Gleaming new federal courthouse opening in Utah

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Photo - A person descends a spiral staircase during a media tour of the new Salt Lake City Federal Courthouse, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Federal court cases playing out in Utah will soon have a glossier, more modern setting. Officials on Wednesday are celebrating the opening of a new federal courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City, next-door to the existing building. They say it's a much-needed upgrade, with more space and better security. The $185 million building is designed to harness natural sunlight and use energy more efficiently. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
A person descends a spiral staircase during a media tour of the new Salt Lake City Federal Courthouse, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Federal court cases playing out in Utah will soon have a glossier, more modern setting. Officials on Wednesday are celebrating the opening of a new federal courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City, next-door to the existing building. They say it's a much-needed upgrade, with more space and better security. The $185 million building is designed to harness natural sunlight and use energy more efficiently. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A gleaming tower new to the Salt Lake City skyline features a 10-story spiral staircase, UV-filtering glass walls, and frosted, illuminated floors.

Its tenants, neither high-tech engineers nor luxury condominium owners, are moving in this week and deciding where to hang their robes.

Utah's new $185 million federal courthouse opens Monday, and workers on Wednesday were dusting the sunlit floors and white oak paneling.

"Very, very sleek, very modern," said Markus Zimmer, former clerk of the court who retired in 2006 and has been involved in the project for about two decades. "From a technological perspective, there's no comparison."

The tower with views of the Wasatch Range is next door to the century-old federal courthouse. Equipped with digital monitors at attorneys' desks and building-wide Wi-Fi, it represents a digital transformation in the legal system.

And it's designed to awe: A sculpture mimicking a cloud of ice crystals towers above the atrium in a nod to Utah's singular geography and weather patterns. Each light bulb in the building can be individually programmed.

Judges' chambers are clustered together with glass doors, sleek steel fixtures and bright white walls. Despite the new design, elements of the formative setting have carried over to their offices: lamps with brass chains, claw-footed end tables and navy blue colonial-style couches.

The steel-and-concrete building is designed to withstand blasts and also contains bulletproof glass in some areas, said Amy Mills, project manager for Okland Construction. Other security measures include separate routes for judges, prisoners and the public. In the existing courthouse, they all used the same hallways.

The old five-story sandstone and granite building dates back about 120 years, when Congress set aside $500,000 for its construction. Officials bought the site for a silver dollar, about a decade and a half after Utah became a state. The building also contained a post office.

Officials say other federal offices will move in there, but they haven't yet been specified.

The former facility's intricate plaster ceilings, oak siding and creaky wooden benches are beautiful, officials say, but they don't live up to 21st century demands.

The new courthouse spans about 400,000 square feet. In June, a cafe is scheduled to open on the main floor.

When workers razed the parking lot for the new plot, they found thousands of relics form a print shop and two blacksmith shops, as well as a 1930s billboard buried about 8 feet in the ground. Some of those will go on display on the main floor, said Sue Damour, the regional administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration, the building's landlord.

Local businesses such as Wasatch Electric and Beehive Glass helped construct the 10 stories.

It's unclear how much say judges, attorneys, clerks and others had in the new design from New York City-based architect Thomas Phifer, but judges' tastes have prompted courtroom makeovers before.

One former federal district judge in Utah had his courtroom ceiling repainted in red, white and blue. His successor balked at those shades, concealing them with more muted tones.

Utah's is the latest federal courthouse to go up in the U.S. since December, following Yuma, Ariz.

Los Angeles is next in line, with the debut of a fresh federal courthouse set for 2016.

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