The monumental Richard C. Lee U.S. Courthouse is located on the west side of the New Haven Green. The building is an excellent example of Classical Revival architecture. It originally served as a courthouse and post office, although the post office moved to another location in 1979.
James Gamble Rogers designed the building, which was constructed between 1913 and 1919. Rogers was also the architect for structures at Yale University, his alma mater. The building was the last to be designed under the auspices of the Tarsney Act (1890-1912), which allowed the Treasury Department to hire private architects rather than use only designers employed by the federal government. A cornerstone dedication ceremony was held in 1914. Former President William Howard Taft, then a professor at Yale Law School, spoke at the event, and the text of his speech was placed in the cornerstone, along with other mementos.
Established in 1638 and one of the earliest European urban planning efforts in the American colonies, the New Haven Green has long been a location for important civic buildings. In 1910, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Cass Gilbert, two of the most prominent designers working in America at the time, produced a city planning document for New Haven. They advised that the style, materials, and scale of the new courthouse and post office should respect the character of existing public buildings around the Green, and Rogers achieved these goals.
The courthouse was slated for demolition in the 1960s as part of an urban renewal plan. However, a coalition of federal judges and local historic preservationists rallied to save it. After much negotiation, the landmark was restored in the early 1980s at a cost of $7.3 million. Although some interior spaces were modified, the restoration respected the original character, and many historic components remain intact. In 1998, the building was renamed to honor Richard C. Lee, a former New Haven mayor who was a pivotal figure in the building's preservation as well as the city's revitalization.
The Classical Revival style of architecture chosen for the Richard C. Lee U.S. Courthouse was commonly used for federal building design during the early twentieth century because officials believed it conveyed the dignity of the federal government. The courthouse displays several hallmarks of the style, including the colossal portico (entrance porch with columns) and pediment (triangular gable end). The columns have Corinthian capitals with carved eagles and leaves. Niches flank the portico. The exterior of the building is clad in Tennessee marble, and the exterior stairs are pink Milford granite. Bronze window sashes, grilles, and the revolving doors provide contrast to the pale gray exterior.
Important citizens in New Haven's history inspired the inscriptions on the exterior. The frieze contains words from a sermon delivered by Reverend John Davenport in 1639: "Wisdom hath builded her house; she hath hewn out her seven pillars." Davenport was referring to the seven men who were selected to serve as the first General Court, and their names are inscribed on the building. The upper walls of the interior light court were incised with the names of five other prominent New Haven citizens and three military heroes. A carved band tops the building and includes coquillage, which are stylized seashells. An acroterion, the ornament at the apex of the gable, is also a stylized shell.
The interior retains many original features and rich finishes. Marble floors and pilasters (attached columns) are found in the ornate entrance lobby. The coffered (recessed) ceiling is intricately detailed with rosettes. The interior wall contains an elaborate bronze screen that led to the original postal workroom. Other original features that remain include writing desks, radiator grilles, and pendant light fixtures, which were specially designed by Rogers.
The walls of the main stair and elevator lobbies are clad in the same Tennessee marble as the exterior. However, the marble was finished to reveal more pink tones. Ceilings in this area are vaulted plaster overlaid with gold leaf. Ornate bronze elevator fronts and grilles remain.
On the second floor, the courtroom lobby is lined with twenty monolithic, Tennessee marble columns with bronze scrolled Ionic capitals. Marble flooring, wainscot, and benches contribute to the opulent finishes. A plaster cornice and coffered ceiling are painted in tones derived from the marble.
In a 1919 Architectural Forum article, the courtroom was described as a "dignified, sumptuous room of perfect acoustic qualities." The lavish wall treatments combine fluted pilasters and paneling in quarter-sawn white oak that was stained a light olive color. The ornate plaster cornice and ceiling beams are finished to resemble the oak walls and highlighted with gold leaf.
Remarkably, very few alterations were made to the building throughout the years. By 1980, however, it had fallen into disrepair. From 1982 to 1985, it underwent a massive renovation and restoration. The work respected historic integrity while updating spaces to meet the needs of the courts and safety requirements.
1638: New Haven Green created
1910: Frederick Law Olmsted and Cass Gilbert produce city plan
1913: Courthouse site purchased
1913-1919: U.S. Post Office and Courthouse constructed
1965: Building slated for demolition
1979: Postal service vacates building
1982-1985: Renovation and restoration
1998: Building renamed to honor former New Haven Mayor Richard C. Lee
Location: 141 Court Street on the New Haven Green
Architect: James Gamble Rogers
Construction Dates: 1913-1919
Landmark Status: Eligible for the National Register of Historic Places
Architectural Style: Classical Revival
Primary Material: Tennessee Marble
Prominent Features: Classical Portico; Ornate Courtroom; Elaborate Lobbies
The Richard C. Lee U.S. Courthouse, formerly known as the New Haven U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, is located on Church Street facing the Green. The courthouse is bound by Church Street to the west, a pedestrian right-of-way (formerly Court Street) to its north, a pedestrian and restricted vehicular-use plaza to its east, and a vehicular access drive to its south. The building is 11 bays wide by 14 bays deep, with three stories above a low basement. The site is of relatively even grade, with the principal and service entrances of the first floor located approximately three feet above grade. The rectangular-shaped building occupies nearly the entire site. A continuous areaway at the north, and window wells at the south, allow daylight into the basement level. The west steps cover storage vaults. Original masonry openings to basement spaces below the former east loading dock have been infilled. The building is organized around the former post office workroom, original courtroom (No. 3), and courtyard. The former workroom space, which occupied the entire central area of the first floor and mezzanine levels and east end of the first floor, has been subdivided with new courtroom, meeting, office, circulation and mechanical rooms. The original courtroom and light court retain their original volumes. Offices, meeting rooms, and toilets are located at the building's north, south and east perimeter, reached by single- and double-loaded corridors. The basement, originally support space for postal employees, storage and mechanical space, has been partially converted to office use. Designed in 1913 by James Gamble Rogers, the Courthouse ranks among the most distinguished of New Haven's public buildings. Its imposing classically inspired exterior remains much the same as originally constructed, and within the building, many original volumes and features survive. The conversion of the former post office spaces to new courtrooms, offices and support spaces, and upgrading of mechanical systems throughout the building, completed in 1985, has had little effect upon lobbies, stair halls and architecturally important spaces above the first floor.
The Richard C. Lee U.S. Courthouse, formerly known as the New Haven U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, was constructed in 1913-19 as the city's second federal building. Designed by New York architect James Gamble Rogers (who also designed a federal courthouse in New Orleans, Louisiana, completed in 1915 in a similar style, and the Harkness Memorial Quadrangle at Yale University, completed in 1921), it was the last federal building to be contracted to a private firm under the provisions of the Tarsney Act. It is a handsome example of the Beaux Arts style favored by Supervising Architect of the Treasury James Knox Taylor. Initiated in the final year of his term, it remains a remarkably intact monument to Taylor's espousal of the symbolic value of Federal buildings as lasting monuments to democracy.
The location of the building on the west side of the 1638 New Haven Green is also noteworthy. The Green has achieved national significance as this country's first example of urban planning; it is also important as the historic locus of the city's major public buildings. The style, materials and height of the federal building all respect the established character of the area, as recommended in the city planning document produced by Cass Gilbert and Frederick Law Olmstead in 1910.
Finally, the modern history of the building represents an important chapter in the historic preservation movement. Slated for demolition as part of a grandiose 1960's urban renewal scheme, the building was saved by a coalition of federal judges and local preservationists. After much negotiation, it was restored in the early 1980's at a cost of $7,302,000. Reconfiguring of some interior spaces, most notably the former postal workroom, was necessary at that time. Nevertheless, the work respected the original character of the building, which remains largely intact. Upon completion, the building was devoted to the Judiciary and the Department of Justice, and renamed the Richard C. Lee U.S. Courthouse.