Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

Supreme Court of the United States


Cass Gilbert, FAIA


Washington, DC






Stone (Limestone clad)


Photo- Greg Allen
United States Supreme Court

The building's facade underwent renovation during the summer of 2006.

The Supreme Court courtroom interior.

Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

View of Supreme Court Building from United States Capitol dome.

Ten Commandments in the Courtroom

The Supreme Court building is the seat of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is situated in Washington D.C. at One First Street Northeast, on the block immediately east of the United States Capitol.

Prior to the establishment of the Federal City, the United States government resided briefly in New York City, New York (where the Supreme Court met for the first time, in the Merchants Exchange Building) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (where the court met in Independence Hall, and later in City Hall).

After the federal government was established in Washington, the court was housed in a small basement room in the United States Capitol. It remained in the Capitol until 1935, with the exception of a period from 1812 to 1817, during which the Court was absent from Washington because of the British invasion of Washington and destruction of the Capitol in the War of 1812.

As the Senate expanded, it progressively outgrew its quarters, and the Court twice moved in to occupy a chamber abandoned by the Senate, first in 1810Senate Virtual Tour (a space it was to share "with several other courts, among them the United States Circuit Court and the Orphans' Court of the District of Columbia"[2]), and again in 1860 when the Court moved to The Old Senate Chamber (as it is now known) where it remained until its move to the current Supreme Court building.Senate Virtual Tour In 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft argued, successfully, for the Court to have its own headquarters, to distance itself from Congress as an independent branch of government.

"Temple of justice"

The Supreme Court building, located at 1, 1st St. N.E., Washington D.C., across the street from the U.S. Capitol, was designed by architect Cass Gilbert, and rises four stories (92 feet) above grade. The cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1932 and construction completed in 1935, having cost $9,740,000 — $94,000 under budget. "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 United States Government, and as a symbol of 'the national ideal of justice in the highest sphere of activity.'"

The public façade of the Supreme Court building is made of marble quarried from Vermont, and that of the non-public-facing courtyards, Georgian marble. Most of the interior spaces are lined with Alabama marble, except for the Courtroom itself, which is lined with Spanish Ivory Vein marble.[4] For the Courtroom's 24 columns, "Gilbert felt that only the ivory buff and golden marble from the Montarrenti quarries near Siena, Italy" would suffice. To this end, in May 1933, he petitioned the Italian premier, Benito Mussolini, "to ask his assistance in guaranteeing that the Siena quarries sent nothing inferior to the official sample marble".

Not all the justices were thrilled by the new arrangements, the courtroom in particular. Harlan Fiske Stone complained it was "almost bombastically pretentious...Wholly inappropriate for a quiet group of old boys such as the Supreme Court." Another justice observed that he felt the court would be "nine black beetles in the Temple of Karnak," while still another complained that such pomp and ceremony suggested the Justices ought to enter the courtroom riding on elephants. New Yorker columnist Howard Brubaker noted at the time of its opening that it had "fine big windows to throw the New Deal out of."

The west façade of the building (essentially, the "front" of the court, being the side which faces the Capitol) bears the motto "Equal Justice Under Law," while the east facade bears the motto "Justice, the Guardian of Liberty."

The building's facilities include:

In the basement: maintenance facilities, garage, on-site mailroom.
On the ground floor: Public information office, the clerk's office, the publications unit, exhibit halls, cafeteria, gift shop and administrative offices.
On the first floor: the Great Hall, the courtroom, the conference room, and all of the justices' chambers except Justice Ginsburg (she chose a roomier office on the second floor).
On the second floor: The office of Justice Ginsburg, the office of the reporter of decisions, the legal office, and the offices of the law clerks. Also, the justices' dining and reading rooms are on this floor.
On the third floor: The court library
On the fourth floor: The Supreme Court gym, including a basketball court, referred to jokingly as "the highest court in the land."[3]
The Supreme Court building is under the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol. In addition, the Supreme Court building maintains its own police force, the Supreme Court Police. Separate from the Capitol Police, the force was created in 1935 to look after the building and its personnel. The Court operates on an annual budget of approximately $15m, and requested a budget of $16.7m for FY2006.

Sculptural program
Cass Gilbert's design for the building and its environs included an ambitious beaux-arts styled sculptural program that included a large number and variety of both real and allegorical figures.

Supreme Court Flagpole Bases, and bronze doors in the east and west facades by John Donnelly.
East pediment - Justice, the Guardian of Liberty by Hermon Atkins MacNeil
West pediment - Equal Justice Under the Law by Robert Aitken This work includes a portrait of Cass Gilbert in the far left of the pediment.
Seated figures - The Authority of Law and The Contemplation of Justice by James Earle Fraser
Courtroom friezes - The South Wall Frieze includes figures of lawgivers from the BC times, and includes Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius, and Augustus. The North Wall Frieze shows lawgivers from the AD era and includes representations of Justinian, Muhammad, Charlemagne, King John of England, King Louis IX of France, Hugo Grotius, Sir William Blackstone, John Marshall, and Napoleon. The figure of Muhammad has caused controversy.

On November 28, 2005, a basketball-sized chunk of marble weighing approximately 172 lbs. fell four stories from the façade onto the steps of the Court; it had previously been part of the parapet above the word UNDER (as in, "Equal justice UNDER law", engraved on the court's façade ), and immediately above the figure of a Roman centurion carrying a fasces. The falling piece did not appear to be related to restoration work that was underway in the building at the time.
The Courtroom frieze depicts the history of law, including the Ten Commandments. The commandments, written in Hebrew, are shown held by Moses, although only commandments six through ten, usually considered the more secular commands, are visible. Further, Moses' beard obscures some of the words so that instead of reading "Thou Shalt Not Steal," it says "Steal," and similarly appears to command viewers to murder and commit adultery. There are also other figures engraved in the chambers, including the Muslim prophet Muhammad and a larger-than-life frieze of Napoleon Bonaparte among the 18 marble likenesses on the courtroom's north and south walls.[5]
In 1997, the Council on American-Islamic Relations demanded the Supreme Court remove the image of Muhammad from the marble frieze of the façade. While appreciating the fact that Muhammad was included in the court’s pantheon of 18 prominent lawgivers of history, CAIR noted that Islam discouraged its followers from portraying any prophet in paintings, sculptures or other artistic representations. CAIR also objected that the prophet was shown with a sword, reinforcing long-held stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant conquerors. Chief Justice William Rehnquist rejected the request to sandblast Muhammad, saying the artwork "was intended only to recognize him, among many other lawgivers, as an important figure in the history of law; it is not intended as a form of idol worship." The court later added a footnote to tourist materials describing the frieze, calling it a "a well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Muhammad."[5]

^ Rehnquist, p.24
^ Tomlins
^ Remy
^ Justices Kennedy & Thomas, Testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee, 4/12/2005
^ Mauro

W. Rehnquist, The Supreme Court, p.24.
Tomlins, Christopher, The United States Supreme Court:The Pursuit of Justice, 2005.
Remy, Richard C., United States Government: Democracy in ActionGlencoe website
Mauro, Tony, Legal Times "The Supreme Court's Own Commandments" March 2, 2005