Interior:  Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse, Portland, Maine

Building History

When it was completed in 1911, the U.S. Courthouse in Portland, now known as the Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse, was the first federal courthouse in Maine. Its national stature combined with its distinctive Renaissance Revival architecture brought prestige to Portland's civic center. Designed by James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, the courthouse's classical details complement its neighbors surrounding Lincoln Park, which include the U.S. Custom House (1872), Cumberland County Courthouse (1910), and Portland City Hall (1912). The U.S. Courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Construction of the U.S. Post Office Building near Lincoln Park in 1868 helped establish the area as a location for public buildings at the turn of the twentieth century. By 1908, the federal government had acquired a prominent site for a new courthouse adjacent to the park, and construction began that year. Knox designed a trapezoidal building with an interior courtyard to be constructed in two phases. The U-shaped first phase of construction was completed in 1911. In 1931-32, under the direction of James A. Wetmore, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, Knox's original design was completed, closing the U. The new construction provided space for a post office and additional offices on the upper floors.

In 1988, the U.S. Courthouse was renamed in honor of Judge Edward T. Gignoux, a veteran of 26 years on the bench, who had gained notoriety when he presided over the contempt trial of activists who attempted to disrupt the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

In 1996, the courthouse underwent extensive modernization, which added two new courtrooms in the 1931-32 addition. The principal features and details of the first and second floors of the 1911 construction were rehabilitated and restored. As a result of the project, the Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse was awarded an Institutional Preservation Award from Greater Portland Landmarks in 1999.

Architecture

The Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse's Italian Renaissance Revival style reflects its architect's belief that classicism was well suited for federal buildings. Entirely faced with New England granite, the building is composed of two stories above a raised stone base. Each level is articulated on the exterior through the use of subtle variations in ornamentation and textures. The first story is characterized by channeled stone. It is distinguished from the second story by a stringcourse and by the second story's smooth masonry. Differentiation also occurs in the fenestration. While the first floor has recessed, rectangular windows with simple moldings, the second-story windows are larger and elaborately detailed with classical moldings, balcony balustrades, and crowning triangular and segmented pediments, some of which are set within large arched niches with keystones. A continuous frieze, dentil molding, and cornice finish the top of the wall, where a parapet caps the composition. A succession of circular dormer windows punctuates the attic story of the slate-shingled mansard roof. The exterior articulation and ornamentation of the 1931-32 addition faithfully replicates the architectural detail of the original 1911 construction.

The building's trapezoidal plan occupies an entire city block bounded by Federal, Newbury, Pearl, and Market Streets. The building's original U-shaped plan comprises the southwest portion of the block, with the 1931-32 addition completing the northeast side and enclosing the central courtyard. The courtyard is accessed through a porte-cochere on Federal Street, and features buff-colored brick walls with granite stringcourses and keystones for the walls.

The building's formal entrance, located at the angled corner at Federal and Market Streets, is marked by a large, triangular pediment that surmounts a Doric frieze and engaged columns decorated with banded rustication. The entrance leads into the elliptical Rotunda, an elegant and open two-story foyer with refined classical detailing. The Rotunda features a curving marble staircase with a balustrade of thin cast-iron balusters, rising to the second floor along the perimeter of the room.

The elegant public spaces are symmetrically composed using classical proportions and details for the bases, wainscoting, and crown molding. Stained wood finishes, such as oak and pine, are used in the courtrooms, corridors, and judicial chambers. Marble finishes and terrazzo floors are reserved for the courtrooms and the corridors in the first floor. Interior finishes in the 1931-32 addition reveal the reduced or — stripped — classical style of the era, as seen in the abstracted designs in the terrazzo flooring and the flattened moldings used for the door framing.

In 1992, a major renovation project began to modernize and renovate the historic fabric of the building. Space in the original 1911 floor plan was converted into the Court Clerk offices and a new Magistrate Hearing room. District Courtroom No. 1 was carefully restored to its original design — including arched casement windows, period light fixtures, original color palette, and replicated plaster moldings for the ceiling.

The renovations to the 1932 east wing allowed for significant alterations, most notably for the new District Courtroom No. 2, which features an open, two-story space illuminated by skylights and contemporary materials and finishes. The Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse remains a fine example of early twentieth century Federal architecture and an important historic landmark in Portland.

Significant Events

1903-08: The federal government purchases the site for a new courthouse.

1908-11: The first building phase of the U.S. Courthouse is completed.

1931-32: The U-shaped courthouse is enclosed with a connecting wing, following the building's original plan.

1974: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1988: The U.S. Courthouse is named in honor of Judge Edward T. Gignoux.

1992-96: A modernization project restores the original District Courtroom, and adds courtrooms and other facilities.

1999: The building receives the Institutional Preservation Award from Greater Portland Landmarks.

Building Facts

Architects: James Knox Taylor; James A. Wetmore

Construction Dates: 1908-11; 1931-32

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 156 Federal Street

Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: Granite

Prominent Features: Rotunda and spiral staircase; District Courtroom

The Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse occupies the southwestern half of the lot bounded on the northwest by Federal Street, the northeast by Pearl Street, the southeast by Newbury Street, and the southwest by Market Street. The main entrance is at the western corner, facing the junction of Market and Federal Streets. The building was U-shaped and open toward Pearl Street. The remainder of the block was vacant until the addition of the U-shaped wing to the existing building on the northeastern end. The courthouse became a trapezoid, enclosing a courtyard, which filled the entire block.

The courthouse is two stories high, plus a full basement and hipped roof which encloses a third story. The exterior consists of granite from North Jay, Maine (original building) and Vermont (addition). The roof is constructed of slate, tar, and gravel.

The addition was designed to match the original building in all exterior detailing, and the two parts act as an integral unit. The floor levels are marked by string courses on the exterior. The first floor has recessed windows in rectangular openings with simple moldings. The joints between each block of ashlar on the first floor are recessed. The ashlar of the wider second floor is smooth, and the windows elaborately treated. The windows are rectangular and have a balustrade segment below them, and are surmounted by a raised triangular arched pediment. Groups of windows are set in rectangular niches and enclosed by raised arches and simple pilasters. Above a continuous frieze and dentil cornice, a balustrade of open balusters and solid panels runs around the entire building at the roof line. The roof slopes back to reveal dormer windows surmounted by arched pediments.

The Pearl Street facade contains the entrance to the post office, although the main entrance to the building is a single bay on a diagonal, joining the Federal and Market Street facades. The double entrance door is recessed in an arched opening framed by round Doric pilasters carrying a triangular pediment with dentil molding. The second floor window above the entrance matches those of the adjoining facades.

The interior courtyard has a yellow brick exterior. The windows of the original building have granite sills and lintels with keystones, while the windows on the addition have only granite sills and no stringcourses. The courtyard is currently used as a loading area for the post office, its original intention.

The only alterations to the original exterior have been the conversion of the lawn on Newbury Street to a parking lot in 1956, and the replacement of exterior wooden doors with aluminum and glass doors in 1965.

The interior is little changed with original finishes still intact: marble and terrazzo flooring, molded wood trim, marble trim, and molded plaster cornices. In contrast, the newer section has been repeatedly renovated. In 1962 the acoustical ceiling, installed in the courtroom in 1954, was removed and a new ceiling, air conditioning, speaker system, aluminum windows, and a witness and a jury box were installed. Windows and doors were replaced in 1965 and 1972 with aluminum frame with the exception of the round dormer windows on the third floor. By 1972, the unfinished attic space on the third floor of the original building had been made into offices. When more air conditioning was added in 1972, dropped ceilings were added in the corridors. In 1976 the Pearl Street post office was taken out of service and the space made into federal offices. In 1981 the same office space was renovated into a Federal Bankruptcy court.

Construction of the U.S. Courthouse began in November, 1908. The building was completed in February, 1911 and dedicated on July 20, 1911. James Knox Taylor (1857-1929), the Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury from 1897 to 1912, designed the building in the Second Renaissance Revival style. The superintendent of construction was Frederick A. Hills. An addition was made to the courthouse, for which the cornerstone was laid in September, 1931. James A. Wetmore (1863-1940) was the Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury at the time. Construction was completed by November, 1932.

The courthouse is significant as Maine's first federal courthouse. When extended in 1931-1932, the building was notable for replicating the rich original detailing in an era better known for its more austere "Starved Classicism."

The courthouse has an important place in the urban fabric of Portland, Maine. It is one of several government buildings which form a distinguished group near Lincoln Park in the center of the city, giving a real focus to municipal and government activity. Intertwined with this group of government buildings is the Exchange Street district, an intact historic area of the city comprised of handsome Victorian commercial blocks and business buildings. The resulting neighborhood forms an architecturally distinguished section of Portland.

Principal elements of the original 1908-1911 section of the courthouse remain intact with only minor changes in room configuration and loss of architectural detail. The interior spaces of the addition, however, have been substantially altered. The U.S. Post Office was removed in 1976 and converted into office space; five years later, the same office space was renovated into a Federal Bankruptcy Court. In September 1988, the building was named the Edward T. Gignoux Building, in honor of Maine Judge Edward T. Gignoux, who served as a Federal judge for twenty-six years.

Following the passage of the Judicial Improvement Act of 1990, the Edward T. Gignoux U.S. Courthouse was reconstructed. The Act authorized three Federal District Court judges for Maine, with two of the judges assigned to sit in the Portland United States Courthouse. In order to accommodate the second judge, a new courtroom with chambers and offices was needed.

The renovation of the Courthouse was designed by Leers, Weinzapfel Associates, Inc. of Boston. The improvements included two full-sized district courtrooms, a third courtroom suitable for civil jury trials, and a magistrate judge's hearing room. The renovations were completed in 1996.

A wholly new courtroom with modern courtroom fixtures and capabilities was constructed inside the existing building. A frieze, The Virtues of Good Government, is located just below the courtroom's skylight. The painting by Dorothea Rockburne is “a modern contemplation on the virtues of prudence, faith, common good, hope and magnanimity, using geometry and vibrant color as meditative devices.”

The original courtroom was also modernized and updated, but here “the goal of the renovation was to restore the original appearance of the court room.” (Passages from The Courthouses of Maine by Robert Sloane, Tower Publishing, 1998.)

The Edward T. Gignoux Courthouse currently houses the U.S. District Courts of Maine, U.S. Marshal Service, and the General Services Administration.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1908 1911 Original Construction Taylor, James Knox