A Courthouse Sprouts Curves and Color

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006

The architect Michael Graves has brought a sense of whimsy to the least whimsical of places: a federal courthouse.

His firm's design for an annex to the U.S. Courthouse at Third Street and Constitution Avenue NW includes sculptural sidewalk benches, an atrium with a six-story circular staircase and a playful roof of bow arches that resemble a series of Quonset huts.

Workers are completing final details of the $104 million building, named the William B. Bryant Annex after the first African American chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It will add courtroom and office space to the storied E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse, home to the Watergate and Microsoft trials and to appearances by the famous and infamous, including presidential assailant John W. Hinckley Jr., Monica S. Lewinsky and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff.

Two other major buildings designed by Graves & Associates are under construction in the District: a new headquarters for the U.S. Transportation Department in Southwest and the St. Coletta public charter school, with its colorful geometric shapes, at 19th Street and Independence Avenue SE.

The firm is known for its colorful postmodernist buildings such as the Dolphin and Swan hotels at Walt Disney World. Graves, one of the nation's leading architects, also has been a leading product designer, creating an iconic kettle for Alessi and housewares for Target stores.

The Princeton, N.J.-based firm also designed the headquarters of the World Bank Group's International Finance Corp. near Washington Circle, between K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. But the firm is perhaps best known in Washington for designing the decorative scaffolding used in the renovation of the Washington Monument in 1999.

The courthouse annex sits on the prominent intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues NW, at the foot of the U.S. Capitol, next to the Canadian Embassy and across from the National Gallery of Art.

"This is sacred ground," said Thomas P. Rowe, a principal with Graves & Associates and the chief architect of the project, which will increase the courtroom and office space to 248,000 square feet.

The most striking part of the building is the rounded, rotunda-capped portion on Constitution Avenue. On the ground floor is a cafeteria with panoramic views of the Capitol.

Rowe, who designed the Washington Monument scaffolding, the World Bank project and the new Transportation Department building, said rotundas are used throughout the District to mark important sites.

"We wanted to make it more prominent than the turret on the Federal Trade Commission and to take full advantage of the views for the cafeteria," Rowe said. "And we had a lot of fun with the V-shaped rooms.''

Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which approved the design, said the annex was intended to work with the other marquee buildings in the neighborhood. He said the rotunda "creates an interesting interplay with other circular forms within that monumental composition," such as the Capitol, the National Gallery's west wing, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Canadian Embassy and, farther along Pennsylvania Avenue, the Ronald Reagan Building.

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