JEFFERSON CITY — After a decade of waiting, construction finally is getting started on a new federal courthouse that officials hope will help revitalize the site of one the nation's oldest prisons.
Numerous federal, state and local officials were present Friday at a groundbreaking ceremony for a $70 million courthouse being built several blocks east of the Missouri Capitol.
It's being constructed on the site of the old Missouri State Penitentiary, which opened in 1836 and was the oldest continuously operated prison west of the Mississippi River until it closed four years ago.
Parts of the prison complex have been demolished to make way for the courthouse. But the most historic parts — including the gas chamber and sections of its limestone walls — are being preserved.
U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., who helped secure the funding for the new courthouse, said it's fitting to build it on the site of the old prison.
"Once housing those the judicial system has condemned for imprisonment, this new seat of justice will lead the revitalization of the neighborhood, the city — it will be planting hope where there once was despair," Bond said.
A new state health laboratory and Missouri Department of Natural Resources headquarters already have opened on part of the 142-acre former prison site.
U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey said a new Jefferson City courthouse was in the five-year plans when she took the bench in 1996. The U.S. General Services Administration completed a study in 2001 that concluded the Jefferson City courthouse required substantial improvements. But it wasn't until 2005 when the first federal funding was approved.
Construction on the courthouse is to begin within a few weeks and is scheduled to be complete by June 2011.
The current federal courthouse is located across the street from the Missouri Capitol and also houses a post office. Among the security concerns at the current courthouse: judges and criminally accused share an elevator.
"It is awkward when you're riding up in the elevator with people you are about ready to sentence," Laughrey said. "The only thing more awkward is riding down in the elevator (with them)."
Located on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, the 118,000 square-foot courthouse is to include two district courtrooms, two magistrate courtrooms and a bankruptcy chamber. It also will house the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Attorney's Office, federal probation office and branch offices for some members of Missouri's congressional delegation. The L-shaped building is to be built with limestone and a light gray granite base.
The Jefferson City courthouse will be the second new federal courthouse in Missouri. A dedication ceremony was held earlier this month for a $62 million courthouse in Cape Girardeau. That courthouse opened in June.