Treasures throughout, Baltimore's Mitchell Courthouse also holds a century of drama

Many people enter Maryland’s busiest courthouse unaware they are stepping on an Italian mosaic, leaning against Numidian marble, and waiting under the gaze of the sage Confucius, the emperor Justinian and the Prophet Muhammad.

Baltimore jurors might miss the mural of ancient lawmakers in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, just as they miss the scars of gunfire in its walls. A century of tales lies in the court’s overlooked grandeur.

City judges are trying again to renovate or replace the 118-year-old Mitchell Courthouse and a younger, 85-year-old courthouse across Calvert Street. State officials asked last year for plans from private developers. A report on the responses — and the cost of change — is expected in early 2018, said Rachelina Bonacci, spokeswoman for the Maryland Stadium Authority.

The judiciary has tried before. Piecemeal measures failed to relieve overcrowding in the 1960s, when small fixes felt like “trying to force a French bikini over a Victorian wedding gown,” a grand jury committee wrote.

Built of granite and marble, the Mitchell Courthouse hunkers down over an entire city block. Too sturdy to demolish, expensive to remodel, it’s antiquated, yet celebrated for its history.

“There are treasures all throughout this building,” said Joseph Bennett, who runs the library upstairs. “It was built at a time when they had the money and inclination to do this sort of thing. I don’t think we’ll ever see it again, not in a public building. Today, they’re interested in outlets to plug laptops.”

On Jan. 8, 1900, crowds clamored to witness Baltimore’s new palace of law — its three stories and 205 rooms dedicated as the grandest courthouse in America.

If these walls could talk, they would tell of dramas like the lurid 1952 murder trial of G. Edward Grammer who, smitten by a younger woman, bludgeoned his wife and staged her death as a car wreck. Spectators crowded in for a glimpse of his paramour. Sentenced to death, he suffered a botched hanging that went on 20 minutes.

Afterward, Maryland built a gas chamber.

In 1954, 14-year-old escape artist “Tunnel Joe Jr.” chipped through the concrete floor of the lockup before a workman happened upon his bid for freedom. There have been other desperate escape tries, as well as suicide attempts by smuggled guns, hangings, even poison

The work to dredge the past has been shouldered by James Schneider, a 70-year-old retired judge who has spent decades as courthouse historian, archivist and curator. On a December afternoon, he offered a tour.

TheMitchell Courthouse, he began, was almost lost in the Great Fire of 1904.

Flames scorched the ankles of the building. Judges, clerks and lawyers formed a bucket brigade on the roof. Through a freezing February night, they staved off the flames, emerging blackened with soot, like coal miners.

The daring rescue was forgotten before Schneider found accounts in out-of-town newspapers. He has unearthed such tales ever since arriving as a law clerk in the 1970s.

“We used to sit in these courtrooms and I would see the portraits and ask the judge, ‘Who are these people? … When was this building built?’” he says. “Nobody knew anything.”

Nights, after studying for the bar exam, he would escape to the Enoch Pratt Free Library and hunt for answers.

“I had a whole notebook full when I passed the bar,” he said.

The marble monument was designed to outshine City Hall. Crews laid the first courthouse stone in October 1895, and their work took four years and $2.25 million. Built like a Greek temple, the facade frames eight columns cut from single blocks of marble. Each column weighs 35 tons, rises 31 feet, and stands taller than those on the U.S. Capitol.

When one column was hoisted up, a beam snapped and a worker was killed. A crowd looked on.

“When this building opened, it must have looked like a spaceship landed in Baltimore,” Schneider said. “It was white marble, it was huge, it was impressive – the whole purpose of it was to convey the feeling of the importance of the court.”

Schneider walked on, through rooms drenched with embellishment: decorative rosettes, egg-and-dart molding, stained-glass skylights. Nearly 100 portraits depict Baltimore’s legal lions.

More tales spilled out.

The Baltimore Bar Library’s nearly 150,000 legal tomes are guarded by the scruffy head of a moose bagged by a local attorney more than 80 years ago in Canada.

At the jury entrance stands a granite statue of Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, but it was modeled off a silent-era film star famous as a brawny villain in “Ben-Hur.”

Mother Teresa wrote the court to request a nun be excused from jury duty in February 1993. “Her presence is badly needed in our hospice for dying AIDS patients in Baltimore,” says a saintly letter on the wall.

Caramel-colored marble adorns the sixth-floor courtroom of Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard. The precious pillars came from the pope’s own quarry in Rome.

“He granted us the last bit of the sienna marble the Vatican church had,” she said. “People don’t know what we have in this building.”

Descendants of courthouse artisans have traveled from France, Italy and Spain to glimpse the marble, she said. Actor Eddie Murphy came, too. He filmed the 1992 comedy “The Distinguished Gentleman” there.

Circuit Judge Timothy Doory met John Forsythe in the fourth-floor men’s room; Al Pacino, in the elevator.

Each day, lawyers climb the fourth-floor stairway likely unaware of a notch in the marble. The mark came from a bullet fired by a sheriff’s deputy after a prisoner who, facing a life sentence, bolted down the hall.

The courthouse was built with three floors and a courtyard to afford sunlight and fresh air. But crews filled in the courtyard in the 1950s. They lowered the ceilings to turn three floors into six. Now, the stairways don’t meet. Visitors long complained of a labyrinth of dim corridors.

“I used to get lost when I was a law clerk,” Schneider said.

Cold War-era signs linger for fallout shelters.

Outside, a black veil shrouds the courthouse. Almost imperceptible, the netting went up to block the pigeons that befouled the balconies and drove the clerks to protest in the streets.

Now the birds are gone, and the courthouse endures with all its contradictions: It’s white marble in fishnets. On its steps the homeless sleep beneath stone lions. It’s been called a temple to justice and an embarrassment.

As early as the 1960s, a commission studied needs for a new courthouse. Crowded, stuffy, dim conditions made for “sweatshop justice,” members wrote. A five-month $48,000 study recommended a new building urgently.

Some relief came in the 1970s. The old U.S. Post Office built across Calvert Street in 1932 was deeded to the city. Today, cases are heard in the two buildings that bracket the Battle Monument.

A 2011 study revealed worsening conditions in both. It estimated the cost of renovations at $600 million. Then plans stalled, again.

The Circuit Court took up the matter last year.

“We’re waiting for the Stadium Authority report. That will give us a direction,” said Circuit Judge W. Michel Pierson, the city’s administrative judge. “I don’t think we’re going to demolish the Mitchell Courthouse.”

Insufficient safety measures drive the need for a modern court. In Baltimore’s federal courthouse, judges, defendants and visitors walk separate halls — not so in Mitchell.

Heard has ridden the elevator with defendants released on bail and their families.

“Do we have to wait until something bad happens?” she said.

Schneider agreed that this grande dame of Baltimore’s judiciary has outlived practical uses

“This building should have been replaced years ago,” he said. “But not lost, not torn down.”

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/Tim_Prudente

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
70°