The Detroit Federal Building/U.S. Courthouse is located in the downtown financial district and occupies the entire block bounded on the north by Lafayette Boulevard, the south by Fort Street, the west by Washington Boulevard and the east by Shelby Street.
The structural system is of a regular bay steel frame construction, resting on a series of concrete caissons. Concrete is also used for poured-in-place floor slabs as well as fire-proofing for steel columns and beams. The exterior stone cladding is hung from the steel frame or tied to back-up walls of unit masonry.
All four of the exterior elevations are similar, although the primary entries are located on the north and south sides while vehicular openings are located on the east and west. Each elevation is divided vertically into thirds, with a base, a midsection and a top. The base consists of a raised basement and floors one and two and is clad with polished black granite at the water table/raised basement level, and smooth-cut limestone blocks at the first and second stories. The basement, first and second stories have punched recessed openings with bronze sheet sills. The middle portion of the building, floors three through seven, is also faced with smooth-cut limestone articulated by rectilinear pilasters. The windows on the third through sixth stories are grouped vertically and separated by bronze spandrels. The seventh floor windows are in punched openings with bronze sheet sills. The upper portion of the building, floors eight through ten, is characterized by smooth-cut limestone with vertically-grouped windows aligning with those of the middle section. The cubic mass of the building is relieved by minor setbacks at the third and eighth floor levels. An ornamental frieze with relief sculpture extends around the building between the sixth and seventh floors. Each elevation has carved relief panels located in its end bays. The panels depict 1930's-era federal government agencies. Extending between the end bays is a frieze of circular medallions alternating with carved, fluted panels. The medallions depict various symbols of the federal government.
The building has bronze framed, single-glazed, double-hung windows of varying proportions. Typically, the first floor openings are glazed with double four-over-six sash and are surmounted by fixed transoms. Floors two and seven have double, four-over-six sash without transoms. Floors three through six and eight through ten have paired, double-hung sash with four-over-four lights grouped vertically and separated by fluted bronze spandrels.
As stated previously, the principal entries to the building are located on the north and south elevations. Each entry is centered on the elevation where three portals are defined by four fluted pilasters surmounted with stylized eagles. These entries are reached by granite stairs leading from the sidewalk level to recessed loggias. At the north end of the east and west elevations are granite-clad vehicular sally-ports which lead into the basement level parking/loading dock area.
Significant interior spaces include the vaulted public concourse which extends north-south between the primary entries on the first floor and the two-story courtrooms located on the seventh and eighth floors. The Chief Judge's Courtoom, Room 732-734, was salvaged from the previous federal building that occupied the site and reconstructed in the present building. The Romanesque style courtroom stands in dramatic contrast to the stripped, neo-classical and modernistic details typical of the other courtrooms.
Of interest, the building was originally designed and engineered to carry two more full stories in place of the penthouses at the eleventh and twelfth floors. A 1931 publication rendering depicts the courthouse with twelve full stories. Their elimination may have stemmed from budget shortfalls during the period of construction between 1932 and 1934 which coincided with the height of the Great Depression.