James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals, San Francisco, California

Building History

The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco is considered one of the nation's most beautiful public buildings. Built as the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office at the turn of the twentieth century, it was intended to represent the affluence and increasing importance of the United States as it became a world power.

By the 1870s it became apparent that San Francisco was in dire need of a federal building to house the federal courts and the post office that were located in various downtown buildings. In 1887 a commission delegated to select a site reported that the $350,000 allocated by the U.S. Congress was insufficient and the sum was raised to $1,250,000. The property chosen at Seventh and Mission Streets was more than a mile from the central business district and surrounded by a working-class neighborhood of Irish and German immigrants. Although many disapproved, the lot was purchased in 1891. In 1893 $2,500,000 was appropriated for construction.

U.S. Treasury architects worked on designs for the building, with Supervising Architect James Knox Taylor (1857-1929) playing a lead role. Taylor selected a design influenced by Italian Renaissance architecture with magnificent Beaux Arts grandeur. To achieve the high level of craftsmanship specified for the interior, skilled artisans were brought from Italy. Groundbreaking took place in 1897 and the building opened in 1905 to acclaim as "a post office that's a palace."

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake devastated San Francisco. The U.S. Courthouse and Post Office and the 1874 U.S. Mint designed by Alfred B. Mullett were the only buildings south of Market Street to survive the earthquake and resulting fires. While repairs were made, the Post Office set up collection points around the city with the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office serving as a symbol of hope in the weeks following the earthquake. Restoration was completed in 1910.

The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. In 1989 the Loma Prieta Earth-quake severely damaged the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office. Engineering evaluation started immediately and in 1993 restoration work began, including seismic retrofitting to protect against future earthquakes. The building reopened in 1996 as the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Architecture

The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building reflects the Beaux Arts classicism adopted by the U.S. Treasury Department for early twentieth-century federal buildings. The stylized building is a steel-framed structure clad in white Sierra granite. The magnificent building, with its opulent ornamentation and surface treatments, was exceptionally lavish even at the time of its construction.

The imposing building, echoing the Italian palazzos designed by Bramante and Raphael during the Renaissance, is ornamented with enclosed pediments, balustrades, and rows of arched windows. The beautiful bronze entry lanterns are replicas of the torch-holders designed in 1489 by Niccolo Grosso for the home of Filippo Strozzi, the richest banker in Florence.

Originally, the building was a three-story structure with a fourth story, or attic level, set back from the facade and partially hidden behind the cornice and balustrade. This main block of the building was U-shaped with an interior courtyard. The courtyard was ornamented with geometric patterns of red, white, and blue glazed brick walls and one hundred pink-tongued lion heads along the cornice. In order to provide desperately needed office space to meet the needs of the expanding federal bureaucracy, noted San Francisco architect George Kelham (1871-1936) was commissioned in 1933 to design a four-story addition for the east side of the building, enclosing the interior courtyard. The addition repeats the design of the original facades, although the third and fourth stories are veneered in terra cotta.

Although the building's exterior is impressive in the quality of detail, ornamentation, and material, the elegant interiors are even more exquisite. The post office originally occupied the ground floor with a lobby running the width of the Seventh Street (main) facade. The second floor had offices for court staff and federal agencies, while the third floor contained the ornate courtrooms, judicial chambers, and conference rooms.

Rare and exquisite materials on each of the floors of the building include a range of imported marble, such as Carrara and Yellow Siena from Italy, Pacific Coast Salmon Pink, and Red Numidian from North Africa. The grand first-floor hall, accessible through massive bronze doors, is paneled in black-veined white Italian marble trimmed in green marble from Maryland and Vermont. Marble mosaics adorn the groin-vaulted ceiling. The floor is composed of ceramic-tile mosaic. Stained-glass domes ringed with marble-mosaic tile eagles enhance the rotundas at each end of the hall.

The Great Hall, located on the third floor, is adorned with white marble walls, Doric columns, and a vaulted ceiling beautifully ribbed with gold trimmed plaster ornamentation. This hall leads to Courtroom One, the most elaborate interior space in the building. Originally designed for the U.S. District Court, Courtroom One features Marble mosaics, columns with carved Corinthian capitals, carved fruit motifs, cast-plaster cupids and flowers, and stained-glass windows. In contrast to the opulence of the Beaux Arts designed spaces, the two courtrooms on the second floor of the 1933-1934 addition are designed in the sleek Art Modern style. Detailing in these spaces include the labyrinth-patterned ceiling, cork walls, and gilded plaster eagles.

Additions and renovations took place throughout its history, including an extensive restoration project overseen by Judge Richard H. Chambers during the 1960s. The Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 caused major damage, initiating a $91,000,000 seismic retrofitting and restoration effort. Led by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, the project included the repair, modernization, and restoration of the existing building and the addition of 45,000 square feet of space for a law library and offices in the former Post Office area. The building formally reopened as the U.S. Court of Appeals Building for the Ninth Circuit on October 17, 1996, the seventh anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Significant Events

1887: U.S. Congress authorizes the construction of a courthouse and post office in San Francisco.

1897-1905: The U.S. Courthouse and Post Office is constructed under direction of Supervising Architect of the Treasury James Knox Taylor.

1906: Despite the devastating destruction of San Francisco by an earthquake on April 18th, the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office survives.

1910: Repairs of earthquake damage to the U.S. Courthouse and Post Office are completed.

1933-1934: A four-story wing, designed by San Francisco architect George Kelham, is constructed on the east side of building.

1959: Judge Richard H. Chambers is appointed court custodian and oversees the restoration of the building.

1964: The building is renamed the U.S. Court of Appeals and Post Office.

1971: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1989-1996: Extensive restoration, renovation, and seismic retrofitting of the building are undertaken as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

1996: Building reopens as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

2005: Building renamed during centennial celebrations in honor of Judge James R. Browning, circuit judge for four decades.

Building Facts

Architects: James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the Treasury

East addition: George Kelham

Courtyard addition: Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill

Construction Dates: 1897-1905; 1933-1934; 1993-96

Landmark Status: National Historic Landmark

Location: 95 Seventh Street

Architectural Style: Beaux Arts

Primary Materials: White Sierra granite courtyards and addition clad in white ceramic-faced brick

Prominent Features: Great hall; Courtrooms with marble and mosaic ornamentation

James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals, San Francisco, California

The building is located at the NE corner of 7th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. The four-story plus basement building surrounds a one-story infill courtyard structure and consists of two interconnected structures built roughly 30 years apart. The U-shaped original portion was built in 1905, and extended with rear addition of 1933. Exterior walls are primarily granite ashlar with terra cotta veneer at the 1933 facades at third and fourth floors. Exterior elevations are symmetrical facades in the American Renaissance style.

The original building was 312 feet long parallel to Seventh Street and 265 feet long parallel to Mission Street. At the ground floor level the building was rectangular in form, completely filling the 312 feet by 265 feet area. The building rose three stories along each of the street frontages, with a fourth story set back from the facade and partially hidden behind the building's cornice and balustrade. The upper stories of the building formed a U-shaped plan enclosing an interior court space opening to the northeast. In 1933, the north-eastern end of the interior court was closed by a four-story wing, making the building a four story quadrangle with an interior court. The new Northeast wing matched the original building in floor height, each new floor connecting through to the original building.

The condition of the building following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake does not seem very different from the state of the building after the 1906 earthquake. According to William F. Burke, assistant to the Postmaster at the time, "...walls had been thrown in to the middle of various rooms, destroying furniture and covering everything with dust. In the registry division the handle was broken from the vault by falling bricks, furniture was thrown in all directions and valuable mail lay scattered on the floor. In the main corridors, the marble was split and cracked, while mosaics were shattered and had come rattling down upon the floor. Chandeliers were rent and twisted by falling arches and ceilings."

James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals, San Francisco, California

Completed in 1905 to house San Francisco’s federal courts and main post office, the building had been used exclusively by these two occupants until the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The building has great significance in almost every potential category of conservation for its contextual, historical and architectural merits. One a small number of downtown structures pre-dating the 1906 earthquake and fire, few buildings rival it in terms of scale, quality, or ornamental detail.

As a piece of urban fabric, the building serves as an important anchor in a second-rate neighborhood. Its presence, excellent appearance and condition, along with the U.S. Mint and a few other older occupied and well-maintained buildings south of Market Street provide a link to the past quality of the area, and a glimmer of hope for the future. On a national basis, it is one of only four remaining U.S. Court of Appeals buildings from the turn of the century.

The architect, James Knox Taylor, was the Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, and most influential in the nationwide proliferation of Beaux-Arts Post Offices, Treasury Buildings and other federal structures. The building's exterior facades and interior planning have a stately grandeur that is characteristic of the finest of the American Renaissance style.

The quality of materials, finishes, and ornamentation of the building's public spaces was lavish even for the day. Today, the interior spaces are simply priceless and practically irreplaceable. Many of the original marbles and woods are no longer available. The superb craftsmanship achieved in the extraordinary carved wood and marble mouldings earlier, would be difficult if not impossible to obtain today. The building is without peer in San Francisco, and with the questionable exception of several state capitol buildings, in the western United States.

The remarkable lack of major alterations which the building has seen through 75 years, and the considerable care taken in its upkeep, are also of major significance. Aside from the 1933 wing, which was carefully conceived and executed to preserve the major spaces of the building, the building exists today in very close to its original condition.

The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. A Historic Structure Report was prepared for the building in 1984 and a Building Evaluation Report (BER) in 1990. The structure is considered to be eligible for National Historic Landmark Status.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1897 1905 Original construction. James Knox Taylor
1908 1910 1906 Earthquake Damage Repair Raymond Granite Company
1931 1934 1933 Addition George Kelham
1963 1964 Major Remodel/Rehab for Circuit Court Anshen + Allen