Back in the Day

When it comes to historic renovations, a good electrical contractor brings voice/data/video (VDV) access to a facility as if it had always been there. It is not so easy in a building designed more than a century ago with no power at all. But Ostrow Electric Co. Inc., Worcester, Mass., did just that at the historic John Adams Courthouse in downtown Boston.

Listed on the Historic Register, the courthouse is home to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts as well as the Social Law Library and other courtrooms. Within its marble and oak walls, lawmakers have presided over history-making legal decisions. Now, lawmakers can do it with Internet access, high-tech teledata communications capabilities and digital recording.

The task for architects and contractors in this rehabilitation and restoration was to preserve and accentuate the building’s auspicious history while bringing a future-proof telecommunications infrastructure to those inside it, enough so that—hopefully—no one will need to cut into the courthouse walls again as technology evolves.

The $147.3 million project for the five-story, 385,000- square-foot courthouse, completed in 2005, took more than three years.

It was delicate work. Contractors painstakingly repainted frescoes on the vaulted ceilings, took down and restored fixtures and, in the case of Ostrow, put electric and VDV cables behind walls of marble, plaster and oak.

“Generally speaking, the handcrafted, dignified embellishments of original art, wood, stone, metal and glass found throughout the building embody the high regard placed on the functions carried out within the building,” said Kevin Flanigan, spokesman, Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management. “Duplicating these architectural and artistic details would be economically infeasible and technically impossible given construction practices of today.”

General contractor Suffolk Construction/NER, J.V., Boston, hired Ostrow to provide electrical low-, line- and high-voltage work for a total of about $17 million. Richard W. Reid Electric Co., Billerica, Mass., concentrated on emergency power distribution. J.M. Electrical Co. Inc., Lynnfield, Mass., provided the automatic temperature control wiring.

Steeped in history

Originally designed by Boston’s first city architect, George A. Clough, and built between 1886 and 1894, the Suffolk County Courthouse’s architectural design draws from Victorian, Classical and French Empire styles. There was one addition to the building in 1910, when two floors and a mansard roof, also designed by Clough, were added to the top. At that time, the structure was wired for electricity with gas piping remaining in the event that electricity did not take off as an interior lighting source.

But over the past century, the building had suffered from lack of investment in capital repairs, maintenance and system upgrades. The entire building was in violation of life-safety building codes. The electrical systems were grossly inadequate, Flanigan said, and unable to support even basic building functions. Parts of the building still were using older-style direct current prior to the restoration.

It also was not suited for accessibility for persons with disabilities, and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems were inadequate or nonexistent. There was no mechanical ventilation system at all. Window units provided air conditioning. Heat was poorly controlled and uneven.

So 80 years after the most recent renovation, architect Childs, Bertman, Tseckares Inc., Boston, included exterior and interior work with a full refurbishment to accommodate court and library operations.

Necessary improvements

A key portion of the project was the restoration of the Great Hall to revive the majesty of its ceiling artwork and expansive public space. Workers also constructed a new Seven-Justice Courtroom for the Supreme Judicial Court. They restored the courtroom where Oliver Wendell Holmes once presided, to be used as a courtroom for Single-Justice hearings. The courthouse also received masonry and stonework restoration; replacement or repair of nearly 1,000 windows; build-out of two existing light wells; installation of all new electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems, including heating and air conditioning; elevators; and telecommunications, computer and security systems.

To bring state-of-the-art technology to the courthouse, Ostrow wired courtrooms to broadcast Supreme Court proceedings over the Internet. They also put in a fully integrated information technology infrastructure and modern audiovisual systems in the courtrooms. The job would require extensive cutting and patching of the structural brick walls and stairways, which consisted of materials such as marble, paneling and concrete flooring.

The building would be equipped with modern security, teledata, electrical, mechanical and audiovisual systems, designed to grow and expand to meet the court’s requirements into the 21st century.

To tie into Boston’s complex electrical infrastructure, Ostrow brought in specialist utility contractor Bond Brothers Inc., Everett, Mass., to locate and uncover high-voltage duct banks. Many of these had asbestos-containing Transite conduit feeding into primary power transformers.

Lead paint, in addition to the asbestos, created a health concern for employees and Ostrow hired an industrial hygienist to test the workplace environment, ensuring their crews were not exposed to hazardous levels of lead.

Historic challenges

“The big challenge was integrating modern electrical [such as pull stations and teledata outlets] into the existing architecture of oak panels,” said Jonathan Ostrow, company president. “In a modern building, you can cut holes in the wall.” In this case, however, Ostrow’s IBEW Local 103 electricians worked behind carefully removed panels up to 18 feet in height. They also used a special plaster cutting device to slot 3-inch-wide swatches needed to install pipe and cable, as well as to make larger holes for outlet boxes.

When the building was constructed, Ostrow pointed out, electricity was far from architects’ minds. “They didn’t consider fire alarm devices or data outlets. Centering outlets in raised panels wasn’t even imagined by the architects as they laid out different patterns of oak in each courtroom.”

Electric services installed in the early 20th century consisted of outlets spaced about 100 feet or more and Ostrow had to bring enough line-voltage power access for the thousands of receptacles that would need to be installed. Ostrow had to receive individual approval from the architect for each of the outlet locations. In addition, courtrooms with high ceilings, trim and woodwork were not intended for installing cable, outlets and data connections.

“We wanted it to seem as if [the teledata] grew there,” Ostrow said. And making it seem that way required some good old-fashioned mechanics. “It’s kind of ironic, the old traditional skills were what we needed most,” Ostrow said, which included careful attention to detail, preservation of each panel and surface and a painstaking precision in laying out openings.

All concealed wiring

“If you said, ‘I don’t know how to conceal wiring between point A to point B because of obstructions’ and you just put conduit on the surface, well that’s not meeting the architect’s expectations,” Ostrow said. In fact, when the project was completed, there was not a single foot of surface-mounted wiring in the finished areas of the building.

Ostrow installed six optical turnstiles, which use an infrared beam to alert personnel of unauthorized people trying to enter the building. The security system used Category 5e cable and was programmed and integrated by Siemens Building Technologies. The building now features fully programmable card access to all nonpublic zones. Ostrow also installed the security system consisting of 1,000 outlets with about 65 video cameras. The security system is integrated with the Administrative Office of the Trial Court’s centralized control security headquarters. With this system, security staff at that building can remotely monitor activities in the courthouse. In addition, Ostrow wired an on-site security room where the security personnel monitor activity from within the building.

Ostrow also installed the addressable Class A fire alarm system with bidirectional amplifiers. The system’s antennae allow firefighters to communicate with each other, their vehicles and the station through the thick exterior granite walls.

Altogether, the VDV system includes 7,000 outlets, 8,500 jacks and about 1 million feet of cable, 7,500 feet of which is fiber optic. That hybrid cable includes both six multimode and six single-mode fibers in the same jacket. In this way, the courthouse can use the cables for high-speed data and phone communications while also having video conferencing options and the backbone for further fiber optic deployment as it becomes more common in coming years.

Ostrow also installed audiovisual infrastructure as the backbone for these feeds into each courtroom, providing broadcast television quality televising capabilities. The system allows for Web casting of proceedings as well as digital audio recording that replaces the stenographer. Each courtroom has static cameras for the judge and pan/tilt/zoom cameras as well. One courtroom contains a rear projection screen for simulcast viewing of hearings in the Seven-Justice Courtroom.

By the time the project was completed, Ostrow electricians had spent 250,000 labor hours on the site with an average of 40 men and peak of 70. They fitted out 20 electrical rooms, 35 teledata rooms and a main server room, a building communications room, a security room with consoles, and the main audiovisual room.

The project was led by general foreman Michael Martinelli, foreman Ken Shamus and Greg Sallhofen, senior project manager. “Their skills were the secret of our success,” Ostrow said. “I credit them with perseverance, commitment and conscientiousness.”

Although this was not a design/build project, sometimes it felt like one, joked Ostrow, since so much of the project had to be worked out closely with architects and general contractors piece by piece.

Historic restoration work is never the cleanest or easiest task for electricians, and it takes a strong work ethic to be able to do it well, Ostrow said.

“When you’re working in dust and grime of a 130-year-old building and crawling through the bowels and steam tunnels of such a structure, it shows a tremendous amount of dedication,” Ostrow said. We can take it for granted that our people have great technical skills, but the positive attitude was the key.”

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at

About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at .

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