Pragmatism is poised to conquer aesthetics at the new federal courthouse in Seattle. When the $171 million state-of-the-art building opened...

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Pragmatism is poised to conquer aesthetics at the new federal courthouse in Seattle.

When the $171 million state-of-the-art building opened in August 2004, the government envisioned the wide expanse of steep, shallow stairs on the facility’s west side as a place where employees could bask in the sun, stretch and eat lunch. That’s why it didn’t install any handrails, except for one pinned against the building’s west wall.

But after complaints that people were slipping and falling on the stairs, the government has reconsidered. At a cost of about $20,000, it expects to install four additional sets of handrails, perhaps as soon as this month, according to the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency responsible for the building’s upkeep.

Security guards have advised courthouse employees to avoid the stairs.

“The general talk when we first moved in was not to use that side,” said one courthouse employee who asked not to be identified. “Those stairs are basically cosmetic.”

Pyramid-shaped from one angle, the stairs run for about 150 feet at their base along Seventh Avenue. When it snowed last month, guards taped them off to prevent pedestrians from injuring themselves.

GSA regional boss Bill Dubray said his agency was aware of two incidents in which people fell on the stairs, though neither spill resulted in claims or lawsuits.

The first incident occurred a month after the courthouse opened. A 46-year-old woman suffered a cut that bloodied her leg and required hospital treatment, Dubray said.

The second incident occurred last summer, Dubray said, when a woman fell on the stairs. The woman said she was not hurt, and the incident did not generate a formal report, he said.

Bill Bain, the lead designer for NBBJ, the building’s architect, said his firm considered installing rails in the first place. But in talking with GSA, the government made clear that it didn’t want rails, he said.

Part of the rationale, Bain recalled, was that the west-side stairs were “not a natural path of travel.” Most people entering or leaving the building would do so from the south, on Stewart Street, where a separate set of stairs has handrails.

Bain also said that when people use the west-side stairs, they “go up on an angle, not straight up.” He likened the ascent to climbing pyramids, which he said people do diagonally or in a zigzag pattern. Installing handrails will prevent that type of climb, and will otherwise also harm the building’s aesthetics, Bain noted.

Bain noted that handrails on the west-side stairs were not required under the building code the government followed, because they are not the primary route to enter or exit the building.

The handrail makeover is not the only upgrading going on at the courthouse:

• GSA has replaced the roll-up entrance doors to the garage on the north side of the building; they’d been malfunctioning. Those replacements cost the government almost $96,000. It is seeking reimbursement from the contractors who installed them, said GSA’s Jeff Truax, the courthouse building manager.

• GSA plans to insert an angled piece of granite on the west side of the reflecting pool located just inside the courthouse foyer. That’s the area where a man was fatally shot by two Seattle police officers in June after a 20-minute standoff.

Perry Manley was clutching what turned out to be an inert grenade when he walked into the courthouse and confronted security guards. Police said they fired twice after he “made a furtive movement with the grenade.”

Bain, the GSA and others acknowledge that someone determined to penetrate the courthouse might still find a way, but installing the slab of angled granite will add another barrier. GSA said cost estimates were not yet available.

Chief U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik recently noted that the episode also exposed a weakness in courthouse security because Manley managed to position himself in front of a command and control center on the west side of the foyer, blocking access by court security officers. Lasnik said backup systems have since been added.

Peter Lewis: 206-464-2217 or plewis@seattletimes.com