The John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building originally served as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse. In 1908, the New York architectural firm Hale and Rogers won a design competition for the building and U.S. Treasury Department officials approved their plans in 1909. Workers broke ground later that year on the site, which encompasses the block bounded by Lafayette, Camp, Magazine, and Capdeville streets overlooking Lafayette Square. Construction of the elaborate building took many years; the date 1912 is incised on the frieze on the Lafayette Street side, but the interior was not finished until 1915, with employees occupying their offices the following year. Originally, the post office occupied the entire first floor, while the Federal District Court and Court of Appeals were located on the second floor. Executive Branch agencies were on the third level.
In 1961, needing additional space, the post office moved to a new facility. Two years later, the courts also vacated. The building was unoccupied until 1965, when it served as a public high school for three years after Hurricane Betsy destroyed McDonough 35 High School. Between 1971 and 1972, the federal building underwent an extensive restoration. Upon completion, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals returned to the building as its only tenant. The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and has since been featured in several films and television shows.
In 1994, the building was renamed to honor John Minor Wisdom, a respected judge who served on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals from 1957 until his death in 1999. Wisdom strongly promoted civil rights and issued landmark decisions that supported school desegregation and voter rights. In 1993, President William Jefferson Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, wind and rain damaged the building, but there was no flooding. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals judges and staff briefly relocated to other cities and towns in the region because of damage and power outages, but returned to the building in December 2005 when the issues were resolved.
The John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building is an excellent example of the Italian Renaissance Revival style of architecture. During its construction, author Russell F. Whitehead called the building "the most important public building of the New South." Regional building materials were used throughout, including Mississippi and Louisiana pine, Tennessee and Georgia marble, and Louisiana gum.
The monumental three-story building is faced in white Cherokee, Georgia, marble atop a gray granite base. The first story is articulated with deeply incised horizontal striations while the marble on the upper stories is cut in smooth ashlar blocks. Round-arch openings dominate the first story. Dramatic colonnades with Ionic columns are on the Camp and Magazine street elevations and support a cornice inscribed with the names of past Chief Justices of the Supreme Court.
Projecting corner pavilions rise slightly above the roofline; each pavilion contains an ornate arched opening flanked by marble columns, both freestanding and attached, that are striated to match the pattern on the street level. The columns support entablatures that include classical balustrades. Windows with ornately carved hoods featuring split pediments and eagle-and-shield motifs are directly above the arched openings. Ionic pilasters separate windows on the upper stories of the pavilions. A balustrade runs between each of the pavilions at the roofline, topping the recessed portion of each elevation. Other exterior elements typical to the Italian Renaissance Revival style of architecture include classical features such as pediments, triglyphs, and dentils, which are interspersed with foliated and floral designs. A unique detail is the arch keystones that have carved fish-scale patterns.
Perhaps the most striking exterior features of the building are the groupings of four colossal statues placed at each of the building's corners. These identical copper and bronze sculptures are called History, Agriculture, Industry, and Arts, but are popularly known as "The Ladies." Each figure holds an item associated with the concept it represents. History wears a bonnet; Agriculture holds a cornucopia; Industry holds a tool; and Arts holds a flower. The figures are seated around an armillary sphere banded by the signs of the zodiac. Each sculpture is twelve feet high and weighs one ton. The renowned Piccirilli Brothers, expert marble carvers who also executed Daniel Chester French's statue of President Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, created "The Ladies" from drawings by architect James Gamble Rogers.
The emphasis of the 1971 to 1972 restoration effort was on the impressive public interior spaces, which were returned to their original grandeur. The first floor lobby, known as the Great Hall, is an L-shaped space with marble columns that support an elaborate bronzed castplaster vaulted ceiling. The ceiling is richly decorated with bas relief floral medallions and motifs, geometric key designs, and allegorical figures. Spherical lights are held in place by bronze pendant fixtures that descend from the vaulted ceiling. The court's law library occupies the original postal work area on the first floor.
Three courtrooms, each with an entry lobby with marble wainscot walls, are located on the second floor. The courtrooms are paneled in polished gum wood and bronze chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Distinctive wall sconces that feature large white globes supported by either cast-bronze eagles or snakes illuminate the spaces. The central courtroom is perhaps the most impressive. Called the En Banc courtroom, it was designed to seat all of the active judges on the Court of Appeals simultaneously so that they can hear important cases together. The plaster ceiling features medallions and other symbols and has been finished with a bronze glaze.
1909: Construction commences
1912: Roof sculpture installed
1915: Construction completed at a cost of $2 million and building occupied
1961: Post office vacates building
1972: Restoration completed
1974: Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places
1994: Building renamed to honor John Minor Wisdom
Location: 600 Camp Street
Architect: Hale and Rogers
Construction Dates: 1909-1915
Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance Revival
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Primary Materials: Marble
Prominent Features: Colonnades; Great Hall; "The Ladies" sculptural groupings
The exterior of the building was carefully described by New Orleans architect Samuel Wilson, Jr., FAIA in the March 26, 1973 Nomination Form for the National Register of Historic Places:
"This is a large rectangular three story building of white marble on a gray granite base. The four corners are emphasized by slightly projecting corner pavilions surmounted by stepped copper roofs and surmounted by sculptural groups, each composed of four female figures supporting a globe. The building is in the Italian Renaissance style, the principal facade facing Lafayette Street with identical side facades facing Camp and Magazine Streets. The rear elevation on Capdeville Street formerly contained the post office loading platform on the first floor. There are two light courts, roofed above the ground floor level with skylights and with windows admitting light to the center second floor courtrooms and to the surrounding corridors of the second and third floors.
"The first floor is heavily rusticated, with fifteen deeply recessed arched openings between the end pavilions on the front and seven similar ones on the two side elevations. The end pavilions on each elevation each contain a single arched opening on the first floor surrounded by a frontispiece treatment of two free standing rusticated columns supporting a decorated Doric entablature and balustrade. The window above has an elaborate enframement with consoles and a curved broken pediment with sculptured shield, helmet, etc. The upper stories of each end pavilion are divided into three bays by Ionic pilasters extending through the two stories and supporting the main entablature of the building, the frieze of which is inscribed with names and dates of former Chief Justices of the Supreme Court. The cornice is ornamented with dentils and modillions. This entablature extends entirely around the building, with a paneled parapet above it on the end pavilions, with an open balustrade between the pavilions.
"The walls of the second and third stories of the Lafayette Street elevation have casement windows centered over the first floor openings, those on the second story being tall casements with molded architraves and marble balustrades and having alternate curved and triangular pediments supported on consoles. The center window has a sculptured shield and flag pole support set into the pediment. The third story windows are nearly square casements with molded enframements and carved shields as key stones. The balustrade, at the center of the facade above the third story, is embellished with sculptured shield and helmet.
"The two upper stories on the Camp and Magazine Street sides of the building have colonnades of eight free standing marble Ionic columns, on pedestals with open balustrades. The three center bays of each colonnade have three large circular head windows that admit light into the courtrooms that extend through the two upper stories."
The rooftop sculptures are well described in this extract from the Florida Bar Journal Vol. 47, No. 7, July, 1973 by Leslie A. Steele:
"The summit lines of the courthouse are relieved by marble balustrades, and placed on the four corners are four colossal symbol groups. Resting on pyramidal metal bases, these groups are known as the "ladies." Each identical group contains four "ladies," representing history, agriculture, commerce, and industry. Each group of four supports an open globe banded by the signs of the zodiac. Constructed of copper and bronze, each group of four "ladies" stands 12 feet in height and weighs one ton. The statues, like the rest of the building, were done in Italian Renaissance styling, but the use of palm and banana fronds in the bases gives them a southern inference.
"The sculptor was Daniel Chester French, one of the most popular and influential American sculptors of the 19th century. Talented in his ability to translate American types into idealized sculptured symbols, French's best known work is the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C."
The National Register Nomination form description devotes surprisingly little space to the interior, which contains three memorable, largely original spatial conditions. The first is the vast L-shaped first floor lobby. It includes an ornate vaulted bronzed cast plaster ceiling, flanked by repetitive exterior arched openings with interior glazed arched openings opposite. This was the lobby of the "postal palace" as it was known, an unforgettable public room in the city. Upstairs, the north corridor that provides public access to the courtrooms is another powerful linear space. It is lit from the lightcourt edges, providing views into Renaissance palazzo-like courts with walls of beige stone laid in a running bond, carved stone ornament and balusters, and roofs of red mission tile. At the center and near the ends of the north corridor are small but dignified lobby spaces for the courtrooms. Largely intact is the center courtroom, a grand cubic space with an elaborate plaster ceiling, lit through three immense windows from the lightcourts on each side. The walls are paneled with darkly stained wood, reinforcing the solemnity and significance of this space.
The quality and condition of the exterior of the U.S. Court of Appeals Building has been well maintained, with the unfortunate exception of door and window replacements using tinted glass and low quality commercial aluminum curtain wall frames. The condition of the exterior stone cladding needs to be closely monitored for signs of deterioration. The interior retains some of the important spatial conditions and finishes, while others have been lost, sometimes needlessly. Generally the public circulation zones of the building retain their character, except for weakly designed enclosures for the originally open, metal caged elevators and shafts. Although the center second floor courtroom is intact, the east and west courtrooms have suffered some loss, and the character of the judges' chambers that adjoined the courtrooms has been badly compromised.
The area with the greatest loss of building character as well as the greatest potential for improvement occurs in the large first floor zone that now houses the Fifth Circuit law library and court records. This was originally the post office workroom, a monumental double height daylit space over one hundred feet wide and almost three hundred feet long. Wrapped on two sides by the lobby, it extends all the way to the exterior on the east side. This volume was toplit by two gigantic skylight assemblies that have now been covered over at the second floor roof, presenting a disconcerting view of asphalt shingles as one looks out from the major upper level corridors and courtrooms. Below, a vast finely detailed architectural space with plaster columns, capitals and beams as well as glass ceiling assemblies under the skylights, lies hidden above a two by four standard to lowgrade suspended ceiling system.
Undoubtedly the introduction of suspended ceilings in the main workspace/current law library and almost all of the occupied office space in the building was related to the introduction of air conditioning ductwork. The potential to recapture original fabric while still accommodating mechanical systems is great in many portions of the building. Other changes in the building include the transformation of a mezzanine along the south edge from postal employee lockers and lounges to a mechanical equipment space. Also on the south side of the building the center part of the post office loading dock has been insensitively enclosed and ramps have been added for automobile access to the basement.
The John Minor Wisdom U. S. Court of Appeals Building is one of the most significant buildings in New Orleans. Its importance is first evidenced by its siting, occupying a city block in downtown New Orleans and giving the federal government a powerful presence across from Lafayette Square and Gallier Hall, New Orleans's City Hall when the building was constructed. Originally known as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, the building was designed by the New York architectural firm of Hale and Rogers with contract drawings approved by the Treasury Department July 9, 1909.
James Gamble Rogers, the better known principal of the firm, had a distinguished career as an architect. His artfully designed institutional buildings were inspired by historic architectural examples and notable for their urban sensitivity and careful attention to detail. He is remembered in New Orleans for the planning of Newcomb College adjoining Tulane University's uptown campus, and the design of several buildings there. His buildings at Yale were widely published, and have been greatly admired by generations of students at the University. However, the historic style in which Rogers worked lost favor in the architectural world in the following decades, thus undervaluing his work. Although the U.S. Court of Appeals is listed on the National Register, even today the building is not as highly rated nor widely recognized as its quality merits. As noted by Aaron Betsky in his recent book about the work of James Gamble Rogers, Russell F. Whitehead in his 1911 review of the architecture of the South called this "the most important building in the South."
Construction began on the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in 1909 with the demolition of structures on the block bounded by Lafayette, Camp, Magazine and Capdeville Streets. The date 1912 is inscribed with the building title in the frieze on the Lafayette Street side; the interior was completed in 1915. The building was the second major federal building in New Orleans. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Custom House on Canal Street housed all federal offices, including the main post office and the U.S. Court.
In moving from the U.S. Custom House to the new building, the main post office tripled in size to approximately sixty thousand square feet at ground level. Occupying the entire first floor, the new U.S. Post Office was generous in its public accommodation, with multiple entries through arched stone openings into its monumental interior spaces. On the second and third floors were the courtrooms and offices of the Federal District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals.
The U.S. Post Office and Courthouse served the public in its original configuration for almost fifty years, until space needs exceeded the building's capacity. First to leave was the U.S. Post Office in 1961, followed by the courts in 1963 in preparation for a building renovation. An interlude followed in which the commodiousness of the building was demonstrated in an unusual way. For five years it served as a New Orleans public high school, housing students of McDonough #35, whose building was destroyed by Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
During this time, the size and caseload of the Fifth Circuit Court increased dramatically, and it was decided to devote the entire renovated building to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The Court's law library, one of the largest in the country, was programmed to occupy the former post office workroom on the first floor. Renovation plans and specifications were prepared by staff architects and engineers of the GSA Region 7, Public Building Service. Work began in April 1971 and was completed in September 1972.
In the spring of 1994 the building was officially renamed the "John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building" by an Act of Congress.