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In plans for reviving Arch, the Old Courthouse will get a facelift, too

Old Courthouse rendering from 2013
CityArchRiver 2015

While much of the CityArchRiver plan for reviving the Gateway Arch and what’s around it involves new attractions and activities, Trivers Associates is focusing on a piece of the area’s history: the Old Courthouse.

As prime architect, Trivers is overseeing renovations and updates for the domed building. Because it dates back to the early 1800s and is one of the most iconic structures in that area, renovating and updating present special challenges.

"We’re taking great pains not to damage any of the historic fabric or destroy anything that’s part of the original building,” said Andrew Trivers, the firm’s CEO, in an interview earlier this week. “If anything is changed, it will be changed in a way that it can be changed back to the original in the future.”

Take, for example, installing the first set of elevators in the building between the first floor with exhibit galleries and the rotunda, and the second floor with courtrooms and National Park Service offices, its library and archives.

Andrew Smith, project manager, said that in looking about to find an unobtrusive place for the elevators, they discovered that the north and south wings on the building were originally separated by open air connections with stairways between the first and second floors. In later years, the connections were closed in and stairways removed, leaving “holes” or vacant areas.

“So we can put the elevators into those holes” Trivers said, tucking them into an existing open space. And to make things even less intrusive, they’ll remove part of the original stone floor at the bottom of the holes for the elevator pits and recycle the stones for elevator floors.

The elevators also will have glass fronts and backs, minimizing them even more and giving visitors expansive outside views as they ride up and down.

In another area of the building, the drapes blocking windows in galleries in the north and south wings will be coming down.

“We’ll open up those windows,” Smith said, to bring in natural light and give visitors more views of what’s around them outside.

Those galleries, and other areas in the building, will contain new exhibits designed by Haley Sharpe Design based in England.

Another challenge: restoring an historic encaustic tile floor in one of the galleries in the south wing. The tiles, hand-made with colorful patterns baked in, now dip in places and are damaged. To make matters worse, Trivers said, “someone came along” and painted over them.

Trivers says they’re working on a solution for removing the paint and repairing the original tile floor rather than buying new tiles. No one in this country has made the tiles since the 1930s, he said. And in England, “The last time we checked, they were very expensive, about $600 a square foot.”

Also in the works:

  • Updating mechanical systems to make them energy efficient in a way that won’t detract from the building’s historic character.
  • Removing an office partition and other modern modifications and finishes added over the years.
  • Closing the theater. “The new exhibits will have their own (audio) and (visual) elements so there’s no need for a theater any longer,” Smith said.
  • Making the building more accessible for the disabled. To help with that, Trivers has been consulting with a universal design advisory group at CityArchRiver.

Among the improvements to accessibility are the following:

  • Replacing one small lift at the west entrance with ramps for both the west and east entrances.
  • Moving the book and gift shop to another location to make it more accessible.
  • Making what Smith calls “smooth transitions” between various floor levels inside so disabled visitors can get to more exhibit areas.

Trivers is working also with Cooper, Robertson & Partners of New York City, Haley Sharpe and others on designs for an underground expansion of the Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Arch.
As part of that project, said Joe Brinkmann, a Trivers principal and project manager, expect to see monumental excavation work. As it progresses, he said, the Arch will remain open.

For starters, he said, soil covering the roof of the existing museum -- as much as 18 inches deep in places -- will be removed so that leaks in the roof can be repaired. Also being considered, he said, is more digging to expose the museum walls to check for leaks there as well.

But the more monumental dig will go from the existing entrance to the Arch to Memorial Drive where the new entrance for the expanded museum will be built. That excavation, Brinkmann said, will vary in depth to about 40 feet where the existing berm peeks.

Trivers said both museums – at the Old Courthouse and beneath the Arch – will offer residents and visitors “a dramatically totally new experience.” And for the first time, he said, entrances for both will face one another and be connected by a park so you can easily see both and walk from one to the other.

He views the overall CityArchRiver plan with the park over the highway, riverfront improvements and other new features as ”the most transformative thing for downtown since the building of the Arch.”

“It will have enormous impact for both the city and the region,” he said. “This is one of the most exciting things we’ve ever been involved with.”

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.