Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, Old San Juan, PR

Exterior: Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, San Juan, PR

Building History

The Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Old San Juan was designed to provide suitable accommodations for important government offices and to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to the Island of Puerto Rico. From the initial settlement of San Juan, this harbor side site has been critical to the city's defense and economic development. Initially, portions of the site contained a Spanish fortification, the Bastion de San Justo del Muelle, which was built in 1639 (shortly after the city was invaded by the Dutch) and remained in place until 1897. The southern portion of the site contained a building that was likely a Spanish custom house constructed during the 1830s.

In 1898, the U.S. Government took possession of Puerto Rico and established a presence on the island. When the United States established a governance structure for Puerto Rico in 1900, the need for public buildings became apparent.

The Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is composed of two distinct but connected buildings. The first building of the complex was designed between 1906 and 1908 by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Department of the Treasury, led by James Knox Taylor. Constructed between 1911 and 1914, it was the island's first significant federal building. In 1936, an addition was proposed to accommodate New Deal programs created in response to the Great Depression. Congress authorized the expansion the same year, and plans were completed by the Department of the Treasury's Public Buildings Branch under Supervising Architect Louis A. Simon in 1938. Construction of the addition was completed in 1940. It is a substantial building that was designed independently of the earlier building, although the two are physically connected on the south facade of the 1914 building.

In 1986 the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1999 the building was renamed for Jose Victor Toledo. Toledo (1931-1980) served as a justice and chief judge in the U.S. District Court, District of Puerto Rico, from 1970 until his death a decade later.


The three-story, 1914 section of the Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse displays a sophisticated and harmonious blend of the Spanish Colonial Revival style with classically inspired forms and details that reflect both the indigenous architecture of Puerto Rico and the prevalent style used on federal government buildings of the era.

The U-shaped structure sits on a foundation of concrete piers and wood piles. Constructed on a site that slopes north to south toward the harbor, it consists of a partially excavated basement, two floors with loggias, and a set-back third floor capped with a Spanish-tile roof.

The raised basement is finished with rusticated granite, while the upper floors are constructed of brick and concrete and finished in stucco. The north elevation features a centrally placed, projecting, multi-curved parapet and flanking entry portals. The loggias, hallmarks of the Spanish Colonial Revival Style, provide ventilation and shelter from the weather. The openings are segmentally arched with projecting keystones topping the openings. Classically inspired pilasters divide the openings and are skillfully combined with wrought-iron balusters that are located on the second level. Windows are covered with wrought-iron grilles. The clay tile roof with wide overhanging eaves reflects indigenous architectural influence. Supported by paired brackets and set over the building's ornamental cornice, the eaves provide relief from the hot sun and protect the building from rain.

The 1940 building connects with the earlier building on the south elevation. It covers the building's original grand terraced harbor side entrance and most of its main facade. The simple Art Moderne tower is characteristic of much government architecture of the late 1930s. It contains minimal decorative detailing, but its massing contributes strongly to the building's visual prominence. Rectangular in plan and six stories in height, the 1940 building is constructed of cast-in-place, reinforced concrete. Two towers capped with handsome, four-ton, bronze lanterns, flank the building and extend above the six-story main edifice.

Significant interior spaces of the Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse include, in the 1914 building, a marble-trimmed entrance lobby with a Spanish-inspired white marble imperial staircase, and public corridors of salt-glazed brick with cast-iron ventilator grilles designed to keep the building comfortable in the tropical Puerto Rican climate. The 1940 addition includes a fifth-floor ceremonial courtroom with decorative tile wainscoting and a diamond-pattern cornice. Original 1940s furnishings have been recreated.

In 1996 the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) commenced a meticulous restoration following the recovery of approximately 16,000 artifacts that were discovered during preliminary archaeological work on the site. The exterior was restored to its 1940 appearance. Historically significant areas were identified for restoration or replacement. The second-story loggia, closed in the late 1940s or early 1950s, was reopened. The six-foot eaves, removed in 1958, were reconstructed. Original ceremonial spaces were restored. The building was reinforced to withstand earthquakes. Wherever possible, original architectural materials were reused rather than replaced, preserving the integrity of the building.

In March 2000 the Society for History in the Federal Government awarded the John Wesley Powell Prize for Excellence in Historic Preservation to GSA for the rehabilitation and restoration work conducted at the building. In 2002 the project received two awards: the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Chairman's Award for outstanding federal preservation achievement, and the American Institute of Architects New England Charter's Honor Award.

Significant Events

1900: U.S. establishes a formal government presence on Puerto Rico and realizes the need for government buildings.

1911-1914: Construction of the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse occurs.

1938-1940: A major addition is constructed.

1940s-1960s: Various renovations occur.

1986: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1996: Restoration work commences.

1999: The building is renamed the Jose V. Toledo Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.

2000: The restoration project earns the John Wesley Powell Prize for Excellence in Historic Preservation from the Society for History in the Federal Government.

2002: Restoration earns Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Chairman's Award and American Institute of Architects New England Chapter's Honor Award.

Building Facts

Architects: James Knox Taylor / Louis A. Simon, both Supervising Architects of the Treasury Department

Major Restoration Architects & Retrofit: Finegold Alexander Associates

Construction Dates: 1911-1914; 1938-1940

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: The block bounded by Calle Recinto Sur, Calle Tanca, Calle Commercio, and Calle San Justo

Architectural Style: Spanish Colonial Revival with classical form and details; Art Moderne

Primary Materials: Brick and concrete covered with stucco; cast-in-place concrete

Prominent Features: Twin towers topped by bronze lanterns; two-story wraparound loggia; two-tiered overhang

The US Post Office and Courthouse in San Juan, Puerto Rico is a three-story, monumental, concrete office structure occupying an entire square block on the southern fringe of the Old San Juan Historic Zone. The block is bounded by Calle Recinto Sur on the north, Calle Tanca on the east, Calle Commercio on the south, and Calle San Justo on the west. In 1940 a 6 story annex was abutted to the southern, main facade on Calle Commercio. The original building constructed in 1914 is rectangular, while the addition, completed in 1940 is in the form of a rectangle with two symmetrical towers. The original structure's overall massing consisted of 2 major volumes: a principal 3-story building and a base rectangular volume, (loggia), which surrounded the main structure and created a U-shaped court toward the south, main facade. At the south facade, a monumental double-return stair lead up to an open court from which the entrance was accessed. The ground floor facade is rusticated stone while the remaining floors have brick and concrete wall construction with a stucco finish. The Calle Recinto Sur, (N), facade is symmetrically composed around a central pavilion which projects slightly and breaks the cornice line. The fenestration lies in arched bays defined by pilasters rising the full height of the two principle stories. The windows on the first and ground floor are covered by iron grilles and between the first and second story are iron balconies. The primary entablature between the second and third floors is repeated above the third story. The western and eastern facades of the building have the same configuration. The ground floor rusticated stone becomes more visible as the site slopes downward exposing the entire height of the floor in the rear. The ten bays are separated by pilasters which rise to the full height of the second story. The windows are inset wood frame with iron grilles on the ground and first floors. To maintain uniformity the second story windows continue the same treatment as those of the principle facade. The two central bays contain entranceways at the first floor level with stairs running the height of the ground floor. The entablature extends the full width of the facade over the second floor. The attic or third floor entablature is indented and set back. On the interior the courtroom is trimmed with wood, and the lobby is trimmed with marble and plaster. Although extensive renovations over the years have altered the interior substantially, several significant details remain including a marble lobby stairway. Today the 1940 addition sits precisely where the monumental entrance stair stood, nestled within the U-shaped court of the old main facade, but mostly detached from the main structure. This addition consists of a vertical, six-story-plus-base rectangular slab structure. Additional elements of the building's actual massing include: a projecting three-story, central frontis-piece with a curve-gable on the north, Calle Recinto Sur facade; and 2 towers, one above each extreme of the 1940 addition. The roof is covered with Spanish tile and has a full entablature with projecting cornice. The roof line is broken by a third story monitor which is indented from the building line. The twin towers are capped by matching cupolas. The 1914 building is truly a melange of styles integrating American-Spanish Revival, Sullivanesque and Beaux Arts Neoclassical Revival, and thus reflecting the eclecticism of American Architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It presents a good example of American institutional architecture of the period and was the first and largest of such structures in San Juan. The 1940 tower addition on the South elevation represents a late example of the Viena School and Avante-garde movements.

Built in 1914, only 15 years after the initial US occupation of the island, the US Post Office and Courthouse was built above the foundations of the ancient city-wall which guarded the harbor-entrance to the city for 300 years. It is located at the southern fringe of the old, walled, Spanish city of San Juan, and it represents almost eighty years of continued United States presence in Puerto Rico. In addition, the building is now, and has been, a designated seat for the Courts.

Architecturally, the building is an eclectic mix of Spanish Colonial and Federal Neo-Classical. This combination is quite unique and this structure is a particularly fine example. As such it represents a blending of representative styles of both mainland and local culture. Furthermore, the building's design is sensitive to its site and surroundings in this important location of Puerto Rican culture and history.

The 1940 addition, in a style tending from Art Deco to International, provides a sober transition without seriously affecting the integrity of the main structure. Massive in volume relative to its low-scale, Spanish-Neoclassical surroundings, the federal structure clearly represented the new order and paved the way for modernistic development of the city's waterfront fringe. The building clearly depicted the architectural trends in the US and broke with those prevalent during Spanish rule.

In 1940 a 6-story annex was abutted to the southern, main facade on Calle Commercio. Together the complex served as the US Federal Government center for over 50 years and continues to be the center of the US Judiciary and Postal systems in Puerto Rico. Many important decisions of the application of Federal laws and programs to Puerto Rico have been rendered in its courtrooms. Many federal relief programs and social services were originated here for the development of the island.

Description Architect
1914 1940 Original Construction Wenderoth, Oscar, Sup. Arch.
Last Reviewed: 2017-09-22