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Historic Courthouse Restoration Seen As Completing the Judiciary Square Ensemble

By Anthony L. Harvey

[Note: Photographs accompanying this news story in the print edition can be viewed in the full PDF copy in the Current & Back Issues Archive.]

To mark the stunning re-emergence of Washington’s first federally funded municipal building, constructed in the early 1820s and designed by noted architect George Hadfield — and known by the mid-19th century by the name of Old City Hall – this was the prominent showpiece structure among five neoclassical buildings surrounding the open park of Judiciary Square, the DC Preservation League (DCPL) recently hosted a preview viewing.

The introductory tour of the restored and expanded building was led by principal architect Hany Hassan of the architectural firm Beyer Blinder Belle, which is responsible for the already acclaimed restoration and light-filled expansion of this 19th century masterpiece of understated Greek Ionic temple-style.

This remarkable reconstruction restores the building’s 1919 limestone and granite façades which had replaced the original stucco exterior. In addition, a brand new glass and steel pavilion now takes the place of the long-ago stripped away north portico façade. Further, expansion was made possible by the construction of a new underground level containing offices, a large ceremonial courtroom, museum exhibit walls, and ample foyer and lobby space.

Located between 4th and 5th Streets and Indiana Avenue and the Pension Building on F Street, Judiciary Square’s original landscaped central greensward is now the site of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, a highly successful commemorative outdoor sculpture that replaced the dramatic equestrian sculpture of General José de San Martin, which was moved in the 1970s to a site at 21st Street and Virginia Avenue near that of his fellow South American revolutionary hero, Simon Bolivar. Old City Hall, which became the District Court Building in the mid-20th century for use primarily by what was then known as the Court of General Sessions (now Superior Court) is now the handsomely refitted home of the District of Columbia’s Court of Appeals –Washington’s highest judicial body, its local supreme court.

Beyer Blinder Belle’s most dramatic addition to the restored building is the creation of a new plaza and entrance pavilion on the north — E Street — side of the structure, which serves to reorient the courthouse to face the National Building Museum’s post-Civil War Pension Building across the open space of the formally landscaped National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial grounds. As noted by architect Hassan, “The new pavilion spans the center bay of the north façade at the height of two stories, leaving the third story windows unobstructed. Because of its transparency, the pavilion allows visibility to the existing building behind. While maintaining the main axis of the original courthouse, the pavilion lends the building a new aesthetic presence on Judiciary Square, giving it a scale and dignity comparable to the adjacent civic buildings.”

The new pavilion opens into both the old building and onto stairways leading to an underground expansion, which is immediately notable for its light and open airiness. It provides an unusually graceful transition from above grade to below ground on this reconfigured north side entrance. This new underground level houses a large ceremonial courtroom, its spectator seating fully raked for maximum visibility of whatever proceedings might be presented on the traditional dais or, if judicial furniture were removed, auditorium-style stage.

Restoration work is equally impressive in its attention to detail and its recreation of interior spaces constructed in the 1919 complete renovation of the interior —  which essentially gutted the building. Two historic courtrooms have been returned to their 90-year old appearance, one off the historic main entry hall facing the Indiana Avenue side of the building, the other in the southeast wing of the original building.

Another historic room reconstruction and restoration now houses a law library in place of a warren of an interior partitioned DC Superior Court file room; also, the relatively small but spectacular entrance lobby on the south side, complete with its two-story, sky-lit space, has been returned to its gleaming white marble appearance.  Wherever possible, said Hassan, historic elements were restored throughout the building’s interior. This included marble and terrazzo flooring, marble wainscoting, decorative plaster ceilings, textured glass sky lights and transoms, bronze and copper light fixtures, and mahogany doors.

The existing historic exterior walls were completely restored. For example, the limestone and granite façades were patched, cleaned, repaired, and re-pointed; decorative iron railings were restored and where necessary replicated; and the existing copper standing seam roof was totally replaced.

Green grass has been returned to the grounds immediately surrounding the courthouse — as called for in Pierre L’Enfant’s original design and plans for the Federal City. Surface parking lots have been relocated underground and sidewalks and steps have been restored or appropriately replaced. Washington sculptor Lot Flannery’s 1868 standing statue of Abraham Lincoln — the first public monument erected in Lincoln’s memory — is back in front of the south — Indiana Avenue — side of the courthouse on a new pedestal, and the 1923 Joseph J. Darling Memorial Fountain on the building’s west side has been restored in all its gilded, bronze glory. Darlington, a prominent DC attorney and philanthropist, was also a noted Baptist. According to James Goode’s Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, DC, “Darlington’s fellow Baptists raised protests over the nudity of the life-sized figure of a nymph [featured in the center of the fountain] to no avail.”

This four-year historic restoration and expansion of the District Court House, now the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, represents, according to the enthusiastic responses of architects, historians, and preservation activists attending DCPL’s guided architectural tour, a classic example of historic preservation of the highest order, and a tribute to the District government and the architects, designers, planners, craftsmen, and construction crews responsible for its accomplishment.