Lewis F. Powell, Jr. U.S. Courthouse, Richmond, VA

Exterior: Lewis F. Powell, Jr., U.S. Courthouse, Richmond, Virginia

Building History

The Lewis F. Powell, Jr., U.S. Courthouse is one of only two buildings in the historic core of Richmond to survive the devastating 1865 fire that marked the evacuation of the Confederate Army during the last days of the Civil War. It is the oldest courthouse in GSA's inventory. Constructed as the U.S. Custom House, Post Office and Courthouse, the original portion of the building was completed in 1858 to designs of Ammi B. Young, then Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department. The building received additions that were completed in 1889, 1912, and 1932, all three of which hewed closely to the imposing Italianate forms that characterized the original building.

The building played a significant role in the Civil War when the Congress of the new Confederate States of America selected Richmond as its capital. The courthouse provided offices for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Following the conflict, the federal government reoccupied the building. Ironically, in 1866, the Grand Jury of the United States District Court met on the third floor and indicted Davis for treason. Davis returned to the courthouse in 1867 for a hearing, but was granted amnesty and never stood trial.

Pressure to enlarge the courthouse began in the first decade of the twentieth century, when the antitrust policies of President Theodore Roosevelt and associated legislation created an expansion of judicial oversight. In 1910, construction began on a massive expansion of the courthouse, which increased the size of the original building twelve-fold. Matching wings on the east and west were constructed between 1910 and 1932. An Art Deco Annex was constructed in 1935-36 adjacent to the courthouse.

In 1993, by which time the building housed only judicial functions, President William J. Clinton dedicated the building as the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., United States Courthouse in honor of the retired Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, a native Virginian.


The Lewis F. Powell, Jr., U.S. Courthouse is an impressive example of the Italianate architecture that became popular in this country during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Originally sited in the middle of the block between Tenth and Eleventh Streets, the two primary facades of the courthouse faced Main and Bank streets. Constructed between 1855 and 1858, the original block of the courthouse was designed by Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department Ammi B. Young. Five round arches formed an arcade marking the entrance on Main Street, and a heavy granite portico of three arches, reached by three granite steps, fronted the Bank Street entrance, which was set back from the property line. The three-story exterior of the courthouse was clad in ashlar granite on the first floor and ashlar limestone on the second and third floors. The remaining elements of the original construction can still be seen on the lower levels of the Bank and Main street facades, including the Main Street arcade and the Bank Street portico.

The Courthouse exhibits an early use of iron as a structural material in a federal building. As noted in a letter from Secretary of the Treasury James Guthrie, the use of "wrought iron beams and girders" in federal building construction at that time was "wholly new." The structural system employed groin vaults to support upper floors, with cast-iron columns supporting beams and girders.

The 1887-89 additions to the building, completed under the direction of Supervising Architect Mifflin E. Bell, consisted of one-bay by one-bay wings attached to each of the building's corners, giving the courthouse an I-shaped plan. The Bank Street facade, including its portico, was moved forward to the property line, and a classical pediment added to the Main Street entrance.

Federal courts expanded the range of their oversight at the beginning of the twentieth century, requiring an expansion of court facilities. The Richmond courthouse was enlarged in 1910-12 and 1930-32, expanding to fill the entire city block. Once again the designs emanated from the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department (James Knox Taylor for the earlier addition, James A. Wetmore for the latter). The enlargement called for demolition of the courthouse interiors, the addition of a fourth floor and expansion to Tenth and Eleventh streets. While maintaining the general features of the original design, stylistic changes evolved in the additions: the cornice was extended along Bank and Main streets with restrained classical motifs to encompass the new wings, and the Italianate windows were replaced with windows featuring semicircular transoms. So precisely was the work carried out that today it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the four phases of construction.

The courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. By 1991, the U.S. Postal Service had vacated the building and only judicial functions remained. The courts undertook a master plan for the renovation and preservation of some of the most significant spaces within the original building, hoping to restore the finishes to their 1858 appearance. The first phase of the work, which took place in 1996-99, included the restoration of a part of the Greek Revival Main Street Lobby and office space on the third floor.

Significant Events

1855-1858: The Custom House, Post Office and Courthouse is constructed to designs produced in Office of Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, headed by Ammi B. Young.

1887-89: One-story wings are added at building corners under direction of Supervising Architect Mifflin E. Bell.

1910-12; 1930-32: The courthouse is expanded to fill the entire block.

1969: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1991: The U.S. Postal Service vacates the building.

1993: President William J. Clinton dedicates the courthouse as the Lewis F. Powell, Jr., U.S. Courthouse, after the former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

1996-99: The Main Street Lobby and third floor offices undergo renovation.

Building Facts

Architects: Ammi B. Young; Mifflin E. Bell; James Knox Taylor; James A. Wetmore

Construction Dates: 1855-58; 1887-89; 1910-12; 1930-32

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 1000 East Main Street

Architectural Style: Italianate

Primary Materials: Steel, granite, and limestone

Prominent Features: Bank Street porticoes, restored Main Street lobby, 1910 Courtrooms

Captain A.H. Bowman, as head of the Bureau of Construction, served as administrator and resident expert on construction and engineering. As the Treasury Supervising Architect Ammi B. Young is generally credited as the chief designer for Treasury Department construction projects during this period until the Civil War. The first portion of the three story building was completed in 1858. The architectural style chosen was the then popular Italianate (bracketed). Portions that remain are the central projecting bay (facade) with portico on Bank Street(N), and the reciprocal central projecting bay (facade) on Main Street with the 5 arched openings at the 1st floor (this elevation was dismantled and reconstructed 30 feet to the south property line in the 1870's). Other original building fabric remaining includes portions of the original west elevation visible above the 2nd floor roof in the West Light Well, and portions of the original east elevation now concealed within the building. For the second phase of the building's evolution, M. E. Bell took this elongated rectangular building which stretched from Bank Street to Main Street(N-S) on axis with Jefferson's Capitol(N) and added the first addition which was completed in between 1872 and 1889. Mr. Bell continued the architectural style of his predecessor, and added modest symmetrical wings east and west at both street fronts, creating a building that was now 'I' shaped. The existing hipped roof running north-south now culminated at Main Street in a classical style pediment.

James Knox Taylor's design for the third phase was completed in 1912 and included the demolition and rebuilding of portions of the existing Main and Bank Street facades, and removal of the Bell additions. In addition, Taylor's design extended the building westward to overlook 10th Street, at the same time adding both a basement and a fourth floor for the entire length and breadth of the building. Several stylistic changes also evolved: the hipped roof was reinstated, but the slope of the new roof was much greater (12:12) than that of the old roof (4:12); the extended horizontal cornice was maintained with restrained classical motifs and an absence of the horizontal Italian stone modillions; finally, the Italianate windows were replaced with a more restrained version which featured semicircular glass transoms with rectangular steel and bronze casements on the lower three floors and rectangular steel casements on the fourth floor windows.

James A. Wetmore was the architect for the fourth and final major addition that added a matching four story wing to the east. Plans were prepared by Lee, Poole, Vandervort and Smith in 1922. With the addition, the building filled the entire city block from 10th Street east to 11th Street, and from Main Street up the hill to Bank Street. Today it is extremely difficult to see distinctions between the four ages of building growth. The total compatibility and harmony of building over such a long period of time is extremely rare and justifiably significant.

The important interiors which remain in the building are remnants from the designs of James Knox Taylor (1910). What remains of Mr. Taylor's design are corridors, Courtrooms, and adjunct Judges' Chambers and Offices. These areas retain detailing characteristic of Taylor's devotion to architectural dignity and elegance in public buildings. The work of architects Young and Bell has been modified at the interior; virtually all of the existing architectural woodwork from the 1858 building was salvaged and reused in the 1910 reconstruction. James Wetmore's work remains in such areas as the stairs and elevator shafts at the east side of the building, and the Public Corridors on the third and fourth floors. After the postal service moved their retail and handling operation out of the building, in the 1970's the building was occupied by U.S. Courts. The Courts undertook a master plan for the renovation and historic preservation of the building, with an eye toward re-establishing the 1850's finish scheme. An Historic American Building Survey report was completed. Spaces currently include a combination of restored, renovated and reconstructed elements with some remaining significant early finishes. More recent renovations have been designed to be sensitive with the earlier history of the building. Due to the building's complex history of construction, including additions and extensive alteration campaigns, the building as a whole never existed in an "original" state. Therefore, this report takes into account the many periods of the building's history in assigning zoning designations.

Contributing structure in Main Street Banking Historic District (National Register District).

The Lewis F. Powell, Jr. United States Courthouse in Richmond, Virginia, has been rated as Class 3 indicating a listing on the National Register of Historic Places with state or local significance. It is part of a proposed local Historic District which would include Capitol Square dominated by Jefferson's Capitol building to the north, the Courthouse Annex (Art Deco) due East, and a row of 1866 cast iron buildings on the south side of Main Street. Just a block east, and running south to Canal Street, the Shockoe Slip Historic District is currently undergoing restoration and revival. The Courthouse is a landmark to the history and architecture in this historic core of the city, a core that dates back to the William Byrd 1737 plan for Richmond. The Capitol building and the Courthouse were the only structures in the area to survive the devastating fire of 1865 which marked the evacuation of the Confederate government. The Army of Northern Virginia withdrew from its defensive positions around Richmond and Petersburg; these lines were approximately 80 miles in length.

Original 1856 Custom House building fabric exists in the present Courthouse, but is not always readily apparent. The well detailed and composed fragments of the 1856 north and south elevations became the basis for the design of the new facades. The strong unifying architectural composition that emerged is an exact copy of the facade elements of the original building on the site. This Italianate style (bracketed) consists of a number of constituent motifs: solid masonry monolithic appearance; use of masonry openings with arched semicircular heads; successively grouped arched doorways which give the appearance of a loggia; the uninterrupted horizontal rather heavy bracketed cornice with classic motifs; horizontal stone belt courses; and a hipped roof with ribbed or tile roofing (from original drawings and photographic evidence, the original roofing is believed to have been low slope (less than 4:12) standing seam metal). All of the architects who contributed to the building were the Supervising Architects of the Department of Treasury, responsible for all government buildings in their time. Each of these men had national practices and many had built significant buildings before joining the Treasury. During the first phase of the design and construction of the original Custom House (Courthouse), the responsible office was the Bureau of Construction, which was also sometimes referred to as the Office of Construction. Captain A.H. Bowman of the Corps of Engineers was chief of this office with the title of Engineer in Charge. Bowman had been referred to as "General Superintendent of Buildings for the Treasury Department," "Supervising Architect," and "Engineer in Charge of This Department" but by the mid-1850's was designated "Engineer in Charge" of the Bureau of Construction. The position of Supervising Architect was held by Ammi B. Young, one of the nation's most important architects of the Greek Revival period. His early work (1827-1840) included buildings for Dartmouth College and later the Customs House in Boston and the Capitol of Vermont; Young succeeded Robert Mills as Federal Architect in the early 1850s. M. E. Bell (1889), James Knox Taylor (1910), and James A. Wetmore (1930), all distinguished national architects in their own right as well as Federal architects, also played a significant role in the U.S. Courthouse as we know it now.

On this historic site, the original building played a significant role when the Congress of the new Confederate States of America selected Richmond as their Capital. In 1861 when Virginia seceded from the Union, the new Treasury Department, State Department and Presidential Executive Offices of the Confederacy occupied the building; Jefferson Davis, the new president, had an office on the third floor and the Cabinet met on the second floor. Ironically, on May 10, 1866, the Grand Jury of the United States District Court met on the third floor and indicted President Davis for treason. On May 13,1867, he was brought back for a bail hearing. Jefferson Davis was not granted amnesty, but the case never went to trial. Had this case been heard, the very first interracial jury would have been appointed at this site. His citizenship was reinstated by President Carter on October 17, 1978.

The building started out as a Custom House with a Post Office and Courtroom. The 1st floor was used for the Post Office; 2nd floor primarily for Custom House; and the 3rd floor for Federal Court. As the years went by the customs business dwindled and the Main Post Office was relocated in 1972. The court functions have continually expanded and will continue to do so for years to come. When proper histories are written of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Eastern Virginia U.S. District Court and of their members, there will be a whole new historic thrust added to the significance of this already important site.

Description Architect
1855 1858 Original building, Customhouse,P.O.,Courthouse Ammi B Young,US Treasury Dept.
1887 1889 Rectangular building altered to I-shaped, new wing M. E. Bell, US Treasury Dept.
1900 1912 filled in lot to 10th St,added 4th floor, James Knox Taylor,US Treasury Dept.
1917 extended mail platform, NE corner US Treasury Dept.
1923 altered Circuit Courtroom,3rd flr,partitioned US Treasury Dept.
1930 1932 significant interior redesign,new wing to 11th St. James A Wetmore, US Treasury Dept.
1951 fire safety improvements,revolving doors removed
1962 Eastern lightcourt filled in for law library, etc.
1973 Main P.O. moved,branch remains;other major work. Williams and Tazewell & Associates
1981 1983 window removal and replacement GSA
Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13