Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse

Building History

The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Port Huron, Michigan, is located on the south side of the Black River in the central business district. It has the distinction of being the oldest federal building in the State of Michigan still occupied by the federal government; it was built to house some of the government’s oldest agencies. The U.S. Customs Service and the federal judiciary both were created by the first United States Congress in 1789. The U.S. Postal Service was formally established with the 1792 Postal Act.

Settlement of Port Huron, a port community on Lake Huron, began around 1790. The village of Port Huron was formally organized in 1849, and the city incorporated in 1857. In 1871, Port Huron was named the seat of St. Clair County. On June 6, 1887, the Port Huron Commercial newspaper stated that, as a port of entry, Port Huron saw 100,000 immigrants arriving annually. Port Huron served as a gateway to Michigan, the Great Lakes, and the railway network.

In 1872, Congress authorized construction of a building to house the U.S. Customs Service, a post office, and other federal agencies in Port Huron. Alfred B. Mullett, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, designed the building. Construction began in 1873, and the cornerstone was laid on October 8, 1874. It was completed in 1877 at a cost of $200,000, with tenants occupying their new building in May of that year. In 1916, a classical fountain that originally stood in front of the building was replaced with a war memorial. In 1930, Congress appropriated $115,000 for an addition to the building. James A. Wetmore, acting supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury, oversaw design of the one-story addition. Construction of the addition was completed in 1933.

In 1959–1960, the post office vacated the building and, at a cost of $250,000, the first floor was renovated to house the Social Security Administration. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Federal courts continue to occupy the building’s second floor. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection maintains offices in the building.

Architecture

The three-story Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is an example of Renaissance Revival style with Greek Revival influences. Popular from 1820 to 1860, the Greek Revival style is an adaptation of the classic Greek temple front and employs details of the Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian order. Renaissance Revival is known for Italian-influenced elements, finely cut stone block construction, decoratively framed window openings, belt courses between ground and upper stories, and smaller square windows on the top story. The style was most popular between 1840 and 1890. During the 1850s, when Ammi B. Young served as supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury, most new post offices and customs houses built by the federal government were in the Renaissance Revival style.

The load-bearing exterior walls are built of limestone at the ground level and sandstone on the upper three stories. Constructed in 1873–1877, the original portion of the building has front and rear (north and south) elevations divided into nine bays, while the east and west sides contain five bays. The north and south elevations are highlighted by centered three-bay pavilions topped by pediments with dentil-block molding. The north facade originally contained three entrances, but only the center entrance remains, and the flanking entries have been converted into windows. The entry has a half-glass door with sidelights and a square transom, with historic light fixtures to either side. The first- and second-story windows are rectangular, while the third-story windows are smaller and square. Both the window and door openings are trimmed with flat stone arches detailed with egg-and-dart carvings.

A sandstone water table caps the foundation wall. Deeply cut pilasters define the bays on the first story and terminate in Doric capitals at a flat entablature that forms a belt course between the first and second stories. On the second and third stories, the pilasters rise to the base of the low-pitched roof and terminate in simplified Corinthian capitals. A cornice composed of stone brackets and dentil sits atop the pilasters. The building is topped by an octagonal cupola pierced by windows flanked by engaged pilasters and topped with bracketed pediments. The copper-clad mansard roof features oval windows accented with decorative stone surrounds with keystones. In 1986–1987, a $1.15 million exterior restoration and copper roofing project was completed.

The interior features an original cast-iron staircase adjacent to the eastern entrance. It is highlighted by a continuous iron balustrade with a wooden railing and decorative newel posts. The original postal lobby, once stretching the length of the building along the north facade, was completely removed by 1959–1960 renovation work, but was restored in 2008 under the First Impressions Initiative of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). The initiative uses historic building outlease funds to reclaim the architectural integrity of altered entrances and lobbies. Utilizing historic photos, GSA recreated the original lobby volume, architectural details, and ornamentation, reestablishing the building as a community landmark.

On upper stories, the stair lobbies open to corridors leading to offices and courtrooms. The corridors retain wood wainscoting, moldings, and trim with classical details around the doors and windows. Crown molding extends along the ceiling. The remaining interior spaces of the original building and addition have been renovated over the years to accommodate new office uses.

The materials and design of the one-story rear addition, built in 1932–1933, generally match the original building. The west elevation continues the rusticated pilasters and projecting belt course, but is terminated by a flat, stone parapet at the second-story level.

History

1873–1877: Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse constructed

1932–1933: Addition constructed

1974: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

1986–1987: Exterior restoration and copper roof project completed

2007–2008: Postal lobby restored by GSA

Building Facts

Location: 526 Water Street

Architects: Alfred B. Mullet; James A. Wetmore

Construction Dates: 1873–1877; 1932–1933

Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Primary Materials: Sandstone and limestone

Prominent Features: Classically detailed facade; Octagonal cupola with mansard roof
Stone cornice with carved brackets
Original cast iron staircase

Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse

The Original three-story Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse in Port Huron, Michigan was designed by A.B. Mullett, the Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department. The building was constructed from 1873 through 1877 and served as a combined custom house, courthouse, and post office. An one-story addition, designed by James A. Wetmore, the then Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department, was added to the rear of the original three-story, rectangular-shaped building in 1932-1933. The exterior of the building reflects the Greek Revival style of architecture. The site consists of the irregular-shaped lot bounded by Water Street on the north, Customs Place on the east, Sixth Street on the west, and a public parking lot on the south. The site features concrete sidewalks, paved asphalt drives and raised grass/plant areas. The grass areas, on the north side of the building, include a metal flagpole, a memorial stone with bronze plaque commemorating Civil War Veterans, and mature shrubs and trees. The structural system of the building consists of load bearing exterior masonry walls and a combination of load bearing interior masonry walls and a series of cast-iron columns and beams. The exterior walls are limestone at the exposed portion of the foundation/raised basement and sandstone on the upper floors. The original portion of the building was symmetrically designed with the front and rear (north and south) facades divided into nine bays of fenestration, while the shorter side facades (east and west) contained only five bays. The north and south facades were further highlighted by central projecting, three-bay pavilions topped by denticulate pediments. The north facade originally contained three entrances, centered on each portion of the facade. Presently only the center entrance, with a set of sandstone steps, remains. The two flanking entries have been removed with their door openings being converted into windows. A fourth original entry, located in the center bay of the east facade, remains but has been altered by the construction of a concrete and stone access ramp. The rough-faced ashlar limestone foundation wall is partially exposed and contains window openings into the basement level. The openings, protected by metal screens, are located under the upper floor window openings. A flat, projecting sandstone watertable caps the foundation wall and forms a base to the rusticated sandstone facing on the first floor level. Deeply-cut pilasters, which define the bays on the first level, terminate in simple Doric capitals at a flat, unadorned entablature which forms a continuous belt course band around the sandstone masonry. The flat pilasters, separating the window bays, rise two stories to the base of the roof and terminate in simplified Corinthian style capitals. The window openings, recessed between the pilasters, are trimmed with flat stone arches detailed with egg-and-dart carvings and contain two over two wood double-hung window sash. A cornice composed of stone brackets between cut-stone dentil sits atop the pilasters and forms the transition to the low-pitched, copper-clad, hipped roof. The building is topped by an octagonal-shaped cupola with oval-shaped windows and a mansard-style roof. The materials, and for the most part, the design of the one-story, rear addition match the original building. The west elevation of the addition best replicates the original design by continuing the rusticated pilasters and projecting belt course but is terminated by a flat, stone-faced parapet at the second floor level. Other differences include areaways to the basement, fenced with cast-iron railings, and the elimination of the egg-and-dart carvings in the window arches. The northernmost bay on the east elevation also replicates the design and details of the original building and wraps the entire addition. The window spacing on the east and south elevations also depart from the original building and all windows in the addition have been replaced with metal casement sash. A concrete ramp leading to the entrance door is located on the south elevation. The interior of the building features an original cast-iron stairway adjacent to the eastern entrance. The stair lobbies open to double-loaded corridors which lead to the office and courtroom spaces. The original postal lobby, once stretching the length of the building along the north facade, was completely obliterated by the 1959-1960 renovation work. Except for a few select areas, the remaining interiors of the original building and the addition have been modernized with the removal or obscuring of character-defining details and materials.

Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse

The Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse in Port Huron, Michigan is located on the south side of the Black River in the central business district. It faces north across the river and stands among mid-to-late twentieth century buildings.

On June 10, 1872, Congress passed a bill with an appropriation of $200,000 for the purchase of property and the construction of a building to house the U.S. Customs offices, a post office, and other federal agencies. The bill was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. The building was designed under the direction of Alfred B. Mullett, the supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, in the Greek Revival style and was constructed between 1873-1877. Though seemly late for a Greek Revival style building, Mullett is also credited with the San Francisco Mint, another Greek Revival building structure built between 1869-1874. Excavation for the foundations were begun in August of 1873. The cornerstone was laid on October 8, 1874. Construction was completed and the United States Custom House and Post Office was ready for occupancy in May of 1877. The original three-story, rectangular-shaped building measured 113' 10" by 62' 7". In addition to the two major federal agencies mentioned above, the building also contained a district courtroom and provided office space for the U.S. Marshal, the U.S. Commissioner, the Collector of the Internal Revenue, and the Inspector of Hulls and Boilers.

In April of 1930, Congress appropriated $115,000 for the construction of an addition and alterations to the Port Huron building. Plans for the addition were directed by James A. Wetmore, then Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department, which enlarged the building using fairly similar materials and details. Excavations for the addition were begun in August of 1932 and the work was completed the following year. The one-story addition, measuring 113' 10" by 72' 2", increased the area of the postal work room by over 5,000 square feet.

Other alterations occurred in 1959-1960 when the Post Office vacated the building and moved out into new quarters. Congress appropriated $250,000 for renovation work on the 1st floor to house the Social Security Administration. In 1986-1987, an exterior stone restoration and copper roofing project was undertaken at a cost of $1,150,000.

Since its completion, the Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse has been a significant landmark in downtown Port Huron. Originally constructed to house the offices of the "Customs District of Huron" and the postal service, the building has played a role in much of Port Huron's history. The building visually connects the early growth of commerce and trade, that gave prominence to this port city in the middle and late nineteenth century, to the modern community of today.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1873 1877 Original Construction Mullett, Alfred B.