James A. Walsh U.S. Courthouse, Tucson, Arizona

Building History

The James A. Walsh U.S. Courthouse was constructed during 1929-1930 as a U.S. Post Office and Courthouse. Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury, James A. Wetmore, designed the building in 1928-1929. Planning for the building began in 1910, when the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill authorizing the purchase of a site for a new post office in Tucson. That was the same year that the statehood bill, discussed since Congress deemed Arizona worthy of statehood in 1888, finally passed the House of Representatives. Still, Arizona did not become a state until 1912. It would be another twenty years before the building was constructed.

When the Treasury Department failed to act, the city purchased the site recommended by the federal site agent who visited Tucson in 1911, and the city donated the property to the federal government. Delays continued because by this time Congress had instituted a moratorium on construction due to negative publicity surrounding the awarding of building contracts. In the interim, the federal government leased out the land and a gas station and other businesses occupied the parcel. Congress lifted the construction moratorium in 1926. The appropriation for design and construction of the building occurred in 1928.

Scheduled for completion in December 1930, the building was completed ahead of schedule, and opened for business on September 19, 1930. The post office operated in the building until 1974. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In 1985, the building was renamed in honor of James A. Walsh, who served as a federal district judge from 1952 to 1981. For the first eighteen years of his tenure Walsh was the only judge in the U.S. District Court in Tucson.

The U.S. District Court moved out of the Walsh Court-house in 2000 into the newly completed Evo A. DeConcini Courthouse in Tucson. In 2002, a remodeling project was begun in order to accommodate the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, which would be the new long-term tenant of the building. After the first phase of the project was completed, the Bankruptcy Court moved in and remained in the building during the second phase of construction, completed in 2008.

Architecture

The James A. Walsh U.S. Courthouse is a well-executed, well-preserved example of the Neoclassical architectural style. The building was designed in 1928-1929 by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, then under the direction of Acting Supervising Architect James A. Wetmore. The Walsh building is a neoclassical arrangement modified by a Mission-style roof. The neoclassical style is characterized by symmetry of plan, frontal arrangement, monumental proportions, and flat, smooth or polished stone surfaces. The Treasury Department favored neoclassicism as the appropriate architectural style for most of the federal buildings constructed during this time period. However, the Mission-style variations on the building are used to moderate the rigid neoclassical lines while acknowledging the local building tradition.

The decoration of the building is understated, but the primary (south) facade of the building is the most elaborate in ornament and detail. It is lavishly finished with terracotta sheathing, which is contrasted by small amounts of brickwork in the two end bays. Two tiers of superimposed rows of pilasters dominate this facade. The entablature of the lower tier bears the words United States Court House. Each level features six engaged columns with stylized Composite capitals. There are stylized eagles above each of the fourth floor windows, and other terracotta ornaments are visible on this facade. There are two large entry doors for the building, one at either end of this bay and each featuring a classical surround with a flat pediment. At either end of the central bay are brick-faced bays framed by terracotta quoins. The other elevations are relatively unembellished, although the east front gained some significance when the main entry door was moved to this side in the recent remodeling project. The exterior exhibits a high degree of its original character, with only minimal alterations evident.

A post office originally occupied the first floor and remained there until 1974. When the post office moved out, the first floor post office workroom was remodeled for use as a courtroom, and the original main post office lobby was converted into a jury assembly room. The original skylight in the postal workroom was covered, and the lobby was broken up into smaller spaces. The recent renovation project restored the main lobby to its original open configuration and preserved many of its original elements and finishes, including the terracotta tiled, basket weave patterned floor, the plaster walls, the marble wainscots and floor borders, and the ceilings with molded plaster crowns. The former postal workroom now serves as an intake area for the Courts. The original postal workroom skylight was enclosed, but two new belvedere skylights, which allow natural light into the space but significantly reduce heat gain, were installed.

The second, third, and fourth stories consist of corridors around the light well, each of which contains a mixture of offices and courtroom spaces. The most significant interior space is the main courtroom, located on the southern side of the third and fourth floors. The space retains many of its original elements, including the wood-beamed ceiling with stenciled patterns, original wainscoting, plaster walls, and wooden window and door frames and surrounds. The historic courtroom was a primary focus of the second phase of the recent renovation project. Inappropriate non-historic light fixtures were replaced with more compatible fixtures, the stenciled ceiling received conservation treatment, and the judge's bench and jury box were reconfigured to meet the needs of the Bankruptcy Court. This building is the best-preserved example of Tucson's Depression-era architecture.

History

1929-1930: Building constructed

1970s: Post Office moves out of building and first floor altered for other uses

1983: Listed in National Register of Historic Places

1985: Building renamed in honor of James A. Walsh

2000: U.S. District Court vacates building

2002: Major renovation project begun to accommodate U.S. Bankruptcy Court

2003: U.S. Bankruptcy Court moves into building

2008: Renovation project completed

Building Facts

Location: 38 South Scott Avenue

Architect: James A. Wetmore

Construction Dates: 1929-1930

Architectural Style: Neoclassical

Landmark Status: Listed in National Register of Historic Places

Primary Materials: Granite, brick, and terracotta

Prominent Features: Terracotta tiles resembling limestone; Classical facade with terra-cotta ornamentation; Courtroom with wood-beamed ceiling and decorative accents

James A. Walsh U.S. Courthouse, Tucson, Arizona

The U.S. Courthouse, originally the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, is located in the business and commercial center of the desert city of Tucson. This area is characterized by low- and medium-rise commercial and institutional buildings of varying ages designed in most of the architectural styles popular since the 1880s. The courthouse, located at the northwest corner of Broadway and Scott Streets, is one block south of the busiest street in the central business district and in close proximity to an historic bank, hotel and commercial buildings. Directly across Broadway from the 1929-30 courthouse is a modern mid-rise office building which serves as the District Court annex (leased for the district Court) and is called Building No. 2. The courthouse and the leased annex are linked at the second story by means of an enclosed pedestrian bridge that spans Broadway.

The primary facade of the historic courthouse is oriented south toward Broadway, which is the busier of Broadway and Scott Streets. The small size of the site coupled with the demands of the building program resulted in the design of a building which, except for a small parking area to the west, fills the entire site. The courthouse fronts directly on the sidewalks, unlike most federal buildings from this period which are set back behind narrow strips of lawn. A public alley oriented east-west behind the courthouse provides access to the parking lot.

The exterior of the building is little altered from its original condition. Measuring 141'2" on its north and south elevations and 115'4" on its east and west elevations, the courthouse is treated as a simple four-story polygon with shallow projecting wings The structure is reinforced concrete with a pan-type concrete floor and roof system. The roof is predominantly a flat composition-clad roof terminating in terra cotta tile-clad pent roofs which give the illusion of a truncated hip roof.

Basically a brick box, the end bays of the east and west elevations and the entrance bays of the south elevation advance beyond an otherwise consistent wall plane to create corner pavilions in the Classical tradition. It is the Classical massing and detail that typifies it as one of many designed by the office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury.

The primary elevation on Broadway Street is symmetrically composed above a granite base. The five central bays and the projecting entrance bays are clad in light-colored glazed terra cotta which resembles ashlar limestone. The end bays, recessed behind the entrance bays, are clad in orange, cream and beige-colored brick with terra cotta quoins. The use of different textures and materials and the verticality of the end and entrance bays were employed to offset the horizontality of the overall form of the facade and the strong horizontal lines of the entablatures under the third story windows and at the roof line. Classical details, superposed orders of pilasters and aediculae surrounding the entrances, were cast in terra cotta to resemble carved stone.

The north, east and west elevations are extremely spare. Clad in brick, these elevations terminate in projecting end bays containing either a window or a door at the ground floor surrounded by an aedicula. Ornamental terra cotta was used in very limited quantities for the entablatures, quoins, aedicula, ornamental panels and lug sills.

The exterior retains a substantial amount of historic design and physical integrity. The bridge linking this courthouse with the courthouse annex across the street, new windows and the solar screens constitute the major exterior alterations.

The interior has been altered more extensively and more often than the exterior to meet the needs of changing federal tenants. Originally, the building housed all the federal agencies represented in Tucson. The major tenants, the post office and the judiciary, occupied the first, third and most of the fourth floors. The offices of smaller federal agencies were situated on the second and fourth floors. Now occupied entirely by the judiciary, the first floor post office lobby and workroom were subdivided and converted to new uses in the mid-1970s. The first floor District Court Room, occupying the central portion of the original post office workroom, dates to this period. The second, third and fourth floors are organized as double-loaded corridors with perimeter offices surrounding a central light well. The two-story District Court Room on the south side of the third and fourth floors interjects a slight variation in the floor plans. The most important room in the building, this courtroom is embellished with stenciled ceiling girders and beams and wood wainscoting and door trim. The two fourth floor Hearing Rooms were created from typical offices and these modifications are not considered historic.

James A. Walsh U.S. Courthouse, Tucson, Arizona

The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, renamed in 1985 as the James A. Walsh U.S. Courthouse in memory of the Honorable James A. Walsh, is significant to the city of Tucson, Arizona, for its historical contributions to American architecture and local politics and government. (The building shall herein be referred to by its historic name.) Architecturally, the courthouse is representative of the eclectic revivalism which distinguished most public buildings designed by the office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department during the 1920s and 1930s. The courthouse was the most refined example of Tucson's Depression-era architecture and was intended to serve as an exemplar of good taste for private buildings from this period. As the first federal building erected in Tucson as part of an extensive public building program initiated during the late 1920s by the Hoover administration, the courthouse served as a source of civic pride for the city and a local symbol of the federal government.

Although the courthouse was completed in 1930, land acquisition was begun two decades earlier. On June 25, 1910, the U.S. House of Representatives, at the urging of Arizona Congressman Ralph A. Cameron, approved a bill authorizing the acquisition of a site in Tucson for the construction of a post office and courthouse. The following year, the Treasury Department dispatched a Site Agent to examine several potential sites and, as a result of this visit, the existing site was selected. After waiting in vain for four years for the Treasury Department to acquire the property, Tucson, hoping to expedite the process, purchased the site and gave it to the federal government.

The Tucson courthouse was to have been one of hundreds of structures built across the country during a fifteen-year building program pursuant to the first of several pieces of omnibus buildings legislation enacted in 1902. During the first quarter of the twentieth century, expanding towns and cities throughout the United States clamored for political spoils in the form of post offices and courthouses. Increasingly vociferous criticism of pork barrel politics dampened the enthusiasm of Congress for new building projects and by the mid-1910s the building program was halted. A federal building moratorium was imposed in 1913, before the Tucson building site was acquired and transferred to the federal government. As a consequence of the delay, the site was leased to private interests for use as a gas station and parking lot until the late 1920s when the moratorium was lifted (1926) and the appropriation for the building was approved (1928).

The Tucson post office and courthouse was part of an enormous federal building program initiated in 1926 by Congress and the Hoover administration during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The original authorization for the building program, $165 million over an eleven-year period, was greatly expanded as the Depression deepened. During the 1920s and 1930s, approximately 1300 new federal buildings were erected, almost doubling the number under the aegis of the Treasury Department. Although still a vehicle for Congress to dole out political presents, the building program served certain pragmatic purposes: it was designed to reduce the costs incurred for leasing space for rapidly growing federal government and it served, during the last years of the Depression, as a make-work project for the local unemployed.

The courthouse was designed by the Supervising Architect's office of the Treasury in late 1928. The 1926 Congressional authorization of the federal building program renewed long-dormant animosities between the Supervising Architect's office and the private sector which, beleaguered by the Depression, objected vehemently to the in-house design of federal buildings.

There were stylistic differences as well between the public and private sectors. At one extreme was the Supervising Architect's office, which continued to advocate Classicism as the appropriate symbolic expression for public buildings. The office executed hundreds of Classical revival buildings during the 1920s and 1930s under the direction of the Superintendent of the Architectural Division, Louis A. Simon. Simon was a stylistic traditionalist who succeeded James A. Wetmore as Supervising Architect--the Treasury Department's last. At the other end of the spectrum were private sector architects who advocated primarily the non-historicist and sometimes rather spare Art Deco and Moderne styles. Between the two extremes were architects who designed, often eclectically, in a variety of styles, sometimes compromising between Classical and modern trends to create what is now called "starved Classicism."

The Tucson courthouse, one of many in the country designed by the staff of the Supervising Architect, exhibits the synthesis of stylized Classical elements characteristic of the buildings designed by the staff architects in the 1920s and 1930s. The construction drawings were completed in March 1929 and bids for construction were solicited in May. In April, the contract was awarded to a Texas construction company, the Robert E. McKee Company of El Paso. McKee was a large construction company that built federal buildings throughout the country. On August 12, ground was broken for the building by Mrs. Allie Dickerman, the Tucson postmaster. Slated for completion at the end of December 1930, the courthouse was finished ahead of schedule and opened for business on September 19, 1930.

The half-million dollar post office and courthouse represented a fulfillment of two decades of local effort to consolidate federal offices into one structure. The building was and is today a symbol of the federal presence in Tucson.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1929 1930 Original Construction James A. Wetmore, Acting Supervis'g