The U.S. Courthouse had its beginnings as the proposed territorial capitol for New Mexico. In 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded what is now New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas, and portions of Colorado, Utah and Nevada, to the United States. The New Mexico territorial government was established two years later. In 1851 Congress appropriated $20,000 and in 1854 an additional $50,000 to construct a "state house" on what is now Federal Plaza.
Plans for the building were prepared by the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, Ammi B. Young, perhaps based on sketches by Chief Justice Joab Houghton, a member of the U.S. Territorial Supreme Court for New Mexico. Construction began in 1853, with the walls rising one-and-one-half stories above the basement by the following year. Construction continued intermittently due to limited funding, lack of competent workmen, and difficulties imposed by the Civil War. As the years wore on, the half-built structure was essentially abandoned.
In 1883 the building grounds were chosen as the site for Santa Fe's "Tertio-Millennial" celebration, and the building shell received a temporary roof. The grounds were cleared and an oval racetrack, about 1/3 mile long, was set up surrounding the site. Indian participants were housed in the first floor during the celebration.
The "state house" was finally finished in 1889, although it was never used for this purpose. Instead, at its completion, it was occupied by a land claims court and has housed various federal courts since that time. The territorial capitol building was constructed on another site in Santa Fe between 1895 and 1900. New Mexico became a state in 1912.
As the needs of the courts exceeded the building's capacity, an addition was planned that echoed the original Greek Revival style. This addition was built in 1929-1930 under the direction of Louis A. Simon, Superintendent of the Architectural Section of the Treasury Department. It more than doubled the overall size of the courthouse.
The U.S. Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
The U.S. Courthouse is located adjacent to the Santa Fe Post Office in Federal Plaza. The plaza is enclosed by a stone wall with metal pipe railings that follows the outline of the 1883 racetrack.
The Greek Revival courthouse building, originally intended to be the capitol, was constructed in two stages; the first in 1853-1854 and the second in 1888-1889. The Greek Revival style of the original design with prominent pediment and porticos is characteristic of the work of Ammi B. Young, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department. However, other elements of the design including the roof and second-story window treatments have a character more reminiscent of the Renaissance Revival architectural style of the late 1880s. To the north of the original building is a 1929-30 addition. Both buildings are rectangular, and are oriented parallel to each other, with the addition being slightly smaller than the original building. A two-story vestibule, built at the same time as the addition, connects the buildings at their midpoints. A semicircular projecting bay on the vestibule's east elevation encloses an elegant, interlocking cantilevered stairway.
The courthouse walls are of rough stone quarried in the Hyde Park area of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, while details such as quoins and lintels are of dressed stone from the hills of Cerrillos, a small town about eighteen miles southwest of Santa Fe. Both buildings are two stories tall and have the same symmetrical layout. The north and south elevations of both structures are articulated by nine bays, while the shorter east and west elevations are three bays wide.
The south elevation of the original building recalls the Greek Revival style, as interpreted in the 1880s. The classical entrance with fluted Doric pilasters and elaborate entablature replaced the original in 1929-1930. The arched windows above have ornamental stone trim. A broad pediment surmounts the center section of the elevation. Porticos with Ionic columns mark the east and west entrances, though only the one over the west entrance is original. (The east portico was constructed with the 1929-1930 addition). The windows of the first floor are of simple rectangular design; in the unfinished 1853-1854 structure, these window openings had segmental arches. The second-story windows are arched with elegant cut-stone moldings in the original building and rubble stone detailing in the addition. A copper-clad bracketed cornice supports the low-pitched, hipped copper roof.
In an 1884 ceremony attended by about 5,000 people, a sandstone obelisk erected by the Grand Army of the Republic was unveiled at the main entrance of the building. The monument honored Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868), a veteran of the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.
Six murals of landscapes are placed on the walls near the north and south entrances of the original building. Commissioned as a WPA project, they were completed in 1938 by noted Santa Fe painter and designer William Penhallow Henderson, who is credited as a co-founder of the Santa Fe Art Colony and with popularizing the Pueblo Revival style of architecture.
A major restoration project undertaken by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) was completed in 2002. The roof and limestone decorative elements were cleaned and repaired. The large bronze doors at the main entrance, which had become blackened over the years, were thoroughly cleaned and polished, returning them to their former brilliance. Repairs were made to the Kit Carson memorial to correct cracking in the sandstone. GSA was recognized for its stewardship of the U.S. Courthouse with a State of New Mexico Heritage Preservation Award in May, 2000. The completed project was recognized with a 2002 "Muchas Gracias" historic preservation award from the City of Santa Fe.
1853: Construction begins on the building.
1883: The building grounds are selected as the site for New Mexico's "Tertio-Millennial" celebration.
1884: A sandstone obelisk is erected as a memorial to Kit Carson, legendary soldier in the Grand Army of the Republic.
1889: Construction is completed.
1929-1930: An addition is constructed to the north of the original building.
1938: Six murals by William Penhallow Henderson, commissioned by the WPA, are installed near the north and south entrances.
1973: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
2002: Restoration work on the courthouse exterior and Kit Carson Memorial obelisk is completed.
Architect: Ammi B. Young, Supervising Architect of the Treasury
Louis A. Simon, Superintendent of the Architectural Section of the Treasury Department
Construction Dates: 1853-1889; two-story addition and connecting vestibule, 1929-1930
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Location: East end of Federal Place
Architectural Style: Greek Revival
Primary Materials: Rubble stone and variegated limestone
Prominent Features: Cantilevered marble stairway; Kit Carson Memorial obelisk; WPA Murals
The original two-story portion of the United States Courthouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico was reportedly designed by Chief Justice Joab Houghton. Although construction was begun in 1853, inadequate and intermittent funds delayed completion until 1889. The exterior of the two-story building reflects the Greek Revival style of architecture. In 1929-1930, a connector and two-story addition was constructed to the north. While being compatible in design, the exterior of the addition is best described as Neo-Classical Revival.
The site consists of a large oval lot surrounded by a stone and metal pipe railing fence. The grounds of the plaza include mature trees and plantings creating a park-like atmosphere. A sandstone obelisk, in honor of Kit Carson, sits directly in front of the building's main (south) entrance.
The original portion of the building was symmetrically designed with the front and rear (south and north) elevations divided into nine bays of fenestration while the shorter side elevations (east and west) contained only three bays. Entrances were centered on all four elevations. However, the entrance on the south elevation was emphasized by being centered within a slightly projecting three-bay pavilion topped by a denticulated pediment.
The elevations of the two-story addition were also symmetrically designed with the same number of fenestration bays (nine on the north and south and three on the east and west) as the original building. However, only the north elevation includes an exterior entrance. The two wings are connected at the mid-points of their long elevations (north elevation of the original building and south elevation of the addition) by a two-story connecting corridor built concurrently with the addition. The east elevation of the connector features a projecting semi-circular stair tower while its west elevation features a projecting square elevator shaft.
The raised foundation and exterior wall surfaces of the original building and the addition consist of rubble stone coursing with raised ribbon mortar joints. The elevations are trimmed with quoins, continuous belt course bandings, and details of variegated limestone with sawed finish. The rubble stone was quarried in the Hyde Park region of Santa Fe. The dressed stone was quarried in Cerrillos, New Mexico. Matching limestone compositions with engaged fluted Doric columns supporting detailed entablatures highlight the entrances of the courthouse's south and north elevations. Arched windows with decorative stone detailing are located above both entries. Projecting stone balconettes with pairs of smooth Ionic columns shelter the east and west entries on the original building. First floor window openings have flat stone sills and lintels while second floor window openings are arched with cut stone or rubble stone details. Windows in the original building are one/one wood double-hung sash while those in the addition are eight/eight. Windows in the connector are multi-light wood casement sash. A cornice consisting of copper-clad brackets on the original building and cut stone modillions on the addition cap the exterior walls and form a transition to the low-pitched, hipped standing-seam copper roof.
The interior of the courthouse features a interlocking cantilevered marble stairway as part of the corridor system which has quarry tile and marble floors. Six large murals, executed by William Penhallow Henderson, adorn the walls near the south and north entrance vestibules. A simple, yet intact, courtroom remains of the second floor of the original building.
The land on which the Courthouse was built was part of the public grounds acquired by the United States from the Mexican government under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexican government public property in the capital of Santa Fe included the Palace of Governors and the area around it as well as a nine-acre tract to the north. It was upon the latter plot that Congress provided $20,000 for the construction of a capitol building for the territory of New Mexico in "an act making appropriations for the civil and diplomatic expenses of the Government for the year ending the 30th, June, 1851, and for other purposes." The original plans for the capitol building were drawn by Chief Justice Joab Houghton.
A second appropriation of $50,000 was granted by Congress on May 31, 1854, and was spent in rearing the walls about a story and a half above the basement. A third appropriation of $60,000 was passed on June 24, 1860, but was never received since Miguel Antonio Otero, the New Mexico Delegate in Congress, gave up the appropriation in return for the exemption of New Mexico from direct Civil War taxes in 1862.
Further attempts were made during the 1860's and 1870's to finish construction since it was necessary to rent other space for the functions of the federal courts and territorial legislature. Among the appeals sent to Washington was one explaining the lack of competent workmen to cut the stone for the building, which was "of the hardest nature and very difficult to cut," and also that "all the tools to work with must be brought from the States" as no such equipment was available in New Mexico.
Except for these appeals, the half-built structure, which was said to bear a striking resemblance to "the bulk of a coal barge," was neglected until the summer of 1883 when the grounds around the building were selected as the site of Santa Fe's "Tertio-Millenial" celebration. The grounds were cleared and graded since the area had previously been excavated for adobe making and was also the receptacle for city refuse. The stone walls were given a temporary roof and an exterior stairway was built to the first floor. In May of the following year, a simple sandstone monument in honor of Kit Carson was erected by his comrades of the Grand Army of the Republic at the main (south) entrance of the building.
Several more years passed before work started again on the courthouse. It was finally completed in 1889, together with the circular stone wall and iron fence around the federal grounds. Final construction was made possible by an appropriation of $52,000 which was secured by the New Mexico delegate in Congress, Antonio Joseph. The building was never used for capitol purposes. Upon completion of the structure, the Court of Private Land Claims held its sessions in the building which was also used for various divisions of the U.S. Land Office. An addition to the north side, in the same architectural style as the original building, was constructed in 1929-1930.
Of interest on interior of the building are six large murals mounted on the walls adjacent to the north and south entries. The murals, executed by William Penhallow Henderson, were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and installed in the building in 1938.
The building was individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places on May 25, 1973, with significance in the areas of architecture and government.