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Courthouse History

The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse met the age requirement for the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It is under federal protection in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.

Much of the following information of the Courthouse and Site History was taken from the Historic Structure Report that was prepared for GSA by Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, January, 1999. Information relating to John Marshall Park was obtained from Landscape architects, Carol R. Johnson and Associates. The National Park Service provided information relating to the statues of General Meade and John Marshall.


SITE AND COURTHOUSE HISTORY: The site on which the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse is now located was part of a 500 acre patent granted to Maryland Resident Richard Pinner. After his death, the property was left to his sons Richard and William on October 11, 1666. After both sons died, the property was left to their mother, Ann Atkins Pinner; and after her death, it was inherited by Richard Pinner's daughters, Anna and Elizabeth. In 1718, it appears that the land was purchased by Dr. Gustavus Brown of Port Tobacco and by 1730 it was acquired by a syndicate of investors, led by Washington real estate tycoon James Greenleaf and Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution. These investors constructed a series of structures called "Wheat Row." This development ran along what was later called 4½ Street (John Marshall Place). By 1792, the future courthouse site (about ten blocks south of Wheat Row), remained undeveloped, but had been subdivided into two parcels. The parcel called "Beall's Levels", owned by Benjamin Oden, would be the site of the future courthouse.


In July of 1790, Congress voted to establish a new federal city, at which time the land was ceded by the State of Maryland to the government. The land on which the courthouse would be built was labeled "Reservation 10". The federal government originally intended for the property to be used for the United States Mint, but the mint remained in its previous Philadelphia location and the site remained vacant until a May 7, 1822 act of Congress allowed for its sale.

By the mid-1820s the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and John Marshall Place became one of the city's earliest domestic enclaves, and Reservation 10 experienced profuse residential and commercial development through the close of the Civil War. By the 1840s upscale residences, banks, churches, and civic buildings lined what became the city's downtown. By 1899, the property reached its ultimate development potential and tax records for that year listed 83 lot divisions.

Despite government ownership of Reservation 10, and the presence of a city jail near D Street, upscale development occurred in the area of present-day Judiciary Square. According to National Park Service historian John H. Stanley, public baths, a theater and a circus building also belonged to the neighborhood. (The circus building reportedly stood at 4½ and C Streets. The American Theater was built on Louisiana Avenue and allegedly served as Assembly rooms. During the Civil War it became the Canterbury music hall, which was popular with Union soldiers.) When District of Columbia Aldermen chose a site at the juncture of John Marshall Place and D Street for George Hadfield's City Hall, real estate prices steadily rose and the area became one of Washington's most fashionable and prosperous.

The land just north of Reservation 10 became a center for municipal (and later judicial) activity that spurred development in that area. George Hadfield designed his Greek Revival City Hall in this neighborhood. Built of granite, the City Hall's stylistic idiom became a de-facto paradigm for later public works, including the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse. In 1873, the federal government seized the building for use as courts, which spurred later court development here, and eventually led to the neighborhood's name, "Judiciary Square."

The southwest corner of Reservation 10 (at the intersection of John Marshall Place and B Street [now Constitution Avenue]) held the Odeon Hall, a building that served as a generic meeting and exhibition space. When the Odeon was not occupied with cultural events, it accommodated low-brow entertainment. These included all the side-show freaks of that period (the tatooed man, the woman snake charmer, the fat man and the midgets).

Mid-block on Pennsylvania Avenue between 3rd and 4½ Streets stood Jackson Hall, a Masonic building erected in 1845 (the cornerstone having been laid on July 4th of that year), as a memorial to President Jackson. This granite-faced, Greek Revival building became the scene for numerous historic festivities. Tom Thumb gave three performances there in the spring of 1847, and the building catered to President Taylor's inaugural ball of 1849. The building later served commercial businesses. The Congressional Globe used it as an administrative facility from the late 1840s, until at least 1873. From 1878 to 1882, the building housed The Washington Post, and from 1899-1905, The Washington Tribune published newspapers there. The Department of Agriculture owned Jackson Hall, and used it as a rare seed warehouse until it was razed for the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in 1949.

Multi-family dwellings and private residences also adorned John Marshall Place. A five-story Italianate structure at 317 John Marshall Place, between B and C Streets, served as the home of Schuyler Colfax, Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant. Another building, the Grammar House (called Hyman Hill) was one of the oldest buildings standing in John Marshall Place when it was decided to clear the area for municipal structures.

America's population explosion in the late 19th century fostered growth in the federal government, which in turn demanded a physical expansion of the Nation's Capital City. While arguably beneficial to Washington as a whole, major construction campaigns within the Mall, Federal Triangle and outlying suburbs re-centralized the city's downtown, and led to a gradual commercial and institutional migration westward along Pennsylvania Avenue. This left Washington's former social hub, around John Marshall Place and surroundings, a ghetto around the turn-of-the-century. Several minority groups relocated there, and one writer commented that "The area around 4½ Street became ... a Chinatown, full of launderies, curio shops and restaurants". Although the federal government prospered to the east and west, the depressed neighborhood around Reservation 10 still remained the seat of city government and home to the District's court system. In 1909, the federal government began bridging the gap between Capitol Hill and Federal Triangle with work on the U.S. Court of Appeals, at a site to the west and north of Hadfield's City Hall. This structure superficially mimicked the Greek Revival detailing of its predecessor and became the first contextual architecture in the area.

Although Reservation 10's demographics changed during the first three decades of the twentieth century, its urban fabric remained largely unaltered; the same number of structures standing in 1899, existed until the late-1920s.


On November 16, 1945, Senator Charles Andrews, Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, introduced a bill for the provision of the new federal courthouse. According to Chief Justice Bolitha Laws, the new court building was needed to adequately house the U.S. District Court and the Circuit Court of Appeals. In May of 1947, he led several members of the House and Senate Public Works Subcommittee through the 1909 Court of Appeals and Hadfield's City Hall (used as the District Court since 1873), to demonstrate their overcrowded conditions. On September 5, 1945, the Commissioner of Public Buildings awarded a contract to local architect Louis Justement for the design, drawing and specification preparation of the new courthouse. The District of Columbia officially deeded Reservation 10 to the federal government in 1949.

Louis Justement generally conformed to the stripped classical styles and massing of the surrounding buildings, but the spacial arrangements and site planning for the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse differed from its neighbors. New technologies, such as fluorescent lighting and air conditioning, allowed Louis Justement to abandon the previous structures' courtyard plan-type, and arrange rooms within a large, continuous floor plan. Louis Justement's work was approved on January 14, 1948, and ground was broken in August of 1949. On June 27, 1950, the first day of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman laid the cornerstone, and the building opened in November of 1952.

Designed to house the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and all associated support staff offices, the courthouse presented Louis Justement with a logistically complex problem. The Federal government requested he design a building that would "not only provide adequate quarters for the efficient operation of the Circuit and District Courts and their allied activities for a number of years to come. But would also provide for the convenience and comfort of the judges, attorneys, jurors, witnesses, and others who will be required to use the building." These diverse functions mandated innovative programmatic solutions. To give adequate security and segregate public from private spaces, Louis Justement adopted a network of primary and secondary circulation, with five distinct transportation cores and a series of main hallways flanked by ancillary circulation spaces. Formally, the structure responded to an emerging government style - the stripped classical. Programmatically, the design accommodated all necessary court functions and activities within a single building envelope.

Architectural accents include figural sculpture above judges' benches and bronze plaques embedded in doors and door surrounds. A 24-foot Somes Sound Granite trylon provided a visual orientation demarking the buildings main Constitution Avenue entrance. Specially commissioned bronze plaques were embedded in doors and doorways and high relief bronze busts were mounted onto specially designed paneling in the Court of Appeals Courtroom. Deftly carved statuary, and intentional focal point, was placed on specifically designed corbels in the Ceremonial Courtroom.

In addition to artwork specifically commissioned for the courthouse, artist Paul W. Bartlett's bronze statue of Sir William Blackstone - formerly located in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals Building (1909) - now stands to the east of the main entrance. Sculptor C. Paul Jennewein received the commission for the building's most significant artwork. He chose Somes Sound granite for the trylon (an obelisk-like form, triangular in plan), which depicts deep figural reliefs in a vaguely cubist style. Two sides represent guarantees offered by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. The third side exhibits the seal of the United States, with portions of the Preamble of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence inscribed.

The artist Sidney Waugh designed four figures (each approximately 4'6" tall) to represent four historically significant lawgivers: Hammurabi, Moses, Solon and Justinian. The Commission of Fine Arts approved these figures for the Ceremonial Courtroom. Each figure was mounted on a marble cladding behind the judges' bench.

Artist Edwin Cooper Rust also contributed to the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, and designed the small bronze plaques embedded in the door surrounds of each courtroom entrance. The plaques approximately 4 x 4 inches - represent traditional American holidays, including: New Year's Day, Washington's Birthday, Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Armistice Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and others. Rust also created 6 bronze relief plaques for the Circuit Court of Appeals Court Rooms; these depicted "Justice," "Authority," John Marshall, Sir William Blackstone, King Alfred, and Joseph Storey.

Three bronze relief plaques were designed for other courtrooms, and were carved by Walker Hancock. One relief shows "Justice/Wisdom" being supplicated and another depicts "Judgment."

In March 1997, the U.S. Courthouse was renamed the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse. E. Barrett Prettyman served as a Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from 1945-1971 and as Chief Judge from 1958-1960. The triangular 24-foot high monument in front of the Courthouse with excerpts and scenes from the nation’s founding documents was Judge Prettyman’s idea.


In 1965, the federal government recognized Pennsylvania Avenue's historical and national importance. The Avenue between the Capitol and the White House (and a number of blocks around it)was designated a National Historic Site and in 1966, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Due to the Avenue's blighted state at that time, Congress created the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation in 1972 to carry out the Avenue's revitalization.

John Marshall Park was one of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation's projects. Landscape architects, Carol R. Johnson and Associates, of Cambridge, Massachusetts designed John Marshall Park. The park was named in honor of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1801-1835, who at one time resided at the park's location.

The design concept of the park utilizes a twelve foot grade change between C Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to create three distinct areas. The upper and lower bosques are paved plazas, with the center portion kept open to maintain the important L'Enfant vista to the Old City Hall. In the upper bosque, the benches and tables are arranged around two small fountains with sculptural features commemorating the early city spring which was located at the northern end of the park and from which in 1808 water for public use was first piped through the streets of Washington. A statue of John Marshall was added to this area of the park. The park also features two life size bronze chess players by sculptor Lloyd Lillie and sculptures by David Phillips (Somerville, MA) of bronze lily pads complete with frogs, turtles, fish and dragon flies. John Marshall Park was dedicated on May 10, 1983.


On Constitution Avenue, in front of the Courthouse, stands a statue of Major-General George C. Meade. The National Park Service maintains this statue which was sculpted by Charles A. Grafly.