Towering Achievement


Last I-beam placed on courthouse’s new 10-story tower

By David Ashenfelter
Public Information Officer,
U.S. District Court for Eastern Michigan

You wouldn’t think it would be very complicated to add a stair tower and elevator to an existing federal courthouse.

But it’s taken years, dozens of contractors and hundreds of workers to install the 10-story tower and make other improvements during a $140-million modernization project at the 87-year-old Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in downtown Detroit.

Court officials, judicial employees, representatives of the construction companies, and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which owns and manages the courthouse, held a “topping off” celebration June 14 to celebrate the setting of the last I-beam on the 10-story tower.

“The spirit of cooperation between the courts, GSA, and the contractors made this difficult project possible,” said Stephen English, the court’s architect and engineer, who worked with GSA on the project. “Open, honest communication was critical to performing this work within an occupied building.”

“We wanted to stay in the building during the project,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood. “And that has meant everyone has had to move temporarily — some more than once. Even though that has been an inconvenience and sometimes a trying time for people, they have risen to the occasion.”

Hood added: “I really appreciate the willingness of all of the court staffs and others — including the judges, the U.S. Marshals, attorneys, litigants, construction workers, cleaning staff and prisoners — to be agreeable to the physical upheaval of their space while the improvements have been underway.”

The GSA launched the modernization project in the summer of 2016 to preserve and extend the life of an iconic asset in downtown Detroit, ensuring it remains a vibrant part of the city’s historic fabric.

The four-year project is one of the largest projects the GSA has undertaken in Detroit in many years. The work has been carried out without having to shut down the 770,000-square-foot building or relocating building tenants, enabling the courthouse to remain fully occupied and operational while the work is being carried out. Work will be substantially completed by the end of the year.

GSA contractors — led by The Christman Company, the Detroit-based general contractor — are upgrading the mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems of the building, modernizing public restrooms to improve accessibility and water efficiency, and renovating eight of the existing passenger elevators. GSA also is restoring the ceilings in the first- and seventh-floor public corridors to return them to their original grandeur.

One of the most challenging aspects of the job has been installing a new stair tower inside an open “light court” that begins on the third floor of the building.

Construction of the tower was prompted by safety considerations — creating an egress route for judges, employees and visitors in the event of an emergency. Along the way, a decision was made to install a new freight elevator in the tower, so the U.S. Marshals Service could use the existing freight elevator exclusively for transporting prisoners to and from court. Currently, court functions frequently are interrupted by the need to shuttle prisoners. GSA, in consultation with the court, also decided to install a passenger elevator.

Construction crews had to dig out the basement and remove rubble left behind by the demolition of the old 1800s courthouse. Then they drilled shafts 130 feet deep to bedrock with special boring equipment. The holes were filled with concrete to support the new tower. Workers then cut a 40-by-60-foot hole through the first, second and third floors to reach the open light court.

Then came the structural steel members, which were lifted over the Shelby Street side of the building and into the light court with a large crane. The crane operator couldn’t see over the building and into the light court and had to communicate with iron workers by radio to guide the I-beams into position.

When the final I-beam was installed on June 7, workers planted an American flag atop the tower in keeping with ironworking tradition.

In the months ahead, workers will pour concrete on each floor, fireproof the structural steel and enclose the tower.