Portland, Oregon, located at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, functions as a vital inland center of trade and distribution. The oldest sections of Portland are centered west of the Willamette, and the Gus J. Solomon U.S. Courthouse—a building of monumental stature and handsome proportions—is located in this area. Commonly referred to as the New Courthouse to distinguish it from nearby Pioneer County Courthouse (1869), the Gus J. Solomon U.S. Courthouse has housed such government offices as the downtown post office, the U.S. District Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and offices for the U.S. Secret Service and branches of the military.
The building was designed in 1929-1931 by native Portland architect Morris H. Whitehouse. Whitehouse developed the plans for the courthouse from directives formulated by federal agencies. Jules Henri de Sibour of Washington, DC, was the consulting architect and James A. Wetmore served as the Supervising Architect of the Treasury.
Ninety-two percent of all contract money available for labor and materials went to Portland and Seattle area firms, providing a solid economic boost to the region. In August 1932, the cornerstone was laid. Included in a metal box within the stone were five Portland daily newspapers, historic documents relating to the building, and a photograph of Whitehouse and the partners of his architectural firm. Construction proceeded smoothly, and a little more than a year later, in September 1933, the new federal courtrooms were officially opened.
In 1989, the Courthouse was given its current name to honor Gus J. Solomon, a judge who served the U.S. District Court for 37 years—longer than any other judge in Oregon. Judge Solomon, who was appointed to his position by President Harry Truman in 1949, was known as a strong advocate of civil rights and freedom of speech.
The Gus J. Solomon U.S. Courthouse occupies an entire block, covering approximately 40,000 square feet. The massive building contains a full first floor only; the central interior space opens into a light court, giving the upper stories of the building a square plan with a hollow center. The exterior of the building is faced with a veneer of light grey Wilkerson sandstone, described as "hard in texture and impervious to water," from Washington State. Characterized in a 1933 Oregonian article as "looming, immense, and impressive," the Courthouse retains its original character.
Designed in the Renaissance Revival style, the building is a study in formalism with touches of Art Deco details. The symmetrical facade is accented with classically inspired details such as the Doric pilasters and the evenly spaced fenestration pattern. Prominent Renaissance Revival details include the rusticated entry level, multi-pane steel casement windows, and the belt course that separates the first level of the building from upper stories. A sandstone frieze with alternating classical triglyphs (groups of three vertical bands) and metopes (interstitial spaces) with Art Deco stylized floral patterns wraps the building. Topping the frieze is an egg-and-dart pattern beneath a moulded cornice. The flat roof features a parapet wall surmounted with scrolled cheneaux (ornamental gutters).
Bronze details are used throughout the Courthouse, most notably on doors, decorative grilles, flagpole bases, and handrails. Principal entrance is gained through the central doorways on the Main Street facade. A repeating star-in-circle motif surrounds the doors, and a garland pattern stretches across the lintel. Surmounting the center door is an Art Deco-inspired eagle with outstretched wings. A modern white marble figurative sculpture by artist Manuel Neri is located east of the main entrance.
Interior public spaces are richly appointed with lavish use of various types of marble. The floor of the foyer is of Brown Nebo Golden Travis marble, veined with natural gold. Surrounding trim is of Pink Kasota Fleuri and Red Nebo Golden Travis marbles. Handsome bas-relief figures memorializing Oregonians who fell in military service in World War I decorate the end walls. The foyer is topped by a plaster cornice and ceiling.
Other impressive interior spaces are the two U.S. District Courts on the sixth story. Brown Nebo Travis Gold marble was used for trim and clock faces. Main doors are covered in leather; walls, cornices, and desks are oak. The decorative coffered ceiling, rosettes, and wall panels are plaster. Nearly full-height windows with oak shutters are located on the exterior walls. Ornate bronze heating grilles, Corinthian columns and pilasters, and glass and bronze lamps are suitably dignified details for the courtrooms.
The post office, which occupied the basement and first floor of the site, moved to other quarters in 1984. The original post office spaces were then renovated for use by the U.S. District Court. Today, the building retains its original character and many original materials and features. The Gus J. Solomon U.S. Courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Architect: Morris H. Whitehouse
Construction Dates: 1932-1933
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Location: 620 SW Main Street
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Primary Materials: Steel frames, reinforced concrete, and sandstone veneer
Prominent Feature: Art Deco interior
1928: Congress allocates $500,000 for the acquisition of a site and $1,500,000 for the construction of the new Federal Courthouse.
1929-31: Morris H. Whitehouse, a local Portland architect, designs the U.S. Courthouse.
1949: President Truman appoints Gus J. Solomon to the U.S. District Court.
1979: The U.S. Courthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
1984: The U.S. Courthouse undergoes extensive renovations, and the U.S. Post Office relocates to another location.
1989: The U.S. Courthouse is renamed to honor Judge Gus J. Solomon.