Jacob Weinberger U.S. Courthouse, San Diego, California

Building History

Fueled by plans to build the Panama Canal, the turn of the twentieth century brought aspirations of prosperity and status to San Diego. Civic leaders who lobbied for the construction of the canal hoped that the promise of increased commerce would establish San Diego as an international trade center rivaling San Francisco. A new federal building was commissioned to showcase San Diego's newfound standing and to provide governmental offices in anticipation of a burgeoning population and urban growth. To attract attention to the city, civic leaders began planning the 1915 Panama-California Exposition to celebrate the successful completion of the canal. The U.S. Courthouse was completed in 1913 and opened in time for the Exposition.

Originally called the U.S. Post Office and Customs House, the building also housed the U.S. District Court, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the U.S. Weather Bureau. When economic crisis followed the outbreak of World War I, urban development in San Diego decelerated, halting plans to construct additional civic buildings adjacent to the U.S. Courthouse. Instead, the Courthouse's large front lawn was converted to a "victory" vegetable garden to support the war effort.

When prosperity was renewed during the 1950s and 1960s, the Courthouse's caseloads became the heaviest in the nation, requiring a new Federal building complex, which was completed nearby in 1976. Even though the Courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, it was abandoned for the following decade. Attention refocused on the building in 1985, when much of the interior was gutted for conversion to INS offices. That same year, however, champions of historic preservation campaigned to restore the building. In 1994, an award-winning renovation and restoration project renewed the historic lobby and main courtroom to their original beauty while creating new offices and courtrooms that evoked the elegant style of the 1913 period.

Architecture

The Jacob Weinberger U.S. Courthouse masterfully melds two distinct architectural styles--Classical Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival--in a public building that speaks of San Diego's Hispanic heritage and its American ambitions. James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, described his design for the building as, "an adoption of the Spanish Renaissance, a style suitable to the traditions of the country--the history of the state, the climate and the desires of the people--it would follow the Mission style." Taylor's design resulted in an unprecedented amalgamation that quickly achieved regional prominence.

Occupying the northern half of the city block along West F Street, the T-shaped building is constructed of stucco-covered brick masonry walls resting on a limestone base, with steel columns and beams to support reinforced slab floors.

The portico, with its grand Ionic colonnade, stands as San Diego's only surviving Classical Revival facade. The portico's ten concrete columns rise two stories to Ionic capitals sheathed in terra-cotta, supporting a terra-cotta-tiled entablature. Flattened, abstracted classical ornamentation for the frieze draws from traditional Meso-American or Native American designs, featuring stylized arrow and shield motifs. Arched semicircular fanlights surmount first-story windows, and bracketed iron lanterns flank the central entrance. The second-story fenestration is simpler, with rectangular windows and terra-cotta sills. Above the portico, the third-story windows are each framed with low-relief pilasters with stylized motifs and a terra-cotta-tiled stringcourse. The attic windows are capped by an additional tiled cornice and painted wood panels below a bracketed eave to the low-hipped roof clad with terra-cotta tiles. Framing the portico are two square, five-story Spanish towers that are simply treated at the lower stories, with curved corners and colossal low-relief pilasters. A stringcourse above the third story delineates a fourth-story belfry with a tall arched window at each side, flanked by low-relief pilasters and brackets. A terra-cotta cornice and a stucco parapet continue the classical stylization at the top of the tower walls.

Through the mahogany entrance doors, the grand public lobby features the 1994 renovation's re-creation of the original post office lobby, which was adapted into the lobby of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In keeping with the original fabric, the renovation architects worked from original shop drawings to restore missing historic elements. The terrazzo floor, including the Verde Antique marble and Lyonaisse Red marble bands and baseboards, and the Kasota Yellow-colored marble used for the wainscoting were artfully restored. Key features include the twin-globe sconces lining the walls, pendant lighting hanging from the coffered ceiling, and mahogany counters with bronze grilles above. Replicas of the original iron-cage elevators located in both towers are enclosed by the original gray marble stairs. Several pieces of 1930s Works Progress Administration art, with San Diego themes, were installed after the 1994 renovation. These include a ceramic sculpture by T.J. Dixon and James Nelson, titled The Immigrants, and two paintings on the third-floor, San Diego Harbor by an unknown artist and San Diego Mural by Belle Baranceanu.

The ceremonial second-floor courtroom, where Judge Jacob Weinberger presided, features a 20-foot coffered ceiling with acanthus leaf detailing, pilasters, plastered paneling, oak paneling and marble counters for the judge and clerk benches, and the jury boxes. A new law library was added during the 1994 restoration, using materials and motifs that faithfully recall the original building details. Awards for the skillful restoration project included a prize from the California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. In 1995-96, the building was named the Historical Office Building of the Year by the Building Owners and Managers Association.

Significant Events

1906: Congress appropriates $250,000 for the new Federal building in San Diego.

1911-13: The building is constructed.

1975: The U.S. Courthouse is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1976: A new Federal Courthouse and Office complex is completed, leaving the courthouse vacant until the mid-1980s.

1985: A campaign to restore the building for use by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court begins shortly after interiors are destroyed for conversion into Immigration and Naturalization Service offices.

1988: The U.S. Courthouse is renamed in honor of Judge Jacob Weinberger.

1994: An award-winning renovation is completed, returning the historic lobby and main courtroom to their original state.

1994-96: GSA is honored with numerous awards for the building's preservation and restoration.

Building Facts

ARCHITECT: James Knox Taylor

CONSTRUCTION DATES: 1911-13; 1994 renovation

LANDMARK STATUS: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

LOCATION: 325 West F Street

ARCHITECTURAL STYLE: Spanish Colonial Revival-influenced Classical Revival

PRIMARY MATERIALS: Stucco-covered brick masonry with steel beams, terra-cotta ornamentation

PROMINENT FEATURES: Colonnaded portico, square towers

Jacob Weinberger U.S. Courthouse, San Diego, California

The Jacob Weinberger U.S. Courthouse was originally symmetrical, shaped like a T with two vertical stems instead of one. The horizontal bar at the top of the T was the main bar of the building along "F" Street and the two vertical stems were the wings which front on Union and State Streets. The building, five stories in height (including the basement), occupies the north half of its full city block site. As the U.S. Courthouse was the most prominent building in a newly-developing area when it was built, its design did not respond to contextual architectural cues, but rather attempted to create them for other important buildings that local leaders hoped would be constructed nearby. Other significant government buildings in the area followed after World War II, and they do not relate to the courthouse or its siting.

The primary facade of the courthouse, on the north side facing West "F" Street, is 160 feet long, with side wings extending 76 feet along Union and State streets. Two five-story square towers with chamfered corners project slightly beyond the main rectangular mass on the West "F" Street side; between the towers are steps to a raised two-story portico supported on columns with Ionic capitals. The two wings extend from the main mass south toward "G" Street, forming a space like a courtyard. The main mass and the wings rise full-height; at the basement and first floor (where the post office work room was originally located) the building also occupies the entire courtyard space between the wings, while at the second through fourth floors half the courtyard space between the wings is occupied by the building interior and the other half is exterior space above the first floor roof. The main bar has a hip roof with dormers and the two wings have gabled roofs, while the towers and the courtyard infill have less visually prominent low-slope roofs.

The original plan of the building matches the massing, with a primary corridor running east-west along the length of the main bar of the building, large spaces in the center of the building along the primary corridor and the courtyard zone, and the wings divided into various smaller rooms connected to the primary corridor by secondary corridors. The main entry is at the center of the portico on the first floor, with secondary entrances at the ends of the main mass. These entrances originally gave access to the post office lobby, which served both as building lobby and the public area of the post office. The floors are connected by stairways in the towers at the two ends of the main mass of the building. The basement and the fourth floor were originally occupied by work areas and service rooms, with no primary spaces or corridors.

The building has reinforced concrete floor slabs, supported by steel beams. Steel columns support the beams at the interior of the building and unreinforced brick bearing walls support the beams at the exterior. The hip and gable roofs are framed with wood rafters and sheathing and the low slope roofs are concrete slabs with steel beams. The exterior walls of the building are 18-inch-thick brick with heavy-textured stucco, resting on 12-inch reinforced concrete footings. Original interior walls were hollow clay tile construction.

The hip and gable roofs are covered in Mediterranean tile and the original low-slope roofs are surfaced with sheet metal (the low slope roof at the southeast addition is covered in asphalt roll roofing). Exterior ornamentation is predominantly of terra cotta, which occurs at window sills and string courses above second and third floor windows. A decorative terra cotta frieze, with arrow and shield motif occurs above the Ionic terra cotta column capitals on the West "F" Street facade. Terra cotta caps also occur at parapets and gables, in string coursing above arched windows at the corner towers on the north side of the building and at flat plaster capitals and bases. First floor windows and doors of the main bar and wings and fifth floor windows of the corner towers are arched, while the rest of the windows in the building are rectangular. Original windows were wood casements; most have been replaced with wood double-hung units.

Jacob Weinberger U.S. Courthouse, San Diego, California

The building, originally known as the U.S. Post Office and Custom House, figured in the history of the establishment of a new town center in San Diego, a struggle culminating in 1871 in the removal "in the dead of night" of county records to "New Town." The site of the building was part of an addition commonly called "Davis' New Town," surveyed in 1850 and approved by the alcalde (mayor) the same year. Listed as one of two surveyors was A. B. Gray, head of a surveying party for the U.S. Bounds Commission to fix the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico; another surveyor was Lieut. T. D. Johns, who had come to San Diego to select a site for an army barracks and was persuaded to locate it in New Town. The square block (surrounded by Union, State, West "F", and West "G" streets) chosen for the barracks was turned over by the War Department in 1908 to the Department of the Treasury for the sum of $15,000. By the time plans for the U.S Post Office and Custom House were drawn, San Diego city and county offices occupied land adjoining the site; the former town center had been abandoned. Today the building is one of the few remaining major buildings built in the downtown area in preparation for the Panama-California Exposition, which opened in San Diego in 1915 to celebrate the construction of the Panama Canal. The building was the first one in San Diego built by the federal government as permanent quarters for the Post Office and the Customs Service. It was also the first permanent location in San Diego for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and for the U.S. Circuit and District Courts. The U.S. Weather Bureau, the U.S. Forest Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Animal Husbandry were also initial occupants.

The style of the building is significant because it has the only remaining classical revival facade in San Diego. It is also significant for the unusual and skillful blending of the Classical and Spanish Colonial revival styles, the latter seen in the towers, arched openings, deep reveals, tile roofs and other Mediterranean style features. The outstanding classical element in the design is the 70-foot long raised two-story portico between two projecting towers, supported by concrete columns with Ionic capitals. Originally, it provided entry to the Post Office Lobby, which along with the original courtroom on the second floor, were the primary spaces in the building.

The architect listed on the plans is James Knox Taylor, supervising architect of the Treasury. Others in the supervising architect's office who played a role in the design of the building were Oscar Wenderoth, Louis Adolphe Simon and Warren Garfield Noll. The working drawings for the building were approved by structural engineer E. C. Heald on 11 March 1911. The building was officially dedicated in early April, 1913, and cost $763,000.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1911 1913 Original Construction James Knox Taylor/Oscar Wenderoth
1916 Grounds landscaped; designer: George Burnap, L.Arc Kate Sessions
1927 Basement & First Floor Addition (Southeast Corner) W.P. and J.T.
1938 Alterations: Second Flr. Courtroom, Mailing platfm L. J. Chesnow
1950 Alterations - 2nd Floor Courts - Judges' Offices Walker
1953 Remove First Floor Skylights Original P.O. Wk. Rm. Giusti
1955 Add new courtroom on third floor; add parking Giusti
1960 Build new courtroom in existing space, first floor Williams Lumpkins, AIA
1968 Remodel interior: "Redwood" first floor courtroom Walter M. Sondheimer, AIA
1968 ARSON-Burglars set fires in 2 courtrooms. Unknown. Cost is amount of damage.
1986 1987 Asbestos abatement & demolition for new INS office Macy, Henderson & Cole AIA
1989 1991 Renovation for U.S. Bankruptcy Courts Hallenbeck, Chamorro & Associates