For months, those who enter the lobby of the new John H. Ruffin Jr. Courthouse have been greeted by the sight of an apparent hazard.
Black and yellow tape mark the edge of the bottom two steps that lead up to a broad landing at the foot of the lobby stairs. The steps are blocked on one side by rope stanchions draped with yellow “caution” tape, and two tall yellow “wet floor” cones add to the barrier that forces pedestrians to take an indirect route to ascend and descend the stairs.
There is no wet surface or otherwise treacherous footing, however – just a flat terrazzo floor.
Yet, something is amiss, something that is causing people to stumble and fall.
What it is exactly, officials aren’t quite sure.
“It is a little bit of a mystery,” said Bob Woodhurst, associate architect for the courthouse who has been working on the problem for months.
Not long after the $67 million building opened last April, officers with the county Marshals office – who handle security in the building – started to see people stumble coming off the bottom two steps.
“It is my understanding that the Marshals have said that several people have fallen,” said Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet.
Woodhurst said he has checked the steps and measured to see if they were built to plan specification and to construction codes and has determined that is not the problem.
He also has studied lobby security tapes. He said most of those who lose their footing on the steps are distracted – checking cell phones, reading documents, talking to others on the stairs.
Woodhurst said there appears to be a bit of an optical illusion that causes the white and brown terrazzo steps to blend into the lobby floor. It seems that if you aren’t paying attention when you descend the stairs to the landing, you can assume you’ve made it all the way down.
That’s what happened to Vivian Alexander, when she stepped onto the landing one day in August.
“I thought that I was done,” said Alexander, who works in the State Court Solicitor’s office on the second floor.
The next thing she knew she was sprawled on her back in the lobby with a twisted ankle and a bump on her forehead.
“I was so embarrassed,” she said. “I was wearing a dress.”
Alexander was one of at least two people whose tumbles off the steps caused enough concern to erect the temporary barrier, said Woodhurst. Meanwhile, there have been months of discussions on what to do to fix the problem without marring the lobby aesthetics.
“We’ve discussed everything from the sublime to the ridiculous,” he said, such as carving “Watch Your Step” in big letters on the landing floor.
Architects now have a plan awaiting approval as the building nears its one-year anniversary. The plan includes adding handrails and a third step to the landing area, which will make each step a little shorter and give people a few more visual signals, Woodhurst said. The plan is to complete the project within 60 days, he said.
Whatever the redesign includes, don’t count on Alexander to be the first one to try it out.
“I don’t take the stairs,” she said. “I take the elevator.”