Michael J. Dillon U.S. Courthouse, Buffalo, NY

Building History

The monolithic U.S. Courthouse in Buffalo, renamed in 1987 in honor of longtime Internal Revenue Service employee Michael J. Dillon, occupies an entire block along Niagara Square, the city's civic center since 1802. Construction of the seven-story sandstone and steel courthouse in 1936 resulted from Buffalo's evolution as one of the country's most important industrial centers, which brought numerous federal agencies to the city. The courthouse concentrated the federal presence in an excellent example of the Art Moderne architecture favored for government buildings funded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

Federal government facilities had become so overcrowded by 1928 that the citizens of Buffalo pressured Congress for a new building to house all Federal offices in the city. The Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932 authorized the construction of a number of federal buildings, including the Dillon Courthouse. Under the authority of the 1926 Public Buildings Act, the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department was responsible for the design of all federal buildings. Due to economic pressures on small architectural firms during the Depression, local architects received some of these commissions. In January 1933, the Supervising Architect's Office retained two influential Buffalo firms, Green and Sons and Bley and Lyman, to prepare plans for the new U.S. Courthouse.

Because of the unusual shape of the site, the architects created a pentagonal building. The courthouse is a unique example of Art Moderne architecture because of its unusual shape and low-relief carved ornament. Originally planned as a twelve-story building, limited funding reduced its size to seven stories. President Roosevelt dedicated the courthouse on October 17, 1936 — his speech emphasizing the vital partnership between the Federal government and local officials in creating public works to overcome the devastating effects of the Depression.

In 2004, the Dillon Courthouse was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing element of the Joseph Ellicott Historic District in Buffalo.

Architecture

The Michael J. Dillon U.S. Courthouse occupies an entire block bounded by Niagara Street, Niagara Square, Court Street, and Franklin Street. Located in the heart of the city, Niagara Square is surrounded by the Dillon Courthouse, the State Office Building, City Hall, and the City Court building.

Resting on a granite base, the seven-story courthouse appears as a solid geometric mass of planar, yellow-gray sandstone walls and spare, carved detailing. Each elevation is divided into bays of vertical windows. The handsome carved detailing — emphasizing the building's horizontality — is concentrated at the entries, the first floor level, and building parapets. The fluted forms between the vertical strips of windows, on the other hand, resemble classical colonnades and provide a tension with the horizontality of the carved ornament.

One of the two main entrances to the building, on Court Street, features a smooth stone surround into which is carved "United States Court House." A monumental carved eagle perches above the door surround. The entry doors, frames, and transoms are cast aluminum with ornamental grillwork. A cast-bronze medallion is centered above the middle door.

The interior of the building boasts several significant original spaces, including the main lobby, the post office lobby, and the financial lobby. High ceilings and square fluted columns without capitals emphasize the importance of these spaces. The walls and columns are clad in travertine, except where the financial lobby has been remodeled. Details, such as light fixtures, window frames, screens, and desks are cast aluminum. The courthouse floors consist of buff terrazzo bordered in dark green marble. The main lobby is the most ornamented space. Its ceiling features a fretwork molding decorated with polychrome floral panels. Its drum-shaped light fixtures are set in aluminum frames featuring a star motif. The main lobby floor is decorated with stars set within circles made of colored terrazzo. The elevator lobbies retain original dark green marble wainscot and door surrounds, and most of the public corridors retain original terrazzo flooring.

There are four original courtrooms in the building: the bankruptcy court on the fourth floor, two ceremonial courtrooms on the sixth floor, and another courtroom on the seventh floor. The bankruptcy court has wood-paneled wainscot with a molded cap, and a dark green marble border and base. The plaster ceiling is ornamented with a cornice and six medallions, from which are suspended original hexagonal bronze light fixtures.

The sixth-floor ceremonial courtrooms and the seventh-floor courtroom are almost identical in their ornamental details, except for their ceilings. The walls consist of wood paneling with elaborate detailing, and wood wainscot with wood moldings and wainscot cap. The walls are accented with a dark green marble base. In the ceremonial courtrooms, an elaborate ornamental plaster band around the ceiling is composed of alternating squares with stars and flowers. Six original drum-shaped light fixtures illuminate each of these courtrooms. The plaster ceiling of the seventh-floor courtroom features a polychrome band of fretwork motif and two rows of medallions, from which original bowl-shape bronze light fixtures hang.

The U.S. Courthouse is an example of innovative collaboration between the Federal government and local architects through the site-specific design that stands as a significant architectural presence on Niagara Square.

Significant Events

1932: The Emergency Relief and Construction Act authorizes construction of several Federal buildings, including the courthouse in Buffalo.

1933: Two Buffalo architectural firms, Green and Sons, and Bley and Lyman, are retained to prepare plans for the U.S. Courthouse on Niagara Square.

1936: The cornerstone of the courthouse is laid and President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicates the building.

1987: The courthouse is named after Michael J. Dillon.

2004: The courthouse is nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing element of the Joseph Ellicott Historic District.

Building Facts

Architects: Green and Sons; Bley and Lyman

Construction Date: 1936

Landmark Status: Contributing element in the Joseph Ellicott Historic District

Location: 68 Court Street

Architectural Style: Art Moderne

Primary Materials: Granite, yellow-gray sandstone, steel

Prominent Features: Pentagonal footprint; carved sandstone ornamentation; aluminum details; main lobby and postal lobby; courtrooms

Exterior:  Michael J. Dillion U.S. Courthouse, Buffalo, NY

The U.S. Court House in Buffalo, New York occupies the entire block bounded by Niagara Street, Niagara Square, Court Street and Franklin Street. This block is irregularly-shaped, and slopes gently to the west-southwest. It is located in the central business district in an area described as the "civic center" because the U.S. Court House, State office building, City Hall and City Court building are all located around Niagara Square. Constructed in 1935, this building is an unusually-shaped example of starved classicism, a style of Federal architecture that was prominent during this period. There are elements of Deco in the details.

The U.S. Court House is seven stories in height, not including the penthouse structure. The building rests on a granite base, the height of which varies with the slope of the site. The building appears as a solid geometric mass, with planar walls and spare detail. The height of the building from the first floor platform to the top of the seventh floor parapet is approximately 105 feet. There are seven bays along Court Street, and ten bays along Franklin Street. These bays create the principal structural grid; however, a secondary grid is created by the diagonal along Niagara Street, which is made up of seven bays. There are five bays along Niagara Square, which is part of the principal grid. All floor plans have the same pentagonal shape; however, the upper two floors are set back from the primary building plane. The building is clad in yellow-grey sandstone panels with cast aluminum spandrel panels and carved sandstone detailing. The windows are organized one above the other in vertical openings in the stone cladding. Windows typically have non-original aluminum sash and frames, and are all either double-hung or fixed-sash with operable awning windows.

Detailing is concentrated at the entries, the first floor level, and building parapets. One of the two main building entries is located at approximately the mid-point of the Court Street elevation. A smooth stone surround projects slightly from the building plane, where the doors and transoms are recessed slightly. The stone surround is capped by a monumental carved eagle and the words "United States Court House" are incised into the stone above the entry. The entry doors, frames, and transoms are cast aluminum with ornamental grillwork and a cast bronze medallion over the center door. The second entry is at Niagara Street, and is identical except there is no entry platform.

There are several significant interior spaces retaining primarily original material. The main lobby is composed of the original lobby, as well as the former post office lobby and the former financial lobby. These are linked visually on the first floor and distinguished from each other by ceiling height and columns. Monumental ornamental aluminum and glass doors lead to the lobby entrances. The former post office lobby has writing desks with ornamental cast aluminum frames, aluminum window frames and details in the post office screen, and lantern light fixtures in each column that match those of the vestibules. The floors are buff terrazzo bordered in dark green marble with matching marble base. At intervals along the main lobby floor are circle and star patterns of colored terrazzo. The walls and columns are clad in travertine, except where the financial lobby has been remodeled. The ceiling in the main lobby has a fretwork molding with floral panels, which are polychrome. All trim is travertine, and at the elevators there are dark green marble pilasters topped by bronze medallions with eagle reliefs at each end and between each elevator. The light fixtures in the main lobby are octagonal shaped and have aluminum frames with a star motif.

There are four original courtrooms in the building. The main ceremonial courtrooms A and B are on axis, off a common lobby on the 6th floor; ceremonial courtrooms are also on the 4th and 7th floors. The 4th floor courtroom has wood panel wainscot with molded cap, dark green marble border and base and plaster walls and ceilings. A wood backdrop is behind the judge’s bench. The jury box is a later addition. The ceilings have an ornamental plaster cornice with six plaster ceiling medallions, from which are suspended original octagonal bronze light fixtures. The walls of the 7th floor courtroom are covered with wood paneling with elaborate detailing. There is a dark green marble base and wood wainscot with molded cap. The upper panels are vertical grain wood. The judge's bench and jury box have a carved band around the top, and dark green marble base. The solid court rail has the same detailing as the wainscot. The plaster ceiling has a polychrome ornamental band of fretwork motif and two rows of three plaster medallions from which original bowl-shaped bronze light fixtures hang.

The ceremonial courtrooms - A and B - on the sixth floor are almost identical. These courtrooms are accented with a dark green marble base which continues around the base of the judge’s bench. There is wood wainscot with wood moldings and wainscot cap. The wainscot extends around the courtroom and is broken by the entry doors and the panel behind the judge's bench. On either side of the judge's bench, the wall above the wainscot is paneled in wood. There is a fluted wood pilaster at each front corner of the courtroom also topped with carved wood eagles. The courtroom doors are centered in the east wall and are leather-covered panel doors, with bronze stars inserted in each panel. The surround is wood with a pedimented head, a laurel wreath and shield in the pediment. An elaborate ornamental plaster band around the ceiling is composed of alternating squares with stars and flowers. There are six original light fixtures that are drum-shaped.

The Judges' Chambers at the 6th floor with their wood paneled walls and molded plaster ceilings are also significant. On the fifth floor is the U.S. Attorney's library. This room is detailed with wood bookshelves and an ornamental molded cornice.

The elevator lobbies retain the original dark green marble wainscot and door surrounds, and most of the public corridors retain the original terrazzo flooring.

Many of the tenant spaces have been significantly altered. Significant original elements that are still present in many corridor areas are the hollow metal doors, chair rail, and surrounds throughout the building. The metal was grained to resemble wood, and operable transom hardware was internal. Original toilet room finishes also exist throughout.

While the exact layouts of the upper floors varies depending on the original uses, the general layout of corridors and offices is very similar. The elevator lobbies line up vertically above the main lobby, with elevators and stairs on the west side, and restrooms located on the east side of the lobbies. There are generally offices around the perimeter of the building with H-shaped or pentagonal corridors just to the interior of the offices. The mechanical and support spaces are centralized. The building is sprinklered at many areas, but not at the courtrooms.

Exterior:  Michael J. Dillion U.S. Courthouse, Buffalo, NY

After the turn of the century Buffalo became one of the nation's important industrial cities, and the home of many Federal agencies. With the passage of the Public Buildings Act of 1926, a new Federal building to house the already over-crowded agency offices became feasible. By 1928, conditions were so over-crowded that the city's citizens began to put pressure on Congress to construct a building which could house all local Federal offices. The Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932 authorized the construction of a number of Federal buildings. The Dillon Courthouse was part of this authorization. The cost estimate for the building and the land was $2.5 million.

The Public Buildings Act had specified that the Supervising Architect of the Department of the Treasury be responsible for the design of all public buildings; however, due to the economic pressures of the Depression on small architectural firms, local architects were hired to design some federal buildings. In January of 1933, two Buffalo architectural firms were retained to prepare plans for the U.S. Court House. Edward Green was probably Buffalo's most influential and prolific architect. Duane Lyman, who led the second firm of Bley and Lyman, also had a long and productive career.

Because of the unusual shape of the site, the architects created a pentagonal shaped building. A twelve-story building was planned originally but due to reduction of funds, the building was reduced to seven stories. The corner stone of the building was laid by Federal Judge John K. Hazel on May 29, 1936. The new Federal building was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt on October 17, 1936. With the dedication, he emphasized the partnership of the Federal government and local officials in creating public works (such as the U.S. Court House) in order to overcome the economic disaster of the Depression. The building plan of the Courthouse was dictated by the shape of the site; the creativity of the architects in linking the site and the building design resulted in a federal building of distinct architectural significance.

The Court House is located on Niagara Square which is Buffalo's civic center. Local, state and Federal government offices and courts are all located on the Square which has been the center of the city of Buffalo since 1802. The building is an excellent example of local and Federal collaboration producing architecture specifically suited to its location and purpose. Since its construction the U.S. Court House in Buffalo has been a highly visible symbol of the Federal presence in western New York.

The Court House has been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing component to the Joseph Ellicott Historic District. In 2004 the Dillon Courthouse was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing element of the Joseph Ellicott Historic District in Buffalo.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1936 Original Construction Green & Sons, Bley & Lyman