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Lawyers Mall, Maryland capital’s First Amendment gathering space, to reopen after two years of repairs

For two years, the most prominent space in Annapolis for speaking one’s mind and rallying the troops has been in disarray.

Lawyers Mall, a plaza steps from the State House that has hosted countless rallies and news conferences, has had its cherry trees chopped down, its brick and granite torn up and its famous statue of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall shipped down the road. The entire plaza was closed off by a chain-link fence as work crews tackled problematic utility pipes down below.

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The $13 million project is coming to a close just in time for the 2021 session of the Maryland General Assembly in January — when coronavirus restrictions will mean fewer people will be able to enjoy Lawyers Mall, at least for the time being.

The legislature is drastically reducing its in-person work at the State House complex, switching most hearings to video. Lobbyists, activists and members of the public won’t be allowed inside and public events are being discouraged.

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“I think it will be wonderfully received — when people can visit and congregate,” said Elaine Rice Bachmann, deputy state archivist.

Lawyers Mall has been the focal point for First Amendment activities in the state capital since the plaza was created in 1973. Members of groups as divergent as the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan have gathered in the space to make their voices heard.

Activists have lain on the granite to feign death and raise awareness of police brutality. They’ve held makeshift windmills aloft to promote clean energy. They’ve recited chants and sung songs to promote their causes, shouted at people inside the State House and the governor’s mansion.

Lawmakers wearing hooded sweatshirts gathered there in 2012, after the murder of hoodie-wearing teenager Trayvon Martin. Advocates for fighting climate change, restoring the Chesapeake Bay, supporting teachers and both banning and permitting abortion have descended on Lawyers Mall over the decades.

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“It is our known place for people expressing their First Amendment rights,” said Ellington Churchill, secretary of the Maryland Department of General Services, which maintains all state property.

Before 1973, the state’s appeals courts were housed in a circa 1906 building where the plaza now sits. Having a large building in that spot is “hard to believe now” for people used to driving into the capital city on Bladen Street and seeing the straight roadway pointing toward Lawyers Mall and the State House rising behind it, Bachmann said.

Once the appeals court building was torn down, the state was left with an empty patch of land that landscape architect Meade Palmer designed to be a public square.

The most significant alteration came in 1996, when the Marshall statue was erected in the center of the mall. The statue was positioned in front of dramatic pillars that spell out “Equal Justice Under Law.”

Designed by Antonio Tobias Mendez, a sculptor from Washington County, the Marshall memorial depicts the Supreme Court justice as a young lawyer, as he would have looked when he argued cases before the state appeals courts in that very spot.

It also features two children on a bench, symbolizing the students who benefited from Marshall’s success in the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case before the Supreme Court in 1954. On another bench sits a statue of Donald Gaines Murray, whom Marshall represented in a successful admissions case against the University of Maryland’s law school, known as Murray v. Pearson.

But the statues and plaza had to be ripped apart in 2018 after state officials realized just how badly the State House complex’s utility system had deteriorated, Churchill said. The Marshall statue was temporarily put on display outside the Robert C. Murphy Courts of Appeal building about three-quarters of a mile down the road.

All of the utilities for all of the Annapolis government complex’s buildings — the State House, the governor’s mansion, legislative, treasury and office buildings — snake underground in a series of pipes and conduits. During a particularly brutal cold snap in 2018, DGS workers noticed a significant amount of steam escaping, which indicated inefficiency in the steam heating system, Churchill said.

“It’s a labyrinth of pipes underground no one had seen since they were installed in the 1980s and 1990s,” he said.

With workers needing to dig up Lawyers Mall and part of nearby Bladen Street, the state decided to fix and upgrade all the utilities there — steam, electrical, water, gas.

“We’re taking the opportunity to replace all of the utilities, so for the next 40-plus years, we have an efficient operating system and we shouldn’t have to touch it,” Churchill said.

The utility work is costing the state about $6 million.

While the work was underway, protests and rallies were dislodged from the capital’s great gathering place during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions. Many were held on a smaller grassy area near the House Office Building that turned muddy after being trampled by so many visitors and activists.

With Lawyers Mall taken apart for the utility work, it gave the state a chance to put things back together in an improved way. All of the above-ground work — which totaled $7 million — was approved by the State House Trust, which oversees all projects in the complex.

For starters, Churchill said, it was decided that the plaza should be reconfigured to accommodate larger rallies. Instead of holding 400 people, it can now hold 1,200 people, thanks to changes in the landscaping that bring more of the mall on one grade and a reorientation of trees and plants to the edges. The usable space has gone from 2,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet, within the same footprint.

A low stage, outfitted with electrical access, is being fashioned at one end of Lawyers Mall with the State House behind it for the picture-perfect backdrop for speakers.

More benches and low walls are scattered around the periphery of Lawyers Mall, adding badly-needed seating for tour groups and visitors who like to lunch there. There’s also additional lighting, a helpful feature for Monday night rallies that are a staple when the legislature is in session.

The Marshall statue will be placed back in its spot within the next month, on a new base. Inscriptions in the granite on the ground around the statue list a timeline of the attorney and justice’s notable accomplishments.

And access hatches have been added so that when utility repairs are needed in the future, crews won’t have to dig up all the work they just did.

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The rework of Lawyers Mall was designed by Ziger Snead Architects, with consultation from Mendez, the artist who created the Marshall statue. The work has been carried out by Kibart, an engineering firm based in Towson; CPF LLC, a utilities company in Prince Frederick; and North Point Builders, a general contractor based in Dundalk.

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In a year when there has been little to celebrate due to the pandemic, Churchill said, “we’ll be happy to celebrate the reopening of Lawyers Mall.”

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