Access to Justice

Historic buildings must be made accessible. The 2009 Barrier-Free America Award winner proves it can be done!

Historic buildings are an Important aspect of our physical environment. Unlike other types of historical artifacts, however, they need to function in a way that reflects today’s standards of accessibility.

Courthouses are one of the oldest types of buildings constructed in the U.S. Due to their age and historical significance, providing accessibility has always been a challenge. In the past, the approach to providing an accessible facility has been to “do it as best you can without destroying the architectural significance of the building.”

The John Adams Courthouse in Boston was originally designed by George A. Clough. The building was designed to evoke many meanings with its architecture, artwork, and sculpture. CBT Architects was tasked to transform the 100+ year-old building into a piece of architecture that survived time and change it to suit contemporary needs. The building has not lost a syllable of its meaning through this renovation. In fact, due to CBT’s commitment to making the building totally accessible, more people have the opportunity to experience it.

The Courthouse has two main entrances, one on Pemberton Square, which is a story lower than the other entrance on Somerset Street. The original Pemberton entrance included an outdoor staircase, narrow doors to a small lobby, and a grand staircase to the atrium space. The modified entrance removes the exterior staircase and substantially lowers the outside floor level from where small ramps take you to Pemberton Square. The original narrow entry doors to the building were replaced by carefully redesigned and crafted doors to match the original detailing.

Access to the grand atrium was originally via stairway. Although the building had elevators, they were too small for wheelchair access and, in addition, they did not serve some of the upper floors. To correct this, the interior floor was lowered to match the new entrance floor level, and the prominent staircase was moved to provide an entrance to a new accessible elevator. The new elevator was accomplished by replacing two small elevators with one large enough to accommodate a stretcher.

The heart of the building is a tall atrium covered with an ornate vaulted ceiling; this is the central organizer for all the functions of the building. At the center of the vaulted ceiling is the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which depicts a Native American holding an arrow pointed downward in a gesture of peace. The words surrounding it read, ense petit placidam sub libertate quietam—by the sword we seek, but peace only under liberty. CBT Architects’ Christos Coios describes the 16 life-sized figures as sculptures by Spanish artist Domingo Mora, who created them allegorizing Law, Temperance, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Punishment, Guilt, Equity, Right, Innocence, Reward, Wisdom, Religion, Virtue, Reason, and Legislation. All these elements have been restored to their original grandeur. New lighting is provided to highlight these architectural features.

(Standing, from left) CBT Architects’ Kristi Sprinkle, Christos Coios, Paul Viccica, and PVA’s Carol Peredo Lopez, and (seated, from left) CBT Architects’ Charles N. Tseckares and PVA Deputy Executive Director Maurice Jordan gather after the award’s presentation.

The Barrier-Free America Award recognizes individual leadership in making our country more accessible for all Americans. It promotes a built environment devoid of physical obstructions for people with disabilities. By virtue of holding the award ceremony at the courthouse, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) was able to learn more about the people involved in making this grand historical building accessible.

Charles N. Tseckares, FAIA, accepting the award for CBT Architects, shared that his brother was a World War II veteran, a B-24 navigator, and a PVA member. He acknowledged that due to injuries incurred in the war, his brother was not able to lead a barrier-free life.

Through this experience, all groups involved in the design of this exemplary project have seen the intricacies of working toward accessible justice and the full meaning of access for all as a part of the true justice system.

“We are particularly proud that the John Adams Courthouse has been made accessible to all of our citizens. It is a matter of great pride and great joy to us, and I know John Adams would be very proud of this moment,” said Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Robert Cordy.


CBT Architects

CBT Architects provides services in architecture, urban design, and interior design from offices in Boston and Abu Dhabi. Founded in 1967, the firm’s practice ranges from multifamily residential structures and developments to major office towers and urban district renewals to a host of academic campus facilities and civic projects. This variety of experience forms the unique approach CBT takes to understanding all user needs. Communications skills and the ability to bring diverse groups of people together to solve complex problems are significant factors in the success of CBT’s projects. More than 175 awards recognize excellence and creativity in the firm’s design of new buildings and renovation of existing structures.

The John Adams Courthouse project reinstates an historic Neo-Classical courthouse as a great civic monument and demonstrates that a 100-year-old building can be re-adapted for contemporary judicial needs. The project involved the restoration and preservation of the Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Courthouse in Boston, which is listed on the State and National Historic Registers.

Designed in 1894 by Boston’s first city architect, George A. Clough, the building had functioned for more than a century without any substantial renovation or upgrade. The recent restoration preserved the building’s historic façade, including its two main entries, and returned its architectural features to their original grandeur.

Renovations accommodate the reintegration of the state’s two highest Appellate Courts and the Social Law Library—elements that had been removed from the building in the 1930s. Building upgrades brought the courthouse into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Entrances were redesigned to accommodate wheelchair access in a way that is sensitive to the historic architecture and throughout the building; aisle spacing now accommodates wheelchair passage and turning.

Contact: CBT Architects


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