In the years following the Civil War, Atlanta's population expanded rapidly. To meet increased demands for federal services, Congress approved funds for a new building containing both postal and courthouse functions. When ground was broken in 1907, workers discovered a natural rock formation that resembled an American eagle, which observers interpreted to mean that the federal building was destined for the site. James Knox Taylor, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, designed the building, which was completed in 1910 and deemed by the press to be "a great step forward in the scheme of beautifying Atlanta."
When the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals was established in 1981, it occupied the building, which was renamed in 1989 to honor Elbert Parr Tuttle, a renowned judge. Tuttle (1897-1996) graduated from Cornell University's law school. He subsequently established a law firm in Atlanta where he performed many hours of pro bono work, arguing successfully on a number of landmark civil rights cases. Tuttle saw combat in the Pacific Theater during World War II and earned numerous awards for his service.
President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Tuttle to a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals (Fifth Circuit) in 1954. Tuttle heard numerous civil rights cases involving voter registration, civil liberties, school desegregation, and job discrimination. In 1961, he became chief judge of the Fifth Circuit. He entered semi-retirement in 1968 but remained active, assuming a large role in establishing the Eleventh Circuit in 1981, the same year he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Many important cases have been argued in the courthouse. In 2000, the court upheld the American government's decision that Elian Gonzalez, a Cuban boy who was rescued off the Florida coast after his mother died during an attempt to enter the United States, should return to Cuba to live with his father. The same year, several lawsuits involving the presidential election were decided. In Bush v. Gore, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the denial of a petition to stop manual recounts of ballots. The controversy eventually was decided by the Supreme Court.
James Knox Taylor designed the Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building in the Second Renaissance Revival style of architecture. The dignified style was commonly used for federal buildings during the early twentieth century.
The building occupies the block bounded by Forsyth, Fairlie, Poplar, and Walton streets in downtown Atlanta. It is five stories in height and has a U-shaped footprint with a central courtyard. The building is clad in granite on the street elevations, while the sides that enclose the courtyard are clad in buff-colored brick. The facade faces Forsyth Street. The first story is defined by rusticated granite and round-arched openings. Separating the first and second stories is a stringcourse with medallions and incised vertical designs topped with a wave pattern. Windows on the second level each have a classical balustrade, frieze with carved classical motifs, and molded cornice supported by scrolled brackets. The third and fourth stories are marked by large round-arched windows with scrolled keystones. These windows denote the interior location of the courtrooms. The arched windows are divided by classical pilasters (attached columns) and circular medallions. The top level has small rectangular windows separated by cartouches (decorative ovals). A heavy, ornate cornice with a dentil (rectangular block) course and carved anthemion motifs tops the building.
Other elevations contain a similar level of detail, although they lack the two-story arched windows. Windows on other elevations are topped with pediments containing cartouches or lintels with medallions or carved keystones. Some windows contain carved serpent-and-staff designs, which were associated with Mercury, the Roman messenger god who was an early symbol of the postal service in the United States. An iron arch spans a loading dock in the courtyard area on Fairlie Street.
Many original interior finishes and public spaces remain. The dominant feature of the first-floor lobby is its vaulted ceiling, which springs from a series of pilasters. At each end of the lobby are domed ceilings. Window and door frames and wainscot are marble, while upper wall surfaces are covered with plaster. Original arched, bronze casement windows remain in place. Beneath each window is an original wall-mounted marble letter table resting on cast-iron brackets. Floors were originally marble, but are now covered with green terrazzo panels trimmed with gray terrazzo. A mural by an unknown artist depicts a classical seated figure of Justice flanked by allegorical representations of Agriculture and Industry. A staircase with marble treads and wainscot and a cast-iron baluster with a swag pattern leads to upper floors.
The main courtrooms are the most significant spaces on the third floor. The most impressive is the two-story en banc courtroom that is designed for all of the appellate judges to meet to hear a case. Walls are covered with elaborately carved, stained oak paneling decorated with garlands, scrolled brackets, and molding. Large, round-arch windows are balanced with recessed arched bays on the opposite walls. Bronze grilles are located throughout. The maple floor is laid in a herringbone pattern and an elaborate, plaster, coffered ceiling with rosettes tops the room. Another appellate courtroom, although slightly smaller in scale, is equally impressive. Similar finishes are used on the walls and floor, and a gallery of oak benches provides seating for observers.
The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It was listed as a contributing building within the Fairlie Poplar National Register Historic District in 1984.
1906-1910: U.S. Post Office constructed
1974: Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places
1981: U.S. Court of Appeals (Eleventh Circuit) established
1989: Building renamed to honor Judge Elbert Parr Tuttle
2000: Elian Gonzalez case and Bush v. Gore argued
Location: 56 Forsyth Street
Architect: James Knox Taylor
Construction Dates: 1906-1910
Architectural Style: Second Renaissance Revival
Landmark Status: Individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places and a contributing building within the Fairlie Poplar Historic District
Primary Material: Granite
Prominent Features: Ornate classical exterior; Vaulted lobby ceiling
The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building is a Second Renaissance Revival building that occupies the entirety of a city block in central Atlanta. Its façade faces southeast toward Forsyth Street NW and is bordered by Walton, Fairlie, and Poplar streets on the remaining three sides. Its symmetrical design features round arched windows on the first floor, formal courtrooms on Forsyth Street, and the horizontal division of the building through use of belt courses and intermediate cornices. It incorporates a symmetrical U-shaped design measuring 189 feet eight inches across the façade. The rear of the U, on the Fairlie Street side, originally provided a loading dock adjacent to a one-story post office work area.
The building extends to the sidewalk on all four sides, and the sidewalk is marked by street lighting, concrete planters, and bollards. The façade of the building faces Forsyth Street and features a projecting central section, and single, recessed bays at either end. The base of the building is marked by a coursed, rusticated granite block wall topped by a molded granite water table. Above the water table, the rusticated, coursed stone block base continues with exaggerated joints, and voussoirs and arches marking window and door openings. The first story cornice has an architrave with round plaques and is topped by a frieze featuring a Vitruvian scroll or wave. The Forsyth Street façade is dominated by seven, multi-story, Roman-arched window openings. The lower portion of each opening is marked by a pseudo-balcony with stone balustrade that extends between two adjacent pilasters. Each balcony is placed in front of paired multi-light casement windows surmounted by paired two-light transoms with an elaborate shelf lintel with elaborate ancons (scroll-shaped brackets). Three part transom bars extend above these windows and divide them from the arched top windows, which are fifteen-light replacements of the originals. The arched lintels rise from the pilaster capitals and feature scrolled keystones. Paterae (dish-shaped bas-relief ornaments) are placed between each arch. A molded granite cornice surmounts the window openings. Above this cornice are the openings for the sixth (attic) floor. These consist of rectangular, single-light openings placed between enframed plaques. Many of the plaques are enframed by either fasces or the Caduceus. The fasces, resembling bundled rods with axes, were carried in front of the procession of Roman lawgivers by the Lictor, an official of the Roman Court. Therefore, they represent the rule of law symbolically protecting the Courthouse. The Caduceus, the emblem of Mercury, the Messenger of the Gods, symbolically represents the post office. Such symbols are commonly used on government buildings incorporating court and/or postal functions. The windows and plaques are in turn surmounted by dentils and modillion blocks hanging from the soffit of the primary cornice. The cornice is crowned by terracotta cresting.
The main façade entries are a series of three, two-leaf, doors placed in the center of the Forsyth Street side. Only the central doors are regularly used for access. These single-light doors have brass handles. The paired door openings are surmounted by a grid with ornamental wreath and plaque placed in the arched opening. The flanking doorways contain doorways behind two-leaf, paneled, wood-veneer outer doors.
The Walton and Poplar Street elevations, symmetrical in organization, employ the same basic decorative elements as the façade, though in a less-elaborate fashion. Central two-leaf doorways adjoin stone steps that extend over the exposed basement wall on the north. At the south, the central entrance is accessed by two granite steps. The doors are placed in a round arched surround with a central plaque surrounded by a wreath and trimmed with a garland in the arch head. The doors themselves contain single oblong lights. The surround arch is topped with a scrolled bracket. The remainder of the first story openings has arched windows symmetrically placed. These windows consist of paired casements surmounted by an arched transom.
As on the other sides, the first story is ornamentally separated from the upper stories by an intermediate cornice. This cornice has a reel and bezant architrave, a wave-patterned frieze, and a molded stone corona. Window ensembles are placed between granite pilasters. The lower windows, multi-light, paired casements with paired, two-light transoms, are surmounted by pedimented window hoods supported by ancons. The outer windows have gabled pediments, while the central window has an arched pediment. Each pediment is pierced by a projecting shield. The central windows are deeply set in molded frames with the lintel featuring a banded roll of bay leaves, symbolic of ancient culture such as the bay leaf garland given to Olympic champions, with a central projecting disk. Windows are multi-light paired casements. The upper windows are also deeply set in molded granite frames. These frames feature shelf lintels and ornamental keystones. The windows are paired casements. Flanking the window lintels are projecting carved panels with projecting shields set in front of shallow wave motifs. A deeply projecting dentilled cornice shelters the upper windows. Attic windows are surmounted by a second cornice with modillion blocks and terracotta cresting.
The rear, Fairlie Street, side of the building, is also symmetrical. Its end bays, each three bays wide feature a rusticated granite base with water table, surmounted by a reel and bezant band, surmounted in turn by an intermediate cornice with a wave molding. Window ensembles, identical to those on the sides of the building, are placed between granite pilasters. The lower windows, multi-light, paired casements with paired, two-light transoms, are surmounted by pedimented window hoods supported by ancons. The outer windows have gabled pediments, while the central window has an arched pediment. Each pediment is pierced by a projecting shield. The central windows are deeply set in molded frames with the lintel featuring a banded leaf roll motif with a central projecting disk. Windows are multi-light paired casements. The upper windows are also deeply set in molded granite frames. These frames feature shelf lintels and ornamental keystones. The windows are paired casements. Flanking the window lintels are projecting carved panels with projecting shields set in front of shallow wave motifs. A deeply projecting dentilled cornice shelters the upper windows. Attic windows are surmounted by a second cornice with modillion blocks and terracotta cresting. A chimney stack projects from the west end of the rear elevation.
The central portion of the Fairlie Street side originally contained the loading dock for the post office. This area has been converted to parking. The original gabled canopy survives with its riveted steel construction, lacing and bottom arch. The area below the arch has been enclosed with sheet metal panels and three steel, roll-down doors.
The primary public space in the building was constructed as the post office lobby and adjacent corridors. This space features a series of arches with white marble pilasters. These arches emphasize the barrel vaulted ceiling. Other decorative elements include the marble baseboard, the hanging brass light fixtures with frosted globes and the marbled cornices. The floor was constructed of ten-inch by twenty-inch white marble, while white oak, stained dark was used for doors and woodwork. Two stairways, placed near the Walton and Poplar Street entrances, are constructed with marble steps and wainscoting and brass handrails atop the wrought iron balustrades. The wrought iron balustrades incorporate a Greek key motif. The flooring in the stairways is Georgia marble on the first through fourth floors, and terrazzo at the fifth floor.
Other highlights of the first story corridors include a painted mural placed in the arched panel above the southwestern doorway, a wrought iron gateway with two-size hinged gates with vertical pikes, an ornamental band above the gates, and an arched transom with vertical pikes. Light fixtures, installed during the most recent restoration to capture the character of the originals consists of electroliers with polished brass stems, curved arms, and frosted glass ball globes. No information has been located to identify the artist who painted the mural.
The upper stories and lower story office and hallway spaces have undergone substantial alterations. These alterations typically include dropped acoustical tile ceilings, flush fluorescent light fixtures, utility conduits, gypsum wallboard partitioning, and modern doors. The mezzanine level, installed to provide additional room for postal processing, features steel-framed stairways with rubber treads and a steel floor deck. The partial height sixth story, used primarily for storage, features a gabled roof and exposed roof structure. Some upper story toilet rooms retain original detailing including marble stall partitions set within a brass pipe frame, and paneled wood stall doors.
The Circuit Courtroom features full-height wood paneling with arched windows and doorways, and a coffered ceiling. Paired leather-covered primary doors with oval lights are placed within a pedimented surround that is, in turn, placed within an arched opening. The door opening is bordered by roping, and the doors are surmounted by a transom panel featuring a central plaque with flanking planted branches with berries. The entry is crowned by a pedimented gable. The head of the arch is enclosed with bronze clathri. The wood paneling is marked by bracketed pilasters flanked by panels and surmounted by additional panels with projecting wreaths. The ceiling features a rectilinear coffered ceiling with false beams and joists and applied plaster paterae. Light fixtures with brass link chains and a partially translucent bowl are hung from the ceiling.
The Elbert Parr Tuttle Federal Courthouse was individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places on May 2, 1974. In the nomination, the building was described as “one of the most architecturally important and distinguished buildings of the early twentieth century remaining in the downtown [Atlanta] area.” In addition, the courthouse is a contributing property of the Fairlie Poplar Historic District, listed in the National Register on September 9, 1982. As a handsome example of Second Renaissance Revival architecture, the building conveys its architectural significance under Criterion C of the National Register both on the state and local levels.
Similar in design to numerous other urban courthouse/post offices of its period designed for and by the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, the courthouse does not rise to the level of national significance necessary for National Historic Landmark significance for its architecture.
As discussed in the historical sketch of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and its predecessor court, the court, particularly under the leadership of Chief Judge Elbert Parr Tuttle, played an important role in the legal history of the United States particularly for its role in numerous Civil Rights court decisions that followed in the footsteps of Brown v. Board of Education. Many of these decisions were rendered when Atlanta was still part of the Fifth Circuit, an entity that maintained courtrooms in both New Orleans and Atlanta.
As noted by U.S. Representative John Lewis, the Fifth Circuit helped to “bring about a nonviolent revolution under the rule of law in the South.” Chief Justice Earl Warren cited Judge Tuttle’s role in the court’s civil rights decisions:
Along with his brethren on the Court, Judge Tuttle has devoted unending labor to the mountainous task of assuring the peaceful, orderly, fulfillment under law of the promise of racial equality as swiftly as the processes of justice would permit….During his years as Chief Judge, Elbert Tuttle must be recognized as one of the great judges of the era….[T]he Fifth Circuit has faced the greatest problems of any circuit in the country, and in the explosive race relations cases themselves, Judge Tuttle has combined these administrative talents with great personal courage and wisdom to assure justice of the highest quality without delays which might have thrown the Fifth Circuit into chaos (as cited in Read 1978:182).
The court’s commitment to civil rights predated the landmark Brown v. Board of Education and Tuttle’s ascension to the bench. Among the noteworthy early Fifth Circuit cases argued in Atlanta were Chapman v. King (1946), in which the court struck down Georgia’s all-white Democratic primary, and Screws v. United States, in which a majority found that an African American beaten to death by Georgia law enforcement officers was denied his civil rights.
Following Brown v. Board of Education, the Fifth Circuit used this case as precedent for other civil rights cases. In Tuttle’s words:
We started to enforce Brown in the lower courts and then expanded it from schools to everything else, long ahead of the Supreme Court, by adopting the same principles as Brown. If we didn’t take a forward step in each of these new types of cases that came up under the heading of racial cases, the Supreme Court would have been swamped…we did it only by saying to ourselves, “this is what the Supreme Court will ultimately hold…..
I never had any doubt that what I was doing would be affirmed by the Supreme Court. It was the easiest field of the law I could write in….The truth is, the black person in the litigation I sat in on was entitled to the results he got, under what the Constitution required (as cited in Bass 1981:25).
In November of that same year, he also overturned as unconstitutional three Mississippi laws requiring racial segregation of intrastate passenger bus service (Arsenault 2006:463).
In 1961, Judge Tuttle, newly appointed as chief judge, signed an order requiring the University of Georgia to immediately enroll two African Americans, Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne Hunter. In 1965, the Fifth Circuit reached a decision holding a state court clerk in contempt for willfully refusing to register African American voters (United States v. Lynd 1965). Numerous other decisions rendered by the Fifth Circuit Court in Atlanta demonstrated the Court’s civil rights commitment.
The United States Congress and the National Park Service has recognized the importance of Civil Rights as one of the most important historical themes of the mid-twentieth century United States. While the most obvious elements of the civil rights struggle for African Americans included sit-ins, marches, and nonviolent responses to violence, the Civil Rights movement would have been far more difficult without the legal decisions of courts such as the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits.
The property is being considered for National Historic Landmark listing as part of a Civil Rights Thematic nomination being undertaken by the National Park Service. Based on a preliminary assessment, the Tuttle Building was recognized as having integrity and recommended for further study for National Historic Landmark consideration for two theme studies: public accommodations and school desegregation enforcement. To be eligible for the National Register as a National Historic Landmark, a property must be significant under one or more of the five NHL criteria. Two criteria are applicable to the Tuttle Courthouse:
Criterion 1. Properties that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to, and are identified with, or that outstandingly represent the broad national patterns of United States history and from which an understanding and appreciation of those patterns may be granted.
Criteria 3. Properties that represent some great idea or ideal of the American people.
To evaluate the individual significance of the Tuttle Courthouse on the National level, it will be necessary to review the entirety of the civil rights cases argued in Atlanta during the critical period of the 1960s and to place them in the larger context of civil rights litigation in the period. In addition, because the Tuttle court began less than 50 years ago, to be eligible, the property must meet Criteria Exception 8 of the NHL criteria, and possess “extraordinary national importance.”
Should the GSA seek to pursue individual NHL listing for the Courthouse, it is recommended that one or more scholars of the judicial history of the civil rights movement be consulted to learn their views of the importance of the Fifth Circuit, particularly the Tuttle court, in the judicial history of civil rights in the United States.
The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building has excellent integrity for all of the seven aspects of integrity as defined by the National Register of Historic Places: Integrity of location and setting, integrity of design, materials, and workmanship, and integrity of feeling and association. The excellent integrity of the Tuttle Building reinforces its architectural significance (Criterion C) and its association with Elbert P. Tuttle and his era of landmark Civil Rights cases (Criteria A and B). Most notably, the third floor courtrooms, so central to the judicial drama of this era, have been carefully restored to their original appearance.
The Tuttle Building, located on its original site, remains an important part of the historic commercial core of downtown Atlanta. The surrounding blocks are part of the Fairlie-Poplar Historic District, which is significant for its concentration of c. 1900 commercial architecture and its role in the development of Atlanta and the wider southeast region. The Tuttle Building contributes to and is enhanced by the buildings and streetscapes that reflect the variety of architectural styles and urban setting of early twentieth century Atlanta.
On both the exterior and interior, the Tuttle Building has excellent integrity of design and materials, which represent significant early twentieth century workmanship. The exterior has had only minor alterations, leaving the original form, massing, fenestration, materials, and ornamentation intact. The carved granite masonry and green glazed terracotta evidence local craftsmanship and turn of the century building technology, such as pneumatic hammer chisels which must have been required for the granite ornament. The roof has undergone the most notable alterations, with the removal of dormers and skylight ventilation; however, the original roof line with replacement green clay roof tiles has been retained.
The perimeter site continues to be treated in a simple spare manner, which is consistent with the historic treatment. Street plantings have been added on the north, east, and south, but these remain subordinate to the building. Sidewalk paving and planters are constructed with modern concrete materials that are similar to the original poured-in-place concrete paving. Street lighting has changed and does not match the original cast-iron light poles with globe lights.
The interior has undergone extensive renovations in the 1930s and again in 1984-1987. Important public spaces have been preserved, while some private office spaces retain their original configurations. The two, third floor courtrooms have been well-preserved with minimal alterations to update fixtures and systems for modern courtroom use. Both courtrooms retain original finishes including parquet flooring, carved oak paneling, decorative coffered plaster ceilings, and oak furniture. The third floor courtrooms are excellent examples of early twentieth century workmanship, particularly in the high quality of the carved oak paneling.
The overall form of public circulation, including main corridors and stairways, has been retained throughout with minor alterations such as the installation of carpet in upper floor corridors, the lowering of original ceilings, and some relocation of original glazed wood doors. The majority of the historic materials have been preserved, including Georgia marble wainscot, flooring, and stairs, glazed oak doors and transom lights, and ornamental railings. The mural Allegory of Justice, Agriculture & Industry, located at the southwest end of the first floor main corridor, represents pre-Works Progress Administration era public art works. The images and style reflect turn of the century craftsmanship and iconography. A major alteration to public circulation is the creation of an open clerestory at the first floor main corridor for the Circuit Library space in the basement. A second major change is the alteration of the north and south stairs for fire safety. The historically open elevator shafts have been enclosed and lobbies have been created at each floor level for required fire separation.
In many cases, the secondary private office areas have been changed to accommodate new uses and upgraded systems. Where private office spaces have been altered, an effort has been made to reuse salvage doors and Georgia marble from the original construction and to reproduce historic wood trim and door frames.
The Tuttle Building retains significant original design and historic fabric, which conveys the aesthetics of a turn of the century federal building. The surrounding setting is also intact, placing the Tuttle Building within the greater context of the development of commercial Atlanta in that era. Private office space has been altered on the interior. However, the public experience from the main entrance to the third floor courtrooms remains remarkably unchanged from 1907 to the present.
The excellent overall integrity of the Tuttle Building strongly ties this building to its namesake, Elbert P. Tuttle, Sr. Tuttle and his contemporaries would easily recognize the Tuttle Building on Forsyth Street and feel comfortable navigating the interior spaces.