The U.S. Supreme Court Building
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO
The Supreme Court Building, constructed between 1932–1935, was designed by noted architect Cass Gilbert, who is best known as the architect for the Woolworth Building in New York. The first session of the Supreme Court was convened on February 1, 1790, but it took some 145 years for the Supreme Court to find a permanent residence. During those years the Supreme Court lived a nomadic existence. Initially meeting in the Royal Exchange Building in New York, the Court established chambers in Independence Hall and later in City Hall when the national capitol moved to Philadelphia in 1790. The Court moved again when the Federal government moved in 1800 to the permanent capital in Washington. Since no provision had been made for a Supreme Court building, Congress lent the Court space in the new Capitol building. The Court convened for a short period in a private home after the British had used Supreme Court documents to set fire to the Capitol during the War of 1812. Following this episode, the Court returned to the Capitol and met from 1819 to 1860 in a chamber that has been restored as the Old Supreme Court Chamber. Then from 1860 to 1935, the Court sat in what is now known as the Old Senate Chamber. Finally in 1929, former President William Howard Taft, who was Chief Justice from 1921 to 1930, persuaded Congress to end this arrangement and authorize a permanent home for the Court.
At the laying of the cornerstone for the building on October 13, 1932, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes stated, “The Republic endures and this is the symbol of its faith.” The building was designed on a scale in keeping with the importance and dignity of the Court and the Judiciary as a coequal, independent branch of the Federal government and as a symbol of “the national ideal of justice in the highest sphere of activity.” Sixteen marble columns at the main west entrance support the portico and on the architrave above is incised, “Equal Justice Under Law.” Capping the entrance is the pediment filled with a sculpture group by Robert Aitken, representing Liberty Enthroned Guarded by Order and Authority. Cast in bronze, the west entrance doors sculpted by John Donnelly, Jr., depict historic scenes in the development of the law. The east entrance’s architrave bears the legend, “Justice the Guardian of Liberty.” A sculpture group by Herman A. McNeil is located above the east entrance that represents great lawgivers, Moses, Confucius, and Solon, flanked by symbolic groups representing Means of Enforcing the Law, Tempering Justice with Mercy, Carrying on Civilization, and Settlement of Disputes Between States.
The Supreme Court Building is located at 1st and East Capitol Sts., NE. Self-guided exhibits on the main level are available for touring Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Lectures on the Supreme Court are presented on the main level every hour on the half-hour, Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 3:30 pm. For more information call, 202/479-3000.
* The White House, U.S. Supreme Court Building, U.S. Capitol, and related buildings and grounds are legally exempted from listing in the National Register of Historic Places, according to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.