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Federal courthouse was designed to be a postal center

Sunday, April 09, 2000

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The ghost of Judge Gerald Weber isn't the only interesting bit of history at the federal courthouse, which is about to undergo a $50 million renovation.

The imposing stone building is a relic of the Depression era, having been constructed for $8 million from 1931 to 1934 on the site of an old Pennsylvania Railroad freight depot through President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration.

It seems like several structures in one, with the upper floors housing the austere courtrooms and silent marble-lined corridors, while the levels below the street, where the guts of the building resemble the massive engine rooms of an old battleship, are full of nooks and crannies and dark passageways.

The building was designed as a postal center first and a courthouse second, which is reflected in the fact that it was once known as the "U.S. Post Office, Courthouse & So Forth."

Judges of the time probably weren't thrilled to be lumped together with "so forth," says Rick Murphy, the building manager, but the post office was the priority.

For decades, the place bustled with thousands of postal workers on the first three floors, where mail was deposited from huge metal chutes into train cars that ran into the building from the nearby Pennsylvania Railroad Station. In fact, the building, designed by Trowbridge & Livingston of New York, designers of the Gulf Building and Mellon Bank, had been purposely constructed on top of the tracks to take advantage of the railroad for moving mail.

The tracks have long since been removed, and the chutes, as big around as redwoods, are gone, but the floor where the trains came and went is still called the "track level."

One oddity of the old post office days remains, however. Suspended above the floors on the track level, in between the walls, are "sneakways" where postal inspectors once hid in near darkness and monitored workers through narrow slits.

"They were spying on the employees to make sure they weren't stealing mail or opening envelopes," said Ron Litke, maintenance inspector for the General Services Administration, as he hunched his way through one sooty sneakway with a flashlight.

"The workers on the floor never knew when they were being watched."

The sneakways, many of which were torn down during previous renovations, were equipped with blue lights to provide some illumination. But the light was so poor that inspectors moving from one spot to another relied on ropes hanging from the ceiling to warn them to duck under pipes and overhangs.

The system was necessary in the age before video surveillance. But sneakways are still in use. In the section of the courthouse on the first floor that is still used as a post office, inspectors can spy on workers from renovated sneakways equipped with two-way mirrors instead of slits. Litke said the bulk mail facility on the North Side had the same system, as do many older post offices.

Litke, like many other GSA employees, has an obvious love for the old building, quirks and all. He and other employees are happy to relate facts known to few outside the courthouse. A few:

*The judge's benches are lined with metal plating to make them bulletproof.

*The fourth floor, gutted for renovation in the late 1980s, has been abandoned for almost 10 years, ever since GSA removed the contractor from the job in the early 1990s.

*Tunnels for conveyer belts carrying mail run from the lower level to the train station, although the entrances have been bricked up.

*Despite complaints from some building workers that the water is bad, it's filtered through two systems and is cleaner than municipal water.

The coming renovation will add a new chapter in the history of this old stone fortress.

As part of the plan, the FBI will move out and court-related offices will move in to consolidate the federal court system in one building. The architect, Shalom Baranes Associates of Washington, D.C., will design an atrium and lobby to be built at the entrance on Grant Street.

Six new two-story courtrooms will be built with a more contemporary design, and some of the smaller courtrooms will be demolished to make room for chambers and offices. In addition, holding cells for prisoners will be built on each floor that has courtrooms.

As the FBI moves out, federal probation, pretrial services and the Social Security offices will move in. The post office will stay on the first floor.

In addition, plumbing and electrical systems will be upgraded, and the building will be retrofitted to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The design phase is about 75 percent complete, and GSA is hoping to award a contract for the work by the beginning of 2001.

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