Worcester Courthouse Lofts – Giving a Historic Building New Life

Panoramic shot of the 1800s Worcester Courthouse Lofts during construction

The Worcester Courthouse is a “Mammoth undertaking in multiple ways,” says Project Executive, VJ Tocci.

Compared to the renovation of mill buildings with rectangular spaces and enormous floor-to-ceiling heights, the Courthouse was built in four stages – three in the 1800s and the last in 1955, all with multiple distinctive features. The last addition doubled the size of the structure and clashed with the original design, creating a conjoined building with different styles.

The 1955 addition, also called the Annex, is the more straightforward structure for adaptive re-use, the industry term for repurposing or transforming an old building into a useful space; in this instance, repurposing a 240,000 square-foot courthouse into 119 apartments.

The courtrooms in the Annex are linear and massive, with 20’ high ceilings. They were primarily constructed of terracotta, steel, and wire-lath plaster, with wood and marble wall panels. These materials made demolition and cutting into the walls and floors an involved process. Since terracotta is prone to cracking and splitting under a heavy hand, structural stabilization was required at every penetration. The terrazzo floors and marble wall panels also required careful removal and repurposing, and every wall panel was stockpiled until reassembly.

The 1800s building, called the Old Courthouse, was an “entirely different ballgame,” according to VJ. Prior to Trinity Financial acquiring the building, it was vacant for over a decade, housing courtrooms akin to ballrooms, with high ceilings and antique paneled walls. The Old Courthouse has 190 windows, most over 8’ high, so the design team selected high-end metal-clad wood with interior sashes and window casing, allowing more durability.

One phase of the 1800s building, constructed in 1843, has been restored into one apartment. Over 2,500 square feet with a floor plate of 50’ x 50’ and a 20’ high ceiling, it’s roughly the size of a four-bedroom home – not bad for a one-bedroom apartment. You might ask why this space wasn’t separated into multiple units; The National Park Service (NPS) stated that it was simply too historic to do so.

VJ sheds light on the role of the NPS:

These restoration efforts are only financially feasible because of the tax credits the Federal Government and states like Massachusetts offer. In return for these credits, they require certain design criteria be maintained. Thus, reconfiguring loft space in an asymmetrical structure like Worcester Courthouse required great finesse.

VJ Tocci, Project Executive

Yet while it was crucial to maintain the integrity and charm of this historic building, it was imperative to comply with current codes and requirements including air conditioning, heating, plumbing, and electrical, to egress and hallway width.

The Old Courthouse utilizes a unique “townhouse” approach; the basement space was completely overhauled to accommodate the new apartment space. Bedrooms and bathrooms were added in space previously used as rat tunnels (only a mild exaggeration) and mechanical rooms. To do so, it was necessary to excavate through naturally growing stone and re-pour a concrete slab, as previous flooring was merely a slab of compacted dirt and thin, one inch, unstable layer of concrete covering. Additionally, the brick covered steel columns required “sistering” and stabilization as most of the columns had corroded along the bottom where it had been exposed to moist soil for 100+ years.

Why go through this all this trouble when building from scratch is infinitely easier? The answer is simple: the Worcester Courthouse is a one-of-a-kind space rising to glory after sitting vacant for years. It stands on the hill as an icon, shining as the spirit of revival that is alive and well in the city.

There is nothing like bringing life to an old building with the sympathetic and systemic introduction of modern necessities, while maintaining the unique charm brought about by 100+ years of living.

We are immensely grateful for the team that brought this about; from the owner, Trinity Financial, for having the financial courage to pursue this undertaking, to the designer, The Architectural Team, for having the vision to see what was there yet what was possible, and Tocci Building Corporation and its trade partners – particularly those in the field. They bent and shaped this building into what it is now and what it will continue to be for another 100+ years.

VJ Tocci, Project Executive