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Judge Sylvia Rambo quote, "I never thought of myself as different than anyone else. I attribute my success to hard work."

Women do justice in building new federal courthouse in Pennsylvania

| GSA Blog Team
Post filed in: U.S. Courthouses

Most people associate the name “Rambo” with the uber-macho fictional movie character who seeks justice with his biceps and firearms.

But some people point to a federal judge of the same name in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who has used leadership, patience and example to uphold justice for more than 60 years.

“I never thought of myself as different than anyone else,” explains Judge Sylvia H. Rambo, who will turn 87 on April 17, the day the courthouse is scheduled to open. “I attribute my success to hard work.”

Sylvia H. Rambo was studying in Washington D.C. when her German immigrant mother took ill and later died, bringing Rambo home to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a community of about 20,000 people just west of Harrisburg, to care for a much younger sister. Then, she received a four-year full-ride scholarship to attend Dickinson College in downtown Carlisle, where she applied, she said, because she didn’t have transportation to go further.

From there, Rambo began a staircase of firsts: The first woman in her otherwise all-male class at Dickinson College Law School. First woman judge in her native Cumberland County. And she was appointed federal judge in 1979 by former President Jimmy Carter to the Middle District of Pennsylvania, where she became the first woman to serve as that District’s chief judge.

In the 190 years before, only 10 women had been appointed to the federal bench. In the 1979 class appointed by President Carter, Judge Rambo was part of a trailblazing cohort of 22 more women.

In 2022, she became one of a handful of women in our country to have the distinction of having a federal courthouse named in her honor.

“I just happened to be the lucky one in my profession,” says Judge Rambo, widely described by colleagues as unassuming.

The new 243,000 gross square foot courthouse is sited in the state capitol in downtown Harrisburg. It contains eight courtrooms and 11 chambers, built for the increasing load of today’s judiciary. Tenants include the Middle District of Pennsylvania and Bankruptcy Courts, U.S. Marshal Service, U.S. Attorneys, U.S. Trustees, Homeland Security, Federal Public Defender and GSA.

The project, in fact, was executed by a team of dynamic women leaders.

GSA Project Executive Abby Low started working on the Rambo courthouse in 2004. Out of college, Abby had gravitated toward the sequence of assembling a project: getting funding, going through approvals, construction, working with engineers and architects. Today she is one of a still underrepresented number of women in construction project management.

For her, the collaborative aspect of the job on projects like the Rambo courthouse has been hugely fulfilling.

“We have a team of folks at GSA that includes our engineers, our contracting officers, communications specialists, interior designers, building managers, subject matter experts … managing that overall team to allow us to deliver a project successfully,” Low says, “I loved it. I absolutely loved it.” 

Like Judge Rambo, Low attributes her successes to competency and hard work. But because there are traditionally few women on construction sites, the women leaders on the courthouse project could be overlooked among the hard hats.

The lead - and award-winning - architect on the project, Susan Rodriguez, who has numerous public projects on her shelf like the restoration of Central Park’s North End and the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, nodded to the working core group.

“Our team of women worked really well together,” Rodriguez says. “It was a really strong core and very supportive.” 

Rodriguez designed a courthouse that is “open, inviting, draws you in and welcomes people from the area,” she explained. “The building has this transparent, horizontal base that really runs from the street into the courthouse and then marks it with the tower.”

The plaza out front is wide and accessible for all people visiting or working at the courthouse. 

Judges, attorneys, litigants and the public use the same stairwells, ramps and elevators. Judges chambers are clustered together on the same upper floor rather than spread out adjacently to courtrooms. 

That sense of openness and welcome was something that Judge Rambo insisted be reflected in the project because, as Rodriguez explained, “it is the intersection of the community, Harrisburg, and the federal judiciary.”

Inside, artist Monique van Genderen created an expansive mural - the painting’s immense blue ribbon - which is an abstract reference to the nearby Susquehanna River and which is visible from the street.

Another artist, Claire Sherman, created eight paintings for the courthouse. The eight canvases will be installed on floors three through 10, and will be viewable as stand-alone landscapes as well as a series. The compositions of the paintings on the lower floors will be denser with foliage, while the paintings on the upper floors will reveal progressively larger areas of open sky.

Architectural designer Melissa Sarko came to the project in 2010, a decade into the process.

“I hadn’t ever really considered that there were this many women leading different efforts of the project,” Sarko says. “I wasn’t thinking about it every day, but it is pretty remarkable when you step back and think about it.”

Sarko’s job took exacting organizational skills: Because the courthouse was a Design Excellence Project, the copious documentation needed to be precise. Ideas and specifications had to be reflected in each subsequent iteration perfectly.

“Here’s a group of women who are saying, ‘We had a job to do, and we did it.’ We had a lot of support for each other, and I’m really happy for that support.”

The tenants of the new courthouse are thrilled about how the project came together as well. For example, Jennifer Wilson tried cases as an attorney before Judge Rambo and became a federal judge herself in 2019. Younger by decades, now-Judge Wilson says gender is less of an issue for her than when Judge Rambo was the only woman in her law school class.

“I think nothing of the fact that I’m a woman in this profession,” Judge Wilson says. “That [gender] can be an insignificant detail in this day and age …  is because of women like her who blazed this path, and I never want to not be mindful of that.”

“The fact that I can say things like, ‘It is not important that someone is a woman,' well, that’s a luxury that I’m afforded, or privileged, to be able to practice this way,” she says.

At the center beam, everyone agrees, was always Judge Rambo.

“She’s just been a real force. You know, she’s very quiet. When she speaks, people stop talking and they listen. She always has really great insights into the project and to the process,” Sarko describes. “She cuts right through to the things that are really important. … She’s just one of those people who has the ability to process a lot of complex things and come to some amazing conclusions.”

Both Rodriguez and Low expressed that there is work to do to make sure women are fully recognized, represented, and respected in their work in real estate projects. During construction, the two cited one or two occasions in which they felt their voices weren’t being heard, despite their leadership roles.

Rambo’s legacy and name being on the building, however, is helping bring visibility to all women who are underrepresented in their professions.

“Judge Rambo had a real influence on this design. It wouldn’t have been the same building without her role,” Rodriguez says.

“You need to be really good at what you do. It was pretty wonderful to work with a group of women that are really committed to what they do… starting with Judge Rambo.”

Overall, Rodriguez explains, “It was really a great honor to be able to undertake a commission like this – to create a significant piece of architecture that will stand the test of time.”

“One of the things that’s really fantastic about what GSA has been doing is embracing the dialogue between the uniqueness of the place” – a federal courthouse in downtown Harrisburg, which is helping revitalize that area – “with the federal judiciary,” she added.

Also amazing, Rodriguez says, is that the Rambo courthouse is a “symbol for how you can, as a woman, succeed.” 

Will Powell contributed to this article.