TAMPA If all goes well, the empty former federal courthouse will soon start transforming into a sleek, boutique Le Meridien hotel.
A few details need working out, as nearly every federal agency in existence has had to sign off on the transfer, even the Federal Aviation Administration. Developers plan a hotel with 110 rooms, each with soaring 13-foot ceilings and tall windows. Renovations could cost more than $22 million.
Until then, the building stands eerily empty, and would make a good end-of-the-world movie set, with abandoned documents left on witness stands, security cameras still working and steel benches in basement jail cells still sparkling clean.
"I have seen much worse," said the architect in charge, Stephanie Ferrell, as she walked through the space recently, taking a few personal photos. "The city did a huge service by maintaining the building, so there's no major damage." This building is a treasure, she said, and the new hotel will retain much of the original structure.
Gary Prosterman, chief executive of Memphis, Tenn.-based Development Services Group, has renovated a string of historical buildings and turned them into hotels, including a Le Meridien-brand hotel in Philadelphia that was a former YMCA built in 1911.
Inside the courthouse in Tampa, the sound of footsteps echo through a hallway lined in blue and white swirling marble that leads into Courtroom A, which will become a massive gourmet restaurant with 30-foot-plus ceilings.
Sneak behind the judge's bench, and there's one of a dozen grey walk-in safes throughout the building, some originally for documents and evidence, while others likely were part of the building's original role. First opened in 1905 — just a few years after the Wright Brothers' first flight — the building was a post office and Customs House, with a side room for federal trials.
This is technically the second floor, and a wall sign labeled Intake points down the stairs to a grim, ground-floor level for processing prisoners. There, a guard room stands intact, with a bank of flickering, NASA-style television monitors showing the hallways and holding cells, some still with stacks of toilet paper and magazines. All this equipment will go, and after a thorough renovation will become an elaborate entrance for hotel guests.
The main stairways still have the blue marble flooring, with each tread step worn down after a century of use.
Up two flights of stairs are a mix of clerk's offices, judge's chambers, bathrooms and several grand courtrooms, some with church-style pews and 1920s-style gas lamps. Some have swivel jury chairs bolted to the floor. Others are carpeted in bleak 1970s colors with curtains sagging over the windows. Some of these courtrooms held contentious trials over school integration, and more than a few held trials of mobsters.
On the third floor, a set of blue, saloon-style leather-padded doors swing into a soaring courtroom. In a clerk's drawer, there's still a floppy disk labeled "Jury Instructions" and there's an empty envelope from the Swift gold leaf company of Hartford, Conn., now empty and likely used to hold decorations for the huge eagle sculpture above the judge's bench. This space will become an elaborate ballroom, and will probably have the ornate ceiling and possibly the gold eagle.
After all, the building may become a Le Meridien hotel, but it will retain a theme of grand old courthouse.