Pitkin County Courthouse re-opens; fanfare Wednesday morning

Staff report
Pitkin County Courthouse
Aspen Times file

Pitkin County leaders and court staff will celebrate the re-opening of the county courthouse at 10 a.m. on Wednesday with a ribbon-cutting and speeches (of course). The public is welcome.

The historic building on Main Street in Aspen opened again last week after being closed since March for a major remodel.

Beginning in 2019, Pitkin County undertook a significant move to meet 21st-century technology, security and accessibility standards for the court system, county officials said. Maintaining the building’s iconic historic nature was a priority throughout construction, they added.

The work was done because the county thought existing space was no longer meeting the needs of the people who use the courthouse — the public, court staff and others who work in the justice system. Modern building code and accessibility requirements were needed, as well as safety upgrades for staff and visitors, they said.  

“The remodel and facility upgrades include more courtroom space, increased security for everyone who uses the courthouse, technology upgrades; and, the main staircase was enhanced to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Preserving the historic character of the building was at the forefront throughout the work,” said Jodi Smith, assets and employee housing director for Pitkin County.

The building re-opened last week after closing in March. During that time, the Ninth Judicial District Court and court-related services were relocated to the city of Aspen’s Armory Building. 

Growing caseload

Since the courthouse was built more than 100 years ago, the demand for court services has grown. Back then, two courtrooms readily served a smaller population. As demands for the courts and personal safety increased, the courthouse’s limited space became a substantial challenge, officials said.

 new garden level courtroom was constructed to overcome the cramped and overtaxed court space.
The newly-remodeled building is home to three courtrooms, two jury deliberation rooms and the space and modern technological infrastructure. (Pitkin County)

“With the growing caseload needs, we were busting at the seams because we didn’t have enough space to conduct court business,” said Ninth Judicial District Chief Judge James Boyd.

In recent years, hearings and trials were delayed or heard off-site because of limited space in the courthouse. The newly-remodeled building is home to three courtrooms, two jury deliberation rooms and the space and modern technological infrastructure to accommodate the services people within the criminal justice system rely on today, officials said.

In addition, safety has improved, they said. A single point of entry serves the public with screening equipment and full-time security employees.

Before the remodel, people accused of committing crimes and victims of alleged crimes shared a hallway, along with members of the public, lawyers and witnesses. There had long been a concern about the possibility for violence based on the nature of day-to-day business.

Now, the building has a more secure in-custody holding area and separate entry points for detainees and the public.

“I think it’s a great accomplishment that people can have a higher sense of safety when they walk in the courthouse, that they will not only have a place where they can be heard and have their cases considered, but also do it in a safe environment,” Boyd said.

An Aspen icon

The courthouse was built during the peak of Aspen’s mining era, right before the collapse of the silver boom. Dedicated in 1891, the courthouse is one of the oldest in Colorado. In 1975, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Suzannah Reid, historic preservation officer for Pitkin County, said the city of Aspen and county have made it a priority to maintain the building’s rich history. During reconstruction, she worked to preserve historical features inside the courthouse, such as the front door entry and lobby area. To bring the entrance into ADA compliance, a window on the ground level became an accessible entrance. The new accessible ground level entry allows the historic front door, at the top of the front steps, to continue to be used by the public.

Courthouse in 1974
The Pitkin County Courthouse is among the oldest in the state.

“Having the same experience that you would have had when you walked in the door in 1900 is part of what gives people that sense of history,” Reid said. “You’re using the building in the way it was intended to be used. Preserving this experience is just as important as preserving the building’s functionality and appearance.”

Inside, historic material was preserved, such as the original wood floors, which are now partially exposed. A new courtroom on the ground level has original columns and stone detailing. Throughout the building, original doors are outfitted with modern security technology.

“Historic preservation gives people a touchstone to the history of the town but also a sense of longevity. The people who built this building had the intention that the building would last 100 years or more. This update pays homage to the moment in time when the building was constructed and to the people who built it,” said Reid.

The remodel was supported by FCI Constructors and Anderson Hallas Architects. The final phase of construction included replacement of the roof and updates on the second floor of the building.