By Matt Masich, LAW WEEK COLORADO
DENVER — For 30 years, the august visages of history’s most revered lawgivers have kept silent watch over the Colorado Supreme Court’s law library. But Hammurabi, Socrates, Abe Lincoln and the rest of the great thinkers depicted on Angelo di Benedetto’s “Lawgivers” mural will be homeless when the Colorado Judicial Building is demolished in May — and no one knows where they’ll end up.
The building’s occupants — the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and law library — will be moving to as-yet-undetermined temporary quarters before taking permanent residence in the Ralph L. Carr Justice Complex in 2013.
Will “Lawgivers” move with the courts into their new home?
“The mural will be removed from the soffit area and may be turned over to the history museum staff for their decision on appropriate placement or ongoing exhibition,” said Bill Mosher, project manager for construction of the new justice complex.
That’s as close to a plan as anyone has. Spokesmen for the judicial branch and historical society have said no definite plans have been made for the mural’s future use.
The most memorable feature
The 74 panels of “Lawgivers” were mounted on the ceiling of the judicial building’s cut-out first floor in 1978, a year after the building opened.
The mural was paid for with a $100,000 gift from Denver lawyer Otto Friedrichs and his wife, Helen. Di Benedetto, a Central City-based artist, was commissioned to paint the mural depicting 60 people who helped further the rule of law. The portraits are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with ancient Babylonian ruler Hammurabi, whose code of laws is the oldest in recorded history, and ending with Earl Warren, the U.S. chief justice whose court made landmark civil rights decisions.
“Lawgivers” currently hangs directly over the skylight of the basement-level law library. For many library visitors, the sight of the mural viewed through the skylight is the most memorable feature of the library.
To glean some perspective on its history, Law Week Colorado talked to Frances Campbell, the Supreme Court librarian from 1964 to 1994. First of all, she said, the mural wasn’t originally intended to be seen from the library.
“People always thought the library was designed with the skylight over the top. The library wasn’t originally designed to be that way — it was supposed to be on the second floor of the building,” Campbell said.
The opening on the ground floor came about because of a conflict between the judicial branch and the Colorado Historical Society over which got to face Civic Center Park.
“The reason for the big opening under the judicial building is so the historical society could look through that opening to see the Civic Center,” Campbell said.
The judicial building was also supposed to be one story taller, with a parking garage in the basement, Campbell said. But budget cuts prevented that extra story from being built. To make up for the reduced space, the library was moved from the second floor to the basement, and the underground parking garage was eliminated. The skylight was added to provide some natural light for the library.
Leaving the chandelier behind
“Lawgivers” wasn’t an immediate hit with library employees.
“When the mural was first put up, people weren’t convinced it was great art,” Campbell said. “They’re kind of funny pictures, so at first people would joke about them quite a bit, to tell you the truth. But I would guess with time, people have come to think of it as part of the building.
“If you look at the stained glass in the [state] Capitol building, that’s not great art, either, but it’s a part of the monument — it’s part of the history.”
Campbell isn’t sure how the mural could be integrated into the new building, and suggested that even if it can’t be preserved in its complete form, individual panels of the mural could still be exhibited at the new justice complex.
But the mural might end up becoming another Supreme Court relic that was too unwieldy to survive the move from old building to new. Campbell recalled a dilemma the court faced when it moved from the Old Supreme Court Chambers in the state Capitol to its present location in 1977.
“When the Supreme Court was going to move into the new judicial building, their chambers had a huge, huge chandelier — and it’s still there [at the Capitol]. The justices wanted badly to take that with them. They planned for it to be in their new courtroom in the judicial building, but they finally had to realize that because of its size, there was no way they could take that chandelier with them.”
Under Colorado law, a budget equal to 1 percent of the Carr justice complex’s $257 million price tag must be set aside for a public art project.