In 1929, there was an acute need for a new federal building in Montgomery. Federal offices were crowded, outdated, and scattered throughout the city. Congress authorized funding for a new building in 1930, and the government purchased a lot containing the Court Street Methodist Church for $114,000 in 1931. The congregation relocated and the church was razed. The government, which had been authorized under the Public Buildings Act of 1926 to hire private architects, selected Frank Lockwood, Sr., of Montgomery to design the building. James A. Wetmore, acting supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, oversaw the project. Lockwood had completed a number of important projects in Montgomery, including the wings of the Alabama State Capitol and the Carnegie Library. The cornerstone was laid in a Masonic service on July 16, 1932, and the building, which included a post office, was completed and occupied the following year.
In 1978, the post office moved to a new downtown facility. Over time, the remaining tenants required additional space and an annex designed by Barganier Davis Sims Architects Associated, a Montgomery firm, was completed in 2002.
In 1992, the building was renamed the Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse to honor one of the country's most distinguished judges who presided there for nearly three decades. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Frank M. Johnson, Jr., (1918-1999) to the position of district judge for the middle district of Alabama in 1955. Johnson ruled on a series of cases that changed Alabama's system of racial discrimination. In 1956, Johnson ruled that segregated seating on Montgomery's buses was unlawful, justifying the famous bus boycott. He also ruled in 1965 that it was legal for the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery to proceed. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, on which he served until he was appointed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 1981. Judge Johnson assumed senior status in 1991 and remained active until his death.
In 1997, the Annex received the Citation Award from the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Justice. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
The Frank M. Johnson, Jr., Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is located on a parcel of land bounded by Lee, Court, Clayton, Catoma, and Church streets, and the historic Montgomery Bus Station, where a mob attacked the Freedom Riders in 1961. The rising terrain and trapezoidal block give the building a dramatic and commanding site that is intensified by dignified and impressive architecture.
Architect Frank Lockwood, Sr., designed the building in the Renaissance Revival style of architecture. The building's design conveys the dignity and stability of the federal government, which was particularly important during the Great Depression. It does not, however, contain excessive or exuberant ornamentation considered inappropriate for a somber period in American history. The quality materials and craftsmanship inspired confidence as citizens witnessed this major construction effort. Characteristics of the style include the rusticated first story, arched openings, tile roof, and columns and pilasters.
The building is five stories tall and has an essentially U-shaped footprint with an interior lightwell. The first level is clad in large rusticated limestone blocks atop a granite base, and the upper stories are covered in smooth limestone ashlar. The rear elevation is clad in limestone, with the interior of the lightwell clad in buff-colored brick.
The symmetrical principal facade faces Church Street. It is dominated by two pediments at each end that are supported by four monumental engaged Doric columns. A frieze with incised triglyphs and a dentil (rectangular block) course is found beneath the pediments. The Lee Street elevation features a colonnade of eight Doric columns, while the Court Street elevation contains three-story pilasters. Entrances have bronze doors with pediments decorated with eagles and floral scrolls.
Round-arch openings on the first story have articulated voissoirs. Remaining windows on the upper stories are rectangular; those on the second story are topped by either carved surrounds or pediments.
The shallow hipped roof is covered with red terra-cotta tiles. A penthouse originally used as a weather station occupies the roof.
The interior boasts an elaborate L-shaped public lobby on the first floor. The floor is covered with travertine marble trimmed in green Maryland marble. Walls are clad in Briar Hill, Ohio, sandstone, and ceilings are coffered plaster with gold leaf. Original brass postal service windows and bronze grilles remain.
The most significant interior space is the U.S. District Courtroom, where Judge Johnson presided, on the second floor. Limestone arches surround the windows. A stone niche behind the judge's bench is painted with white stars on a blue field. A stenciled wood ceiling, designed in the Italian Renaissance style, tops the room. It was repainted and re-gilded in the 1970s. A fourth-floor appellate courtroom is paneled in black walnut, which was also used in judges' chambers in the original building.
Other original interior spaces include elevator lobbies, judges' chambers, and the district law library. Terrazzo and marble floors, marble wainscot, bronze elevator doors with bas-relief panels, and bronze radiator grilles are found throughout the building.
The Annex, which was completed in 2002, has a radial design that is stylistically compatible with the original building. The Annex contains judges' chambers, district courtrooms, and bankruptcy courts. Between 2002 and 2006, the original building was renovated and the interior spaces reconfigured to accommodate the needs of the court.
1933: Construction completed
1956: Judge Johnson strikes down legality of segregated bus seating
1955: Frank M. Johnson, Jr., appointed District Judge
1965: Judge Johnson rules the Selma to Montgomery march can proceed
1978: Post Office vacates building
1992: Building renamed to honor Judge Johnson
1997: Annex receives Citation Award from the American Institute of Architects Committee on Architecture for Justice
1998: Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places
2002: Annex completed
Location: 15 Lee Street
Architects: Frank Lockwood, Sr.; Barganier Davis Sims Architects Associated
Construction Dates: 1932-1933; 1996-2002
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Primary Materials: Limestone, Granite, and Brick
Prominent Features: District Courtroom, Colonnade
The Federal Building and Courthouse was designed by Frank Lockwood, Alabama's most prominent architect in the early 1900s. It was originally built in 1933 as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse for Montgomery. The building no longer serves as a postal facility, as the Postal Service vacated the building in the 1970s. It is currently occupied by the U.S. courts and other Federal agencies, including the U.S. Attorneys and the U.S. Marshalls offices. Located in Montgomery's Central Business District, this 135,500 square foot building sits on 1.4 acres of land. The three prominent edges of the building are defined by Lee St. to the NE, Church St. to the NW and the Annex Building to the SW (where Molten St. was previously located prior to the construction of the Annex in 2002). The rear edge of the building is defined by a concrete retaining wall which separates the site from the adjacent bus terminal, no longer in use but of historic significance due to its association with the Freedom Riders. The rear of the building is predominantly utilitarian with its reserved parking and loading dock for deliveries. Well maintained areas of grass are enclosed around the site by low granite walls that wrap around the building exterior between entrance stairs. A fairly large lawn occupies the SW end of the site between the Federal Building and the adjacent Annex.
The U-shaped limestone building was built in the Renaissance Revival style. Characteristics of the Italian Renaissance style evident in this building include: 1) a low pitch tile roof, 2) a rusticated ground level, 3) arches above doors and first story windows, 4) symmetrical facades, 5) upper story windows smaller and less elaborate than windows below and 6) entrances accentuated by classical columns or pilasters. In addition, a single projecting wing from the front facade or two projecting wings at either end of a facade with a recessed central block in between is not uncommon for this style. In fact, both occur in this building in the form of entrance pavilions.
Though each elevation is unique, many architectural features are common to all. All primary elevations are divided horizontally into three sections. The lowest section (or first floor) consists of a granite plinth below rusticated limestone delineated by a continuous limestone belt course that wraps around the building at the second floor line. Arched openings at windows and doors, detailed with stepped radiating voussoirs, further distinguish this section. The middle section includes the second, third and fourth floors. This portion is detailed with smooth limestone ashlar and fluted limestone columns or pilasters of Doric order that rise the full three story height. Second floor windows are accentuated with either plain pediments between columns and pilasters or with a plain entablature at other locations. The fenestration of all third floor windows set in limestone consists of stepped radiating voussoirs. The upper section of the building (or fifth floor) is a continuous entablature without windows approximately 8'-6" high that wraps around the limestone facades. Triglyphs, metopes and dentils decorate sections of the frieze above columns and pilasters, while a soffit of mutules and decorative floral carvings wraps around the roof eaves.
Detailing at the rear of the building is more modest. The two end pavilions are clad in limestone and detailed similarly to the primary elevations. The wing adjacent to the Annex has been modified by the construction of a link between the two buildings. The rear walls of the 'U' shaped recess of the building form a Light Court, constructed of a buff color brick. Window sizes are similar to the other elevations; however, no special detailing of fenestration is provided. Fifth floor windows are provided on the Light Court elevations in place of the limestone entablature.
Original spaces on the interior are elaborately detailed and are also generally in excellent condition. The spaces are arranged around a 'U' shaped corridor which terminates at one end in the elevator lobby on all but the 1st floor. Original stairs remain at the NE and SW ends of the building. The NE stair wraps around the elevator core that serves all floors. As part of the 2004 renovation additional enclosed stairs were added.
The most elaborate and certainly the most significant spaces in the building include the public lobby (first floor), the District Courtroom (second floor) and the Court of Appeals (fourth floor). The intricate detailing provided in these original spaces is quite impressive. A colorful floor of marble and travertine, Briar Hill sandstone walls with polished marble pilasters, an 18' high coffered plaster and gold-leaf ceiling, ornamental bronze panel elevator doors and floor indicators, and bronze and marble wall mounted postal tables are just some of the features that contribute to the integrity of the grand first floor lobby. The character of the two-story District Courtroom is comparable to the lobby. Some of the most impressive features here include a trabeated plaster ceiling with elaborate stencil work, 17' high limestone arches around windows and behind the judge's bench, marble and cork tile floors at the judge's bench, wood paneled witness stand and jury box, and a three-level balcony with cork tile and wood floors. The Court of Appeals is less elaborate, but not less impressive with walnut paneled walls and doors, marble and cork tile floors at the judge's bench and clerk's desk, and bronze and opal glass lamps.
Other areas of particular significance include the elevator lobbies on most floors, the second floor corridor, two judge's chambers on the second and fourth floors and the law library for the District Courtroom. Common original features and materials throughout the building include terrazzo/marble floors, marble wainscot, plaster walls (often finished with wall coverings), bronze panel elevator doors, and painted metal office doors with obscure glazing and transoms. Some areas also include paneled wood wainscot and bronze radiator grilles. Finishes at many of the public and private restrooms are also original, including fixtures. Most of the tenant spaces have been renovated with carpeting, acoustical ceiling tiles and new wood chair rails.
The Federal Building and Courthouse in Montgomery, Alabama is significant as an example of Renaissance Revival architecture maintained in excellent condition. It is situated in the Central Business District and exhibits quality architectural craftsmanship through the detailing of its three primary facades, its elaborate public lobby and its original courtrooms. The highly detailed District Courtroom is, furthermore, one of the few courtrooms in existence with a balcony. This building not only represents a stylistic example of quality design and construction of the 1930s, but also exemplifies a place from which judicial decisions have impacted U.S. history.