To ‘top’ it all off: Final beam set in place at new courthouse

Posted Sept. 08, 2008, at 8:36 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 7:17 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The men and women who will work in Penobscot County’s new courthouse and the construction workers who are building it signed their names Monday afternoon to a steel beam painted white with a tiny pine tree attached to one end and an American flag at the other.

As officials from the city, county and judiciary snapped photos with their cameras and cell phones, workers attached cables to the beam. A giant crane then lifted it up four stories to the southwest corner, where steelworkers in a bucket bolted it into place, completing the skeleton of the new $37 million courthouse.

“This is a very proud moment,” said Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Warren Silver, who will have an office in the new building. “It’s an example of what can happen due to cooperation from city, county, state and judicial officials. The result of that level of cooperation is going to be a state-of-the-art building.”

Monday’s event was held nearly a year after a ceremonial groundbreaking on Sept. 21, 2007, attended by many of the same state, county and city officials.

The building, which will have a red brick facade, is scheduled to be enclosed by the end of the year and open for business in December 2009. It faces Exchange Street with Hancock Street on the west side and Washington Street on the east. The back of the building overlooks Kenduskeag Stream.

“This is one of the most exciting projects in the state,” Leigh I. Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said after the short ceremony. “This building is going to be as rock-solid as justice should be.”

The building most likely will not be called the Penobscot County Courthouse as its three predecessors were. Saufley said a naming committee has been set up to make recommendations to the state’s high court, which will make the final decision. In the interim, the building is being referred to as the Penobscot Valley Judicial Cen-ter.

Saufley has said that the building could serve as a regional facility for trials that need more space and-or security than could be provided at smaller facilities such as those in Dover-Foxcroft.

The tradition of placing a tree and flag on the final beam is called “topping out.” It is a visible symbol “that the structure has reached its height,” according to a December 2000 article published in Modern Steel construction. A similar ceremony was held a year ago at the now completed Hollywood Slots facility in Bangor.

Construction workers at the Bangor courthouse site Monday said that topping out was a Scandinavian tradition meant to bring good luck to the project.

The 86,000-square-foot, 3½-story building will combine the Penobscot County Superior Court and 3rd District Court in Bangor. More than 11,000 people each year are expected to pass through the doors of the new courthouse.

The structure will include seven courtrooms — one for arraignments, two for jury trials, three for family matters and one that can be used for ceremonial events or when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court convenes in Bangor. The building also will combine the District and Superior court clerks’ offices.

The need to keep spaces used by the public, prisoners and staff separate from one another limited the way each floor could be laid out, Silver said last year. For security reasons, the public, prisoners and staff will use separate entrances to the building. Prisoners no longer will be walked through areas used by the public. The public also will not have access to judges’ chambers and staff offices.

Current plans call for security screening to take place every day at the public entrance when the building is open to the public. Recent budget cuts have curtailed entry screening at all of the state’s 40 courthouses.

At least a dozen court officers will be in the new judicial center on its busiest days if funding is available, Silver has said.

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