E. Barrett Prettyman US Courthouse History

Original Design

The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse sits at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 3rd Street, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the East Wing of the National Gallery.  The large courthouse, designed by Louis Justement, was constructed in 1948-52.  The exterior’s stripped classicism is indicative of the 1940s “emerging government style” influenced by Paul Phillipe Cret.  The Prettyman Courthouse is part of an Art Moderne group of buildings in area surrounding Judiciary Square, including the Recorder of Deeds Building.  

A new federal courthouse was needed due to the overcrowding of the courts in Old City Hall and the Court of Appeals.  President Harry Truman laid the building’s cornerstone on June 27, 1950, and the building opened in November 1952. Justement’s building responds to Wyeth’s Municipal Center in its materials, massing and stripped Classicism.Justement employed the grand scale and urban presence of pre-war federal architecture. The building’s H-plan was generally composed of an eight floor rectangular block that intersected two perpendicular six story wings on the east and west facades. Although the courthouse exterior showed strong classical influences in its fundamental geometric articulation, its façade also reveals interests in the Modern aesthetic. Justement, however, adheres to the Modernist aversion to ornament, employing no pediments, entablatures, porticoes, or carved decoration.

In 1997, the General Services Administration selected Michael Graves and the Smithgroup to design a 350,000 square foot annex to the historic courthouse.  The site is the parking lot located immediately to the east of the courthouse at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues.  The annex will house nine courtrooms, 19 judges’ chambers, and office space.  In addition, an atrium will connect the annex to the original courthouse.

Site History

The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse was built on Reservation 10, a site bounded by Constitution Avenue, 3rd Street, C Street and John Marshall Place. The building faces south across Constitution Avenue towards the National Mall, and was erected on the northwest quadrant of its site. This placement accommodated driveways along the south and west facades, and along with the subsequent plazas and landscaping, provided a buffer between colonnades of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse and the verdant Mall, onto which it opened before I.M Pei’s 1970 addition to the National Gallery of Art.

In July of 1790, Congress voted to establish a new federal city, at which time the land was ceded by the State of Maryland to the government. The land on which the courthouse would be built was labeled ‘Reservation 10.’ In the mid-1820s, the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and John Marshall Place became over the city’s earliest domestic enclaves, and Reservation 10 experienced profuse residential and commercial development through the close of the Civil War.

Despite government ownership of Reservation 10, and the presence of a city jail near D Street, upscale development occurred in the area of present-day Judiciary Square. “The land just north of Reservation 10 became a center for municipal (and later judicial) activity that spurred development in that area. George Hadfield designed his Greek Revival City Hall in this neighborhood. Built of granite, the City Hall's stylistic idiom became a de-facto paradigm for later public works, including the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse. In 1873, the federal government seized the building for use as courts, which spurred later court development here, and eventually led to the neighborhood's name, "Judiciary Square."

The southwest corner of Reservation 10 (at the intersection of John Marshall Place and B Street [now Constitution Avenue]) held the Odeon Hall, a building that served as a generic meeting and exhibition space. When the Odeon was not occupied with cultural events, it accommodated low-brow entertainment. These included all the side-show freaks of that period (the tatooed man, the woman snake charmer, the fat man and the midgets).

Elijah Barrett Prettyman

On March 20, 1997, the U.S. Courthouse was renamed in honor of Justice Elijah Barrett Prettyman. Elijah Barrett Prettyman was appointed to the Court of Appeals by President Harry S Truman in 1945. Judge Prettyman was the Circuit Judge (1945-1971) and Chief Judge (1958-1960) for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Judge Prettyman took senior status in 1962, and then continued to serve the Court in a variety of ways until his death in 1971.

The renaming of the courthouse was precipitated by Senator John W. Warner, his longtime friend. Elijah Barrett Prettyman Jr., and their mentor Judge Gasch. The honor of renaming the courthouse was due to the impact that Judge Prettyman made not only from his professional career but also from his involved in the law community.

Judge Prettyman acted on matters in court based on public value and in extra-judicial work to improve the administration of justice locally and nationally. Extra-judicial work included the creation of the Administrative Conference of the United States, the effort of the local bar to fund and create a Legal Aid Society to represent indigent criminal defendants, and Chairman of President Kennedy’s President’s Advisory Commission on Narcotics and Drug Abuse. Additional extra-judiciary work includes numerous committees, boards and other groups on which Judge Prettyman served and often directed.




Last Reviewed 2016-06-30