Hall of Horrors

It's time to bail out of San Francisco's Hall of Justice, an asbestos-walled, rodent filled, dysfunctional courthouse and jail with - yep - human waste leaking from the ceilings.

Early last year, San Francisco police officer Lou Barberini glanced upward and, not for the first time, spotted human excrement oozing through the ceiling of his office on the fifth floor of San Francisco’s Hall of Justice. A single thought coalesced in his mind: “I’m gonna retire.”

He did. By April, Barberini was ensconced at AT&T Park, taking in the first of the Giants’ 98 losses — dealing with excrement of a more metaphorical sort.

Televised footage from around the same time Barberini was mulling career plans featured city prosecutors on the building’s third floor putting plastic bags over their shoes before sloshing through puddles of human filth to retrieve legal files. This latest embarrassment seems to have spurred the city: The timeline to evacuate this nearly 60-year-old sinking ship of a building — familiarly known as 850 Bryant — was accelerated: 2019 is now the proposed lights-out date. The city plans to scatter the building’s occupants to rented space on Potrero Hill, south of Market Street and elsewhere.

The cascading sewage problem in the Hall of Justice resembles the justice system writ large: It starts with the alleged criminals, then works its way through the police, and finally ends up in the courts. That’s because of gravity: The building’s architects made the fateful decision to stack the city jail atop police headquarters atop courtrooms and the District Attorney’s office wing.

To combat the unfortunate effects of this downward mobility, the city has been forced to install “Muffin Monsters” in all the building’s vertical plumbing lines. These are, essentially, grinders that shred any object stuffed down a plumbing line. (Look up “Muffin Monster” on YouTube and you will be treated to a priceless 1980s promotional video. Do it. We’ll wait).

Monsters, however, are costly. And noisy. “You can’t put them next to a judge’s chamber,” says John Updike, the director of the city’s Real Estate division. And while measures of this sort limit the exposure of cops and DAs on lower floors to raw sewage, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy reported that more than 50 unfortunate jail overflows were recorded in 2017.

Vermin in San Francisco's Hall of Justice
A rat runs across the floor at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice.
MAX SZABO

Ever-present effluvia are just one of many shortcomings of the failing hall. Its ceilings and walls are chockful o’ asbestos; its L-shape and mid-century vintage render it one of the city’s most seismically vulnerable structures; its archaic elevators require specially made parts from Germany; its paint is lead-based; its electrical system is ill-equipped for a computerized era; its roof is failing; and its innards are infested with vermin. Retired police captain Al Casciato says he and his colleagues routinely left the lights and radio on overnight to scare away mice and rats.

Casciato first set foot in this building in 1969, when it was less than a decade old. He likens it to Candlestick Park, another largely unloved municipal embarrassment erected at about the same time (and already demolished). Quoting his El Salvadoran-born mother, Casciato sums up the Hall by saying “Lo barato sale caro:” “When you go cheap, it gets expensive.”

Except the Hall of Justice wasn’t cheap.

Contemporary newspaper accounts repeatedly referred to it as being a $20 million project. In today’s dollars, that’s about $165 million. A July 1960 San Francisco Chronicle article documented the laborious process of affixing the 21-ton city seal to the side of the then-new Hall. And yet, by 1997 — a mere 37 years later — a city report suggested the hall be razed and rebuilt.

The seal is still there, but fewer and fewer city workers are. The medical examiners and most of the cops have already fled; the District Attorney’s Office and probation officers are slated to follow soon. The only tenants so far without an exit plan are the prisoners and the courts.

How could such an important civic edifice become a dilapidated antique? City officials blame seismic standards, the flawed architectural decision to place jails on the upper floors and the 24/7/365 demands on the building.

The stories of the Hall’s declining years — suspected cancer clusters, questionable powder dropping out of the walls and ceilings, someone scrawling “FUCK YOU” in feces on the walls of the fifth-floor bathroom — have fed into diminished expectations of municipal power and competence.

Inoperative elevators are part of the deteriorating conditions at the Hall of Justice building in San Francisco.
Inoperative elevators are part of the deteriorating conditions at the Hall of Justice building in San Francisco.
CRAIG LEE

But, when this place was new, the opposite was true.

“Going to the new building,” says Tom Anderson, who joined the San Francisco Police Department in 1958, “was so uplifting. It was so clean! Everybody shifted their moods. It was like going from a bad world to a good world.”

Anderson’s memories of the prior Hall of Justice, which stood on the site of the Hilton Hotel across from Portsmouth Square, include a lack of elevators, ever-present filth, antiquated architectural standards, obsolescent design, and poor maintenance exacerbated by constant and relentless overuse. In other words: deja vu.

San Francisco’s Halls of Justice, then, are amazing things — they both change and never change.

The decline of his dream building, Anderson concedes, “is disappointing to me. But I don’t consider it sad. Like everything else, it has done its job.”

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