The Cecil C. Humphreys Law School at the University of Memphis may pride itself on its academic offerings, but soon it will be able to say it has brains and beauty.
Students and faculty alike have long objected to the state of the current law-school building on the U of M's campus. The library floods. The heat and the air conditioning don't always work. The building was in such poor condition that, last year, it threatened the school's accreditation.
But last week, Bill Nixon of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects presented the early schematics for the law school's new home at the old Customs House and current post office on Front Street. Though the project has been in discussions for the last five years, it wasn't until recently that it became a reality. The federal government agreed to sell the property to the law school for $5.3 million, and earlier this year, the state included $41 million in the budget for the renovation of the building. The law school is expected to move in 2009.
And when Nixon said the school's new home will "far exceed the beauty of the campus on Central," he was probably telling the truth.
The original building, done in an Italian style with Tennessee marble, dates back to 1884. An addition was made in 1903, and the facility was renovated in 1929. But since then, it's remained about the same.
"It fairly shouts, 'I'm a law building,'" said James Smoot, dean of the law school. "It's important to us to keep that look."
The preliminary plans call for a five-story law library in the south wing. A legal clinic will be housed in the basement, along with perhaps a coffee shop or a bookstore in what was once a vault.
"The outside will remain unchanged," said Nixon. "The interiors will be rebuilt. There will be slope flooring in some of the classrooms."
In addition to a reading room overlooking the Mississippi River and two areas where students will have access to a rooftop patio, the plan also includes a 270-seat auditorium that will host the school's large classes and lectures open to the general public.
And the original courtrooms -- which now house post-office employees -- will hear oral arguments again.
"The courtrooms are in almost the same condition they were in in 1929," said Nixon. "[The building has] been very well kept-up. The post office has done an incredible job."
And even after the renovation, some evidence of the postal service's tenure in the building will remain. The drop ceilings that were added over -- er, under -- the stenciled ceilings, no. The institutional carpet, probably not. But some of the tinier details -- the grills where customers would buy stamps, for instance -- will stay.
It's been years since anyone from the general public has been allowed into the inner sanctum of that building. But judging from the pictures, it's an elegant, stately facility. There are elaborately carved doorknobs and hinges. Wainscoting runs down the hallways. A number of offices on the third floor still have their original fireplaces.
It might seem like everyone and their mother is heading downtown, but I can't help think that this move is one of the most important. In terms of growing a creative class, an education node is a must, both in terms of attracting and producing young, vibrant workers. (Let's face it, the law can get pretty creative when it wants to.) And by locating the school on Front Street, it shows that an educational institution has faith that downtown is a safe and engaging place to be. Maybe more businesses will follow.
Of course, it's not an open-and-shut case. Student parking is still a question, but then again, student parking is a question on the main campus, too.
"The issue of parking will have to be resolved," Nixon said in response to an audience question, "whether [parking] comes from this area or one of the garages across the street."
Either way, I'd say it's a smart move.