The white marble elevations of the Byron White U.S. Courthouse are an exemplary manifestation of Federal Neo-classicism, expressing the inspirations of American law through the orders of classical antiquity. Designed by the eminent architecture firm of Tracy, Swartwout and Litchfield, this turn of the century edifice weds classical convention in massing with imagination in detail.
A colonnaded portico of the colossal order, at the top of a monumental stair, composes much of the south-facing primary facade. The other three elevations are similar but incorporate engaged columns, rising from a pedestal. These fluted columns are topped by Ionic capitals, modified by the addition of shield bearing federal eagles. The corners of the building are marked by massive walls meeting at clean edges. The north corners are in-turned, and with the portico projecting from the south side result in an O shaped plan with a tongue, with broad wings on the west, east, and north sides. Incised text and uniquely carved horizontal banding under the entablature, with recurring eagles, provide moderate but effective decoration. On the east and west sides of the building, an open areaway surrounded by a stone balustrade, exposes the rusticated basement walls and sets the elevation away from the paved plaza. A raised terrace with a similar balustrade spans the north facade. Ornamental stairs lead up to the terrace at the east and west sides, and like stairs lead up to secondary entrances on each corner of the east and west elevations. The public doorways at the south ends of the side elevations are flaked by Doric columns supporting a projecting entablature, while the Judges' entrances at the north end are set between Doric columns supporting glazed archways. A ramp descends within the east areaway and provides access to an entry for the physically disadvantaged, while another small door is located in the west areaway, accessed by means of an arched opening at the lower end of a driveway. This driveway, at the northwest corner, provides vehicles access from 18th Street to enclosed parking under the terrace, and a similar driveway exits from the northeast corner onto 19th Street. Three quoined arches in the basement wall at the lower end of the northeast ramp mark an entry vestibule for staff use and deliveries. Wall mounted light fixtures centered behind the columns illuminate the portico of the main entry.
From the second floor up, the building perimeter surrounds internal light courts opened to the sky overhead. An inside wing projects from the middle of the south side, bisecting the court completely at the lowest level, which is articulated as a rusticated base with tiny irregularly spaced windows. The gray limestone walls of the light courts are detailed in the Renaissance style, used extensively inside the building.
The building windows retain their historic layout. The basement windows are visible in the areaways along the east and west elevation and are generally rectangular, though a few have arched tops. Windows on the upper floors of the street facing elevations have rounded tops on the first floor and are rectangular on the second through fourth floors. The space between the columns governs the width of the large windows between engaged columns and those beyond the free columns of the portico. The second floor windows expand up to the third floor on the east and west facades since the spaces along these walls are double height. The fourth floor, which is above the entablature (denoted as "attic" in classical parlance), has small slit windows on the primary south elevation and larger rectangular windows on the remaining three elevations. Inside the light courts, there are three levels of windows the second floor, third floor and fourth floor. The second floor windows are rectangular windows with the only variation occurring on the center projecting element where the windows are small slit windows in groups of three. The third floor windows vary by elevation. On the north wall, the third floor windows have arched transoms. A portico with columns marks the location of the original grand jury room, at the middle of the north wall, opposite the projecting center wing. The third floor windows on the central projecting element are tall, rectangular windows. The rest of the third floor windows are rectangular windows with pilasters that support alternating curved and peaked pediments. One on each side, two large pyramidal skylights occupy most of the light courts roofs admitting diffuse sunlight into the new courtrooms below. A glass ceiling in a fourth floor corridor is intact, though the glass tile skylight above it has been covered over at the roof level and painted white on the interior side.
The sloping faces of the roof are slate covered on the street side, with asbestos shingles intended to emulate slate applied to the light court faces. The roof has a ridge on the south side, and a flat top between inner and outer slopes over the other wings.
On the first floor, the main entry lobby spans the length of the building with windows looking out through the portico to the south. Above the terrazzo flooring, the ceiling is vaulted, with arches springing from pilasters. The names of Pony Express riders adorn the marble-faced walls. At the west and east ends, murals decorate a side entry and elevator lobby extending into each wing. At the west and east ends of the lobby, original corridors that also serve as display areas lead north from the lobby. The west corridor displays tell the history of the courts and the east corridor displays tell the history of Byron White. Marble columns supporting a pediment flank the former postmasters office entry in the west elevator lobby. New dark gray marble frames delineate the glazed public entry doors of the new courtrooms, constructed in what was originally the Post Office workroom. In between these courtrooms, by the entry vestibule, the main lobby opens into a new reception area with a curved, marble-topped wooden reception counter. New public restrooms are accessible from the lobby.
The new courtrooms, inspired by the Renaissance interiors typical of the courthouse, are illuminated by natural light from the wood-framed ornamental glass ceilings located below the skylights in the light courts. The courtrooms have carpet flooring and the walls are finished with a cream-colored fabric covering. A judges' anteroom is located behind the west courtroom and a judges' conference room with antechamber for robes adjoins the back of the east courtroom, with private washrooms and kitchenettes provided behind both courtrooms.
The rest of the first floor is occupied by tenant space which contains new offices accessible from either the lobby or from a large open office space beyond the courtrooms along the extensively glazed north exterior wall. Situated within the space occupied by the former mailroom, many of these new rooms have glazed partition walls and French doors, in addition to carpeting and new light fixtures. Adjacent to the former lobby extensions, along the outer walls, the former offices in the wings have been converted for use as judge's chambers.
The second through fourth floors have similar plans, with corridors forming a continuous circuit through the perimeter office areas. On the second floor, a lobby similar to the main entry lobby is located directly above the first floor lobby, with smaller corridors like those above in the west, east, and north wings. The third and fourth floors have a corridor where the first two floors have a lobby, except that the fourth floor corridor is displaced to the outside, over the columns of the portico, allowing its original glass ceiling to be situated in front and clear of the main roof. The second floor lobby has a lower ceiling than the entry lobby below, and consequently has a shallow barrel vault above the polished terrazzo floor. All the floors have elevator lobbies similar to the first floor, except the third floor which is open to the floor below, and where only one of each pair of cabs stops and is accessed from the side. The basement only has an elevator lobby in the southeast corner. Corridors on the second floor and above have red carpeting with gold trimmed borders laid over the terrazzo flooring. Most of the light fixtures in the corridors are either original or of the original type. The west and east corridors are single loaded, with offices on the outside overlooking the streets, whereas the north corridor is double loaded, with offices also overlooking the light courts.
The second floor has an original courtroom in the east wing (the former district court), a reconstructed courtroom in the west wing (the original appeals court), and a third courtroom in the center wing, which was originally the law library. All three of these courtrooms are double height spaces, inaccessible from the third floor, except for a "minstrel" gallery above the main public entrance to the center courtroom.
The north and south walls of the former law library are curved and there are four lower level entrances to the room, one in the middle of each of the four walls. The main south entry beneath the upper gallery is surrounded by ornamental woodwork and is surmounted by a carved eagle, bearing a shield. A narrow curved stair located west of this south entrance leads up to the gallery at the third floor level which can also be accessed via a door beyond two fluted, wooded Ionic columns that opens into a short passage off the third floor south corridor. Original bookshelves line the walls at the lower level, which are elsewhere oak paneled. Names of historic legal authorities decorate the cornice above the bookshelves, over which large windows are situated at the upper level, admitting light from the surrounding open court. Three chandeliers, each with twelve glass bowls, hang from the decorative plaster ceiling. The room has new carpet flooring. New wood furnishings include a judges bench on a dais at the north end of the room, stands for the defendant and witnesses, lawyers' tables with chairs, spectator benches, and a lectern.
The original, east, second floor courtroom has a shallow, barrel vaulted ceiling. Springing from a denticulated cornice, the ceiling is plaster with plaster medallions set between large ornamental plaster ribs. Four windows along the east wall, and four recessed panels of similar proportions on the west wall, are framed between pilasters surmounted by half round plaster arches. The elevated judges bench is located between a pair of pilasters supporting a large proscenium arch, surmounted by an eagle. The open arch frames a large semicircular alcove, with a half dome ceiling decorated with dark blue drapery which continues down behind the judges bench. An architrave surrounds the room, and has been gilded within this alcove. The main doors on the south are also located between a pair of pilasters, which support an entablature alcove which is a clock within the arched panel, decorated with another eagle. The eagles are gilded, as are other details in the white, plaster relief work decorating the upper portion of this room. The lower half of the walls and the pilasters are faced with white marble tiles. Original sconces, chandeliers and a few recessed modern downlights provide illumination. Latin inscriptions in this courtroom read, Justitia Virtutum Regina (Justice the Queen of Virtues); Justitia Soror Fides (Justice the Sister of Faith); Ita Lex Scripta Est (Thus is the Law Writ); and Nemo est supra leges (No one is superior to the law).
Behind a door at the front of the room, now unused, a tight circular stair allowed jurors to descend from the original jury room on the floor above.
Through a pocket door in the curved alcove behind his bench, the judge can enter the courtroom from his chambers. The judge's office retains a number of original features, including oak paneling and recessed bookcases. Paneled wood doors above this level conceal storage. An original fireplace with wood mantel is set in the northeast corner of the office. A short passage connects the judge's office with the courtroom, the corridor and an original washroom with white, marble-faced walls. The judge's office can also be entered from the corridor through an assistant's office, with wood paneled storage wall.
The original court of appeals, at the west end of the second floor, has been carefully reconstructed. Although the original stone columns were sold, similar columns without flutes were cast and are painted white and crowned with gilded Corinthian capitals to resemble the plaster originals. Dark blue velvet draperies decorate this courtroom also, and hang between a column screen of four columns, separating the main courtroom from a small room between the judges bench and conference room. A similar column screen at the south end of the room delineates a small lobby. The shallow, barrel vaulted ceiling rises above a denticulated cornice, and terminates at a shallow coffered arch above the columns at each end of the room. A ribbed, segmented half-dome caps the space behind the judge's bench. Artificial light is provided by small chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and by brass torcheres with glass globes mounted on the pilasters on the east and west walls. The wood furnishings resemble those in the other courtrooms. Some gilded eagles and other ornaments decorate the plaster walls and ceilings but this room, a unique expression of Neo-classical Revival, is somewhat less elaborate than other original courtroom and former law library.
On the third floor at the middle of the north corridor, the semi-circular Grand Jury room faces the library wing inside the light courts, just beyond the green marble columns of the portico outside. Inside, a Doric colonnade has been reconstructed along the curved, predominantly glass south wall. The upper two thirds of the white plaster columns are fluted. The original Adam Style ribbed ceiling, a partial segmental dome, has been restored. The original wood floor with marble trim has however been covered with carpet flooring. The plaster walls have niches with half domes, illuminated by recessed downlights and sconces. With columns typical of atria at Pompeii and a large sculpted eagle with a wreath on the curved masonry wall of the central wing visible outside this room, like the original appeals court, allies itself with the New-classical Revival.
There are two entrances into the building at the basement level, an employee entrance in the northeast corner and the accessible entrance in the southeast corner. The northeast entrance lobby has marble wall with a rusticated finish as found on the exterior, plaster ceiling and carpet flooring. Two of the original doors with round tops remain. The southeast entrance lobby has polished marble panels walls, an arched plaster ceiling and terrazzo flooring that continues into the adjacent elevator lobby. The original storage rooms under the stairs along the south wall have brick walls, concrete flooring and the ceilings are either concrete or the structure of the stair above which has a fireproof coating applied to it. The original steel doors with arched tops remain at the entrances to these rooms. The corridor adjacent to these rooms has painted brick walls, painted concrete flooring and a painted plaster ceiling. The rest of the basement contains tenant space which contains offices, storage rooms and a break room with modern finishes. The basement also contains the building support spaces such as the mechanical and electrical rooms. Mechanical and electrical systems are also located in a sub-basement in the center of the building. A service passage in the sub-basement formerly provided access into a coal pit located beneath a mail loading platform under the north terrace, adjacent to Champa Street, but this has now been closed off.