ON ARCHITECTURE- Courthouse collapse: Engineers' time to shine (a light)

Last week, the entire northeast corner of the old Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court building fell off. While no one was hurt in the March 30 structural mishap, the incident could drive up the price and set back the schedule of the $13.5 million renovation.

And that's the good news. If structural engineers investigating the collapse find more potential failures, the entire 110-year-old building might have to come down. In fact, according to city spokesman Ric Barrick, the firm in charge of the project, Kenbridge Construction, is building a wide barricade around the site in case the structure collapses on its own.

Built in 1902, the Colonial Revival building was originally Elks Lodge No. 389 and housed a library, a card room, a billiard parlor, and even a bowling alley. Early photographs of the lodge show the building with a big four-column portico on the front with a giant moose head under its peak.

A major fire in the late 1940s destroyed much of the building, and when it was later renovated, local architect Floyd Johnson chose not to rebuild the portico. Other distinguishing features include double fan arches over the front door and the window above, two pilasters corresponding with Doric columns, and a rusticated façade on which every fifth brick is indented.

In 2004, the City and County approved the long-overdue renovation of the juvenile courthouse, which also includes touch-ups to the old Albemarle County Jail and renovation of the Levy Opera House. Incidentally, the old jail was where Charlottesville mayor Sam McCue (the subject of the Hook's October 30, 2003 cover story) was hanged in 1905 for murdering his wife in their Park Street home.

According to Marc Wagner at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the jail is of far more historical significance than the courthouse. "The courthouse is interesting," he says, " but the jail is really unusual." Indeed, with its huge block stone walls and thin barred windows, it looks like something out of the Middle Ages. But believe it or not, the City was still using it to hold prisoners in the 1970s.

"Now this is what a jail should look like," joked then Albemarle County Sheriff Terry Hawkins in a 1992 Daily Progress story on the jail. "You don't want to come back to this." According to Barrick, protecting the jail from damage has also been a concern during the renovation of the courthouse.

So what now?

While architects tend to get all the glory for building construction or renovation, it's times like these when engineers get to shine. After all, a building may be beautifully designed, but if it isn't structurally sound, it might as well have remained on the drawing board.

"The engineering community is very good at dealing with issues of this type," says Tom Barber of the courthouse collapse, "and that does not mean hiding things."

Barber, a UVA structural engineering professor, uses the collapse of the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City to make his point. In 1981, two interior "sky bridges" on the new 45-story hotel collapsed, killing 111 people and injuring 188 others. It was the worst unnatural disaster in Missouri history.

According to Barber, the Hyatt collapse occurred because the contractor decided to save some time and money by breaking the hangers that supported the skywalk into sections. The engineer on the project took a quick look at the idea, didn't think it through, and signed off on it.

"As a result," says Barber, "we now talk about this in engineering classes. The lesson? Don't make snap judgments."

According to city building code official Tom Elliott, the collapse occurred while workers for Kenbridge Construction were in the process of "underpinning," or reinforcing, the foundation for a three-story courthouse addition. They were using a converted trackhoe to drill holes at the base of the old courthouse's foundation.

Bystanders may look at the excavation pit that extends to within inches of the courthouse foundation and begin making judgements. But Barber, who specializes in vibration, isn't ready to blame the incident on drilling too close to the old building.

"Did the drilling cause the collapse?" Barber asks. "Possibly, but I can't say for sure. This may have been a failure in the works for 20 years."

Barber points out that the ground beneath the corner where the collapse occurred had not been excavated, a sign the contractors were trying to prevent the collapse from happening. "They were obviously people who had some experience with this kind of thing," he says.

"It's difficult to tell what caused the collapse," admits Barber. "More than likely, the structure found a weak plane. If you look at the side wall parallel to Park Street, you can see the failure occurred on a straight vertical line, right at the edge of the windows and doors."

Barber also questions the integrity of the brick wall. "If you notice, the bricks just crumbled into a big pile, instead of sheets of wall, which means the mortar was probably bad," he says.

Barber also points out that the wall was 110 years old and unusually thin. Barber likens a wall like that to a yardstick that begins to bow when you push on it. "Today, we'd use cinder blocks with a brick face," he says. When asked if sandblasting layers of old paint off the building might have compromised the mortar, Barber admits it's a good possibility.

Barber is optimistic about the building's future. "It's not the most gorgeous building, but it's worth saving. The good news is that with the corner gone, they're going to have to reinforce the foundation there. As a result, I think they can rebuild it, and it will be stronger than before."

Barber can't resist offering a remedy. "I would come back and frame it in steel and put a brick face on it," he says.

Still, he admits that the building isn't out of the woods yet. "The structural integrity of the building is going to be a big concern," he says, indicating the lessons learned in the Hyatt disaster, "and you can be sure the engineers are going to look very carefully at that."

On Friday, March 31, the Park Street corner of the Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court collapsed.