Even as institutional buildings go, Philadelphia's new Family Court is a spartan place. No architectural flourishes relieve the dreary expanse of its milky glass facade. No murals celebrate benevolent justice or family virtues. No modern art adds color to its bland white walls.
But for a brief moment, Family Court's cold, unadorned rooms were brought to life by decorative antique lamps, ornate torchères, and fine wooden chairs.
According to the city's commissioner of public property, Bridget Collins-Greenwald, those valuable, custom-designed objects were stripped by Family Court judges and court employees from the historic Logan Square palazzo that served as the court's home for seven decades, and carted off to their new building overlooking LOVE Park, to be used to decorate the judges' chambers.
All the items have now been returned. "It's all back," she said.
Officials did not realize the objects were missing from the old courthouse until earlier this month, when a city employee spotted a familiar pair of Depression-era torchères gracing the lobby of the new Family Court. That's when city officials asked for a sidebar with the judges.
"I'm willing to say what happened happened accidentally," said Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger, who was brought in to help negotiate the delicate matter. Although built for Family Court, the Logan Square property is city-owned.
"There was a communications disconnect about what they could take," Greenberger said.
Family Court's administrative judge, Margaret T. Murphy, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did officials who oversee the new building's day-to-day operations.
The judges' sticky fingers were particularly disturbing to city officials because they are in the process of selling the Neoclassical building to developers who plan to convert it into a 210-room Kimpton Hotel. As part of the deal, the city promised to throw in the collection of historic objects, custom-designed for the courthouse while it was under construction during the Depression.
Unlike its boxy successor, the elegant, columned courthouse - designed by Philadelphia architect John T. Windrim and engineer Morton Keast - is lavished with art, including stained glass by Philadelphia's D'Ascenzo Studios, murals by nine nationally known artists, and an immense assortment of decorative metal lamps, lacy radiator grills, and wooden desk chairs.
Although the courthouse was not completed until 1941, it reflects Philadelphia's long love affair with Parisian architecture. Just as the Parkway was modeled on the Champs-Elysees, the facades of the courthouse and the adjacent Free Library were inspired by two classical palaces on the Place de la Concorde.
In preparation for the building's sale, the city took the unusual step of having the interior listed on Philadelphia's historic register, ensuring that all the decorative objects would have to be preserved by future owners. The action was intended to help the buyers qualify for federal tax credits, thus reducing the costs of the renovation. But all the historic elements need to be intact for the buyers to get the tax write-off.
During the process of preparing the courthouse for sale, the city hired a consultant to document all the historic objects and prepare an inventory.
When asked whether the city had done a systematic check of the inventory to confirm that Family Court had returned every fixture, Collins-Greenwald declined to respond.
One member of the hotel's development team, Peter Shaw of P&A Associates, said no one had informed him that the objects had been removed. "We didn't hear about any of this," he said.
"They're not supposed to take any of that stuff out. It's in our agreement that it's supposed to be transferred the way it is," Shaw continued. "The torchères are something we think of as absolutely part of the historic fabric."
Now that the objects have been returned, Greenberger said he was less concerned about what was taken than what the court left behind. The building is still piled high with papers and worthless junk.
"We're waiting for them to clean that stuff out," he added.