Ask McGehee: When was Government Plaza built, and how did that design ever get approved?

A Mobile County Courthouse had stood on the southwest corner of Government and Royal streets since 1822.  The fifth and last incarnation had been built in 1958, but in 1988, after 30 years of service, that building was declared insufficient for county needs. 

A new structure was deemed necessary, but this one would not only cover the needs of the county but the city as well. It was a revolutionary idea at the time. Within it would be sufficient office and courtroom space. Original estimated cost: $30 million. (This figure would soon double.)

A block on the south side of Government Street between South Joachim and South Conception streets was obtained, and the Art Moderne Greyhound Bus Station was leveled. The station’s four underground fuel tanks were uncovered, and the accompanying mountain of contaminated soil had to eventually be dealt with along the way.

The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects was charged with finding a design for the new building. Architects from all over the country competed, submitting nearly 200 entries, some of which incorporated classical elements found in Barton Academy. Another complemented the Admiral Semmes Hotel to the west.

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The AIA set up a panel of architects from Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Dallas to judge the competition. Among the locals participating was architect Arch Winter who had designed the space-age Isle Dauphine Club on Dauphin Island in the late ’50s.

The winning design was awarded to the Houston firm of Goleman-Bolullo Partnership. When the plans were presented, many Mobilians howled in despair. 

The Historic Mobile Preservation Society lodged a letter of protest.  Mark McDonald of the Mobile Historic Development Commission termed it “an exciting modern building on precisely the wrong spot.” Lillian Jackson, an opponent of almost everything in those days, dubbed it “Gump Tower.” The judges described it as “functional and dynamic.”

When questioned as to why historic Mobile was not reflected in the new building, the winning architects responded that they saw no special architecture here, just vacant lots and abandoned buildings. They brushed off criticism of the design with the statement: “It cannot be easily or quickly understood. That will take time.” The architects’ fee for the misunderstood monument? $2.7 million.

This postmodern 581, 000-square-foot behemoth of granite, steel and glass was completed by December of 1994. Before it was finished, however, problems began to surface. Clinton Johnson, city council president, complained, “We don’t have walls where we need them to be; we don’t have equipment we need; and we don’t have room for staff.”

At first, reports estimated the building had come in $500, 000 under the budget at $58 million. Upon further inspection and numerous change orders that figure skyrocketed to $73 million.

The public was invited to tour the building, and in an interview in this publication, project manager Clifton Lambert extolled the benefits of the cavernous atrium, which he explained as a “soaring space that acts as a town square. (It is) light-filled but weatherproof – a real bonus with Mobile’s rain.”

The “weather-proof” atrium of Government Plaza has been leaking since 1995. A state audit concluded that the roof cost had exceeded the contract by more than 10 percent. Elevators began to break down almost immediately.

The project manager quit before all of the contracts had been completed. And, it was quickly discovered that nothing had been budgeted to cover the cost of moving the contents of the old buildings into the new.

Seventeen years later, the roof is still leaking in the atrium, and there are many of us who are still waiting to understand that design.

text by Tom McGehee

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