby.

The features of the new building were designed with flexibility to adjust for population growth and changes in future technology, since the building is supposed to last for at least 75 years, said county building facilities manager Brad Reinhardt. So although the number of finished courtrooms available on opening will be about the same as what the current courthouse has, there will be some partially finished, unassigned courtrooms that can be quickly finished when they are needed, he said. There will also be flexibility enough for the conversion of more rooms up to 36 courtrooms if they are needed and judges assigned farther down the line.

A rendering of a courtroom from the new courthouse.

The new building is being designed with automatic doors, wheelchair ramps and audio and visual fire and tornado alarms to make it completely accessible. Handicapped accessibility was one of the big reasons the commission recommended voters replace the existing courthouse, which has a multitude of barriers to the disabled.

The layout will also keep jurors, defendants and victims separate and will supply enough conference rooms so that lawyers will not have to huddle in the hallways with their clients, designers said. And the entrance will be secured with a series of screening walls, barriers, seat walls and boulders designed to maintain a welcoming and open appearance while protecting from attacks, they said.

Those features were considered top priorities to address problems with the current courthouse. But it was the proposed art that generated the most questions from commissioners.

Ball was selected from 130 artists who expressed interest in the project. His piece, inspired by the vibrant colors and flowing lines of Thomas Hart Benton, will be a drapery of colorful stainless steel chains in a prominent place in the entryway that will also be visible from the building’s exterior.

Commissioners have lately expressed an interest in having more input about public art. About a year ago, they cut county spending on art and capped the courthouse art spending at $500,000. In discussions about art, they have said they wanted to see the artwork be well integrated into the building.

Some of them asked last week whether the vibrant colors of the art would be repeated other places in the building. “I think the direction being taken is extremely positive,” said Commissioner Steve Klika. But he also asked whether the colors of the artwork, which are more vibrant, would continue into the rest of the courthouse. Design team members told commissioners the rest of the building will have a lighter palette for a more restful and calming effect. The Ball piece will be a single installation with the vibrant colors concentrated and lighted in one space.

The designers also are considering how to bring some architectural elements of the old courthouse into the new one. And they have drawn a plan that preserves a 76-foot champion Osage Orange tree thought to be about a hundred years old. The tree was to have been removed for construction staging and an eventual parking lot.

Once the new courthouse is finished, demolition can begin on the old one. The county will begin to get public comments next year on what to do with the open space that will be created once the current courthouse is torn down. Commission Chairman Ed Eilert said some constituents have asked him whether the space can have a reference to the historic African-American Fairview neighborhood, which was nearby.