In many ways, the future downtown law school will look much like the former post office and Customs House does now.
The stately exterior will be the same. The marble floor will stay, as will the worn areas in that
floor where postal customers once stood in line to buy stamps. Even a U.S. postal service sign — etched in glass and hanging above what will be a security desk — will remain.
When the building reopens in 2009, however, there will be one major difference: A lot more people will have the chance to see it.
About 45 people had that pleasure last week when Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects led a tour of the project.
"The post office took very good care of this building," says project architect Bill Nixon. "They did a great job, but they only had about 30 percent of it occupied."
In addition to University of Memphis law school students and faculty, the building will house a legal library, a legal services clinic, and a Barnes & Noble that will sell law school textbooks.
As it stands now, wiring is exposed in large swaths. Paper signs taped to doors and windows give a hint of what's planned: "Remove door, trim, and casing." Or "Demo lower window, upper window to remain." In the third-floor room that will become a large courtroom, the drop ceiling already has been partially removed, revealing the original molding on the ceiling and an ornate skylight. A dingy blue carpet, however, still bears the traces of workers' cubicles.
Nixon began working on the relocation in 2001, initially looking on the U of M's main campus for a facility or site that would suit the law school's needs.
"We found this building with the help of a lot of downtown attorneys," Nixon says. "That's how we started looking at it in 2002."
After the law school was told it was in danger of losing its accreditation because of the condition of its current on-campus facility, the project became a top priority.
The Front Street site actually encompasses three buildings, the main one built in 1884. An addition was constructed in the back in 1903, and wings were added — as well as an outside shell that encapsulated all three buildings — in 1929. From the roof, you can see how the outside stone wall is covering a sloping green tile roof.
When finished, the project will be a curious mix of old and new. Fireplaces in what will be the faculty lounge will remain. Two of the building's 12 vaults will stay. But historical preservationists asked the architects not to mimic the style of the old construction, so anything new will have a contemporary feel. The top-floor reading room will be enclosed in glass, giving law students a breathtaking view of Mud Island and the river and giving boaters a beacon of the city.
But if the tour did anything, it reinforced the notion that people rarely build architecture like this anymore. In one room — a future faculty lounge — tour participants oohed and aahed over dark red gum paneling and stenciled wooden beams spanning the ceiling.
"This is like the school I went to in England," Nixon says. "It's like Harry Potter or something."
In a world where many new buildings have only a 20-year lifespan — even iconic public projects such as The Pyramid arena — it's nice to see something that's been in use in some capacity for more than a century.
The project is estimated at $45 million, less than what it would cost for a brand-new facility. Of course, much of that owes to the original construction. The building is still in good shape and is versatile enough for a variety of uses.
"It is built a little like a battleship," Nixon says.
Instead of building as cheaply as possible, maybe we should be thinking about making an investment and getting more out of construction in the long run. I know that's easy for me to say. I'm not a builder footing the bill.
Environmentally sound design doesn't just mean having energy efficient appliances. If the most energy expended in a building is used during construction, the longer a building is used, the more efficient it is over time.
And maybe that's one lesson the city — not just the students — can take from the law school.