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Employees reflect on old, new courthouses

December 29, 2020

By Gerald Hay

New courthouseThe air conditioning was unpredictable at best. At times, the roof leaked and water pipes, too. Some offices had leaky windows.

Hallways were too narrow; working spaces were too crowded; upkeep was too challenging.

Describing the old Johnson County Courthouse as archaic might be fitting, but some regulars have mixed emotions as the chapter ends for the 68-year-old, eight-story courthouse in downtown Olathe and the opening chapter begins for the new seven-story courthouse across the street. The new facility is the fourth courthouse in Johnson County’s 166-year history.

Larry Sallaz and Craig Thacker from the Johnson County Facilities Management Department are maintenance caretakers of both county courthouses. They have been doing their jobs for more than three decades. Both firmly supported construction of the newly opened courthouse, but also will miss some aspects of the newly closed old courthouse. 

Walking in and out

"I am surprised how sentimental and sad I have become over the final days of the old courthouse. Thinking about the last time that I'll be walking in, and finally, the last time walking out," Sallaz said.

Starting as a custodian in 1988 at the old courthouse, he has worked outside on the mow crew and inside as building maintenance mechanic. A building engineer since 2015, he serves in that role at the new courthouse.

"I'll miss the family atmosphere at the old courthouse and the old architecture that existed in the building, like the 1950 courtrooms," Sallaz said. "I have a lot of good memories – like when the entire county offices were in the courthouse including the jail and the Board of County Commissioners (then with three members) was on eighth floor. I also remember the guys I have worked with when I started. There are only three of us left. We were like brothers."

Thacker, who is deaf, was one of the working brothers. He has been a member of the courthouse custodian crew for more than 31 years – as night custodian for the first dozen years before joining the day-shift cleaning team for the past 19 years. He has been a county employee for almost 33 years, starting his career as a night custodian at Johnson County Wastewater.

"I will miss the old building after it is torn down. That I cannot forget. It has been a part of the county's courthouse history," Thacker noted in an email. "I hope we will remember it for the long time further."

Good and bad uniqueness

The old courthouse had its uniqueness, good and bad. The original courtrooms featured high, ornate ceilings and rows of wooden pews. Parts of the building had walls and floors of granite.

District Court Judge Keven O'Grady has been a regular of the old courthouse for 35 years, initially as a law clerk then as an attorney after setting up his practice in 1987. He was appointed judge in the fall of 2012, calling the courthouse his office and handling a family court docket.

During that time, he noted many changes in courthouse operations. In the early days, the clerk's office was spread around multiple floors and the law library was upstairs. Courtrooms were added and moved. County offices, once in the courthouse, were relocated to the Administration Building when it opened in 1992.

"I used to park my car where the Admin Building sits now," Judge O'Grady said. "Mostly, I remember the great people who worked in the courthouse when I first started. Those judges, administrative assistants, law librarians, court clerks and staff helped train me as a lawyer."

Judge O'Grady also praises some marvelous architectural features of the old courthouse, including the art deco fixtures, signage and the vintage stone wall coverings in the hallways, calling the features "spectacular."

"The large courtrooms each have their own special character as they were built at different times. While some offices are small and dark, others are bright and airy," he said. "Of course, there are a lot of great memories. I tried my first bench and first jury trial in this courthouse." 
On the other hand, the judge will not miss the overall configuration of the old courthouse after years of renovations and new additions, resulting in a building that was not public friendly.

"Because the courthouse was built in stages it is very difficult to safely move criminal defendants from the jail to the courtrooms. The courthouse could be difficult to access if you have physical challenges," he said. "The old courthouse was not built to take advantage of current technology. It was often difficult for nonlawyers to navigate effectively."

Showing its age

Over the past few decades, the old courthouse began to show its age with needs for more space and an aging infrastructure and utilities.

Thacker was not pleased about the heavy dust created by the various courthouse renovations that enhanced his cleaning duties. Other challenges were the foul odor when the basement diesel generator leaked and leakages from inside water or outside propane lines leaked. Another problem occurred when heavy rust clogged underground water pipes that connected to the courthouse drinking fountains.

"The water tasted like dirt metal on my tongue after I drank," he said.

Sallaz agreed, adding: "I will not miss the antiquated HVAC systems and the structural issues that the old building has."

Melissa Mercer, trial court coordinator in the Clerk of the District Court Office, agreed. She has worked at the courthouse for 19 years. She also will miss "the character of some of the courtrooms" along with her the memories of the people she has worked with in the old office over the years. "I will not miss the huge difference in temperature from office-to-office," she quipped.

Many changes were made with court operations at the old courthouse, far less handling of paperwork, documents and case records when electronic filing by attorneys was implemented. The opening of a Self-Help Center was another major change that was made. Mercer cites several positive changes in providing court services in the new courthouse. The facility features state-of-the-art technologies and systems to enhance court services. She likes the updated technology, safer working and public environments, accessibility, ergonomic desks for employees, larger courtroom spaces and visual cues for the public.

"There’s an even temperature within the building," Mercer said with a smile.

Busy places for many tasks

Old or new, the Johnson County Courthouse is a very busy place not only for court staff, prosecutors and other lawyers. It’s a venue for the general public to conduct a range of business, including reporting for jury duty; attending trials, hearings and legal proceedings; and applying for a marriage license.

While the new courthouse might lack the historic character of the old courthouse, the new facility incorporates modern technological means for today's functional needs in court services, courtrooms, trials and criminal justice.

"Visually the new courtrooms are stunning. Each courtroom now has the look and feel that one would expect," Judge O'Grady said. "Each courtroom is fully accessible and is outfitted with some of the most cutting-edge technology to be found in any courthouse in the world. The entire building was designed for easy upgrades not only to the technology but to reconfigure each floor as needed." 

The new courthouse has enhanced security, including moving inmates and suspects to court appearances, and is ADA compliant.

The almost 357,000-square-foot facility is approximately 120,000 square feet larger than the old courthouse.

"Everything will be new and more convenient. It will probably be just as much work, but we will feel more comfortable at cleaning around because it will all be upto-date," Thacker said. "Hope that we can be proud of our work."

New uniqueness

The new courthouse also has its own uniqueness and characteristics. The building is airy with natural light from large windows at all levels. The first floor features a glass curtainwall, terrazzo floors, acoustical plaster ceilings and a grand staircase to the second floor.

A limestone-clad Ribbon Wall, built with 2,251, 450-pound stones quarried from the Flint Hills of Kansas, is above the main entry.

Visitors enter the courthouse from the south entrance and pass through security. Several most-used functions are located in the lobby for convenience, including jury assembly, court clerk, Self-Help Center, law library, traffic and high-volume courts, and hearing rooms.

The lobby also displays the "Open Prairie," a public art piece, and the Goddess of Justice statute. The 129-year-old statue was atop the roof of the county's 1892 (second) three-story courthouse, called the Temple of Justice, and displayed in the 1952 (third) courthouse until its closing. The two-story stone Chase Building, constructed in 1859, had the first county courtroom and services until the temple was built 33 years later.

Although he will miss some aspects of the old courthouse, Sallaz is quite happy with working at the new courthouse.

"I am very proud of the building that has been built," he said. "It will be a great courthouse for the taxpayers of Johnson County for years to come."