In D.C., Old City Hall Is Expanded to Accommodate the Court of Appeals

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

For 10 years, the building once known as Old City Hall has sat idle. At the south end of Judiciary Square, it is a subtle, humble presence: If you don't look twice and pause to admire the simplicity of its arched windows and Ionic portico, it blends into the city's stone and concrete background.

But Old City Hall, which will be rededicated today as the new home of the District Court of Appeals, is one of the city's most venerable buildings, and one of its most storied. Begun in 1820, and expanded over the years, it helped define a fashionable and socially lively part of town in the early 19th century. It not only served as District's first city hall, but also as the site of some of the most dramatic court trials of that era.

To accommodate the Court of Appeals, established by Congress in 1970 as the city's highest court, the building has been renovated and successfully expanded with a sexy glass box atrium on the north side. Ugly street-level parking has been removed and placed underground. A new landscape has been introduced that not only flatters the building but also makes it accessible to people who have disabilities. The interior has been renovated as well, including a new underground courtroom large enough to handle the bar ceremonies over which the Court of Appeals presides.

The decision to place the Court of Appeals in the historic structure was mostly pragmatic. It freed up space in the grim Moultrie Courthouse, dreaded by all District residents as the site of biennial jury duty. The Moultrie building is configured to deal with the usual three-part circulation of a standard courthouse, with separate spaces for the public, the judges and the prisoners. The Court of Appeals doesn't deal directly with prisoners, so it made sense to move it into the smaller, more historic space.

But there is an emotional appeal to its new home, as well.

"The history of this building made this, in my opinion, a perfect home for the highest court in the District of Columbia," said Chief Judge Eric T. Washington. And what a history it has had.

After Sam Houston used his cane to clobber a congressman in 1832, he was tried and convicted in the building for a "great outrage upon the public peace." It was here that a would-be assassin of Andrew Jackson was acquitted by reason of insanity in 1835, and the successful assassin of James A. Garfield was convicted in 1882. The building provided offices for Frederick Douglass when he served as a U.S. marshal and for Theodore Roosevelt when he was commissioner of the civil service in the late 19th century. And because it was the site of several trials in a notorious fugitive slave case -- the "Pearl" affair, in which abolitionists attempted to sail more than 70 slaves up the Chesapeake Bay to safety -- it is listed on the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

The building is just as deeply engaged with architectural history. Its first designer, George Hadfield, was one of a string of architects who did early work on the U.S. Capitol. More significantly, he designed Arlington House, now known as the home of Robert E. Lee, standing sentinel among the graves of Arlington National Cemetery. That makes it a curious counterpart to the National Building Museum at the north end of Judiciary Square, which was designed by Montgomery C. Meigs in 1887. It was Meigs, who as a Union Army quartermaster general, decided to start burying Union dead in the yard of Lee's old mansion.

The glass atrium is a prominent addition to the space between the two historic structures, and far from diminishing them, its gentle dissonance enhances the dignity of the somewhat cluttered square, which is also home to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.

The square glass box is a bit like the little black dress: elegant, never out of fashion and appropriate almost anywhere. Architecturally, it is one of the best things about the renovation. It repositions the entrance of the building from the south to the north side, where the courthouse is elegantly flanked by two lesser and later court buildings.

The atrium is a rare, almost pure modernist gesture in a city where large public architecture generally tends to heaviness, compromise and bland decoration. A few blocks away, the glass box of Mies van der Rohe's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is feeling vindicated.

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