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Baltimore courthouse to reopen Wednesday after fire

Emergency personnel respond to a fire in the Mitchell Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, which forced evacuation of the building Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Fire Department spokesman Capt. Roman Clark said by phone that what little fire that was outside the west building was quickly extinguished. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

Emergency personnel respond to a fire in the Mitchell Courthouse in downtown Baltimore, which forced evacuation of the building Tuesday, April 26, 2016. Fire Department spokesman Capt. Roman Clark said by phone that what little fire that was outside the west building was quickly extinguished. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

The Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse will reopen to the public Wednesday after a fire forced a three-week closure while crews repaired damage.

The April 26 fire, thought to be caused by overheated machinery, began in the basement and was quickly extinguished but caused damage throughout the building, including smoke damage to three floors, according to the Baltimore City Department of General Services, which oversees the building’s maintenance.

Officials hoped to open the Baltimore City Circuit courthouse May 9 but that date was later postponed due to the extent of the fire damage to the building’s transformers and associated equipment, which took longer to repair than anticipated, according to DGS spokesman Ryan Trout.

“During that time, crews could only work by half power or by generator power,” he said.

Trout also said the scope of the repairs was “a little larger than originally anticipated” once crews got to work. Crews “went above and beyond” testing air quality and cleaning the building top to bottom, Trout added, whether it was affected by the fire or not.

“We really wanted to take every safety measure possible to make sure it was ready for occupancy,” he said.

The remaining work to be done is cosmetic, according to Trout, including flooring and painting in offices. Crews will work on nights and weekends to complete the work over the next few weeks.

Mitchell Courthouse. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Mitchell Courthouse. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Employees began moving back into the courthouse Tuesday and displaced services, including most of the clerk’s office and building and marriage licenses will resume normal operations Wednesday. Jury selection also returned to the Mitchell Courthouse on Tuesday.

The criminal division of the clerk’s office will remain in Courthouse East while new carpet is installed. The Sheriff’s Office also will remain in Courthouse East, temporarily operating at the Domestic Violence Unit.

Estimated costs from the fire are not yet available, according to Trout, but DGS should have an idea in the next week as work nears completion.

“The scope of work undertaken by DGS and its contractors has been truly remarkable,” said Baltimore City Administrative Judge W. Michel Pierson in a prepared statement. “An extraordinary effort has been devoted to restoring the courthouse to functionality.”

Though it may be labeled “functional,” the courthouse has had its share of ailments and has not seen a systemic renovation since 1950.

The Bar Association of Baltimore City formed a Courthouse Study Committee to add its voice to an increasingly urgent conversation about what to do with Baltimore’s aging court buildings, which are at least 80 years old.

“Civic, business, legal, legislative, and government leaders are now on the clearest notice ever that disaster could be a spark away,” BABC President Robert D. Anbinder recently wrote in the association’s monthly newsletter. “We demand they find the fortitude, insight and financial acumen to craft a solution to this long insolvable problem. There really is no time to waste.”

A 2011 study funded by the Maryland Stadium Authority recommended building a new courthouse for criminal matters — currently housed in Mitchell — and proposed major reconfigurations for the current buildings, but nothing further was done.

The Mitchell Courthouse opened in 1900 and Courthouse East opened in 1932 as a combined post office and U.S. District Court.