MORRISTOWN, NJ - The Morris County Courthouse in Morristown is a museum-like structure dating back to 1827. There have been numerous additions since then, but the front of the courthouse on Washington Avenue looks much the way it did almost 200 years ago.
That presents both the beauty of history and the problem of keeping the building functionable now and in the years ahead. And that may be too much of a challenge for county leaders. To that end, the county freeholders Wednesday night presented plans to build a new courthouse complex on county-owned land a block away on Schuyler Place now used as a parking lot.
This would be no simple construction project. Estimates are it could take up to 12 years from design to completion and cost $106 million. Douglas Cabana, the freeholder director, stressed that nothing is definite. "There has been no decision," he said. noting that the county will consider online public comments - the plan is on the county website - and may hold more public hearings. The freeholders have not formally considered the plan, but preliminary discussions indicate there likely will be robust debate on the issue.
The original, red-brick courthouse, which exemplifies the "federal style" architecture of the early nineteenth century, would be preserved under the proposal. A handful of county officials, most notably Stuart Minkowitz, the county's chief judge, and Sherriff James Gannon highlighted the old courthouse's deficiencies.
The judge gave the most detailed presentation, talking about overcrowded courtrooms, no room to expand and security problems. For example, he noted that defendants, victims, witnesses - and judges themselves - enter courtrooms through a common hallway, setting up the chance of unpleasant encounters.
The overall problem is the age of the building. Like many government buildings constructed more than 100 years ago, the courthouse is a maze of narrow hallways, small rooms and interior stairwells, which officials said is a fire hazard.
One quirk is the old "sheriff's house." It was originally separate from the courthouse and offered living accommodations for the sheriff. It's now connected to the courthouse and is used for offices, although the interior still retains the old room layout.
The judge summed up the overall problem when he said that since 1992, the total amount of all court filings has grown from 6,081 annually to 25,693.
An early supporter of the new courthouse plan is the Morris County Bar Association. Speaking about the old courthouse, Jennifer McAndrew, the outgoing bar president, said, "It is historic, it is beautiful," but that it is also "completely inadequate" for today. She added that Morristown is now the legal center of northwest New Jersey, a label that will be in jeopardy if a modern courthouse is not built.
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