Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, New York, NY

Exterior:  Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, New York, NY

Building History

In the early nineteenth century, what is now known as Foley Square was part of an immigrant district known as Five Points. By the 1850s, the neighborhood, home to the "Den of Thieves" (actually the Old Brewery) and "Murderers' Alley," was infamous as one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in the world. Gradually, the condition of the neighborhood, as well as its somewhat exaggerated reputation, improved.

Over time, the area became home to several distinguished civic buildings including City Hall (1811), the Tweed Courthouse (1878), the Surrogates Court and Hall of Records (1911), and the Municipal Building (1914).

In 1931 Cass Gilbert (1850-1934) was commissioned to design a new federal courthouse at Foley Square. His earlier works, including New York's Custom House (1907) at Bowling Green, were primarily of the Beaux Arts tradition, characterized by elaborate ornamentation. Later designs embraced the revival of Neoclassicism, a more restrained style, though equally monumental. In addition to the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, two of Gilbert's most significant buildings in this style are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (1925) and the U.S. Supreme Court Building (1935), both in Washington, DC.

Construction of the courthouse began in July of 1932 and lasted three and one-half years. One of Gilbert's last great works, it was among the first federal skyscrapers ever constructed. The design, combining an elegant square tower with a six-story base, met the substantial space requirements of the courts without visually overwhelming the nearby buildings (as a traditional horizontal federal building of the same square footage would have done).

The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. In 1992 three of the large historic courtrooms were restored.

On August 20, 2001, the courthouse was officially renamed in honor of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, serving from 1967 to 1991. Before this appointment, Marshall was Chief Counsel to the NAACP, a circuit judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Solicitor General of the United States.


The Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse is prominently located on the lower east side of Manhattan, just a few blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge. Built around three interior courtyards, its rusticated six-story base has an irregular shape that follows the outline of the site. A thirty-story square tower, 590 feet in height, is set back a considerable distance on the base, parallel to the front of the building. Urns at the tower's corners mark a setback at the twenty-seventh floor. The tower has a steeply pitched, pyramidal terra cotta roof covered in gold leaf and topped by a small open lantern, also of gold-glazed terra cotta.

Massive granite steps lead up to the main entrance on Foley Square, and are flanked by large pedestals. Gilbert intended the pedestals to bear two monumental sculptural groups, but they were never executed. Ten four-story Corinthian columns form the imposing portico that shelters the entrance, and the frieze is carved with a detailed floral design. The ends of the entablature above are embellished with roundels, designed to resemble antique coins, on which are carved the heads of four ancient lawgivers: Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, and Moses. The Corinthian capitals crowning the columns of the portico return to top pilasters along the building's other primary facades. Minnesota granite, off-white in color and mottled with peach and gray, was used to finish the exterior elevations of the courthouse.

The main hall is equally majestic in appearance, and spans the width of the building along its principal elevation. It bears strong similarity in overall design and ornamentation to the main hall of the U.S. Supreme Court Building, which Gilbert designed at the same time. Variations on the decorative motifs employed within the main hall appear throughout the rest of the interior. Twenty-nine feet in height, it has green- and black-veined white marble floors; the white marble that lines its walls has gold- and cream-colored veining, providing a subtle but attractive contrast of warm and cool tones. Elaborate molding, featuring a Greek key design, divides the ceiling into rectangular, coffered sections. The coffers are decorated with large plaster rosettes tipped with 22k gold leaf on alternating backgrounds of crimson and peacock blue, with smaller rosettes at the junctions of the coffers.

Richly ornamental bronzework surrounds many of the interior doors, including those of the elevators. This bronze detailing features an unusual combination of metaphorical images related to law and government, including dolphins, an erudite if somewhat obscure symbol of birth and democratic ideals. Among the other motifs are grasshoppers apparently feeding on stalks of wheat, accompanied by the Greek word meta, meaning "to transform", which conveys the idea that change, even conflict, is essential to growth; there are also owls, representing wisdom, and acorns and oak leaves, signifying strength and endurance.

The building contains thirty-five courtrooms. Sixteen are original to the courthouse, five in the base and eleven in the tower, including the historic Court of Appeals courtroom. Courtrooms have wood-paneled walls with colossal round arches and fluted Ionic pilasters; the Greek key molding seen in the main hall also enframes the ceilings of the tower courtrooms. The Court of Appeals courtroom ceiling also depicts nautical symbols.

Within the tower, at the twenty-fifth floor, a double-height library features large ceiling beams supported by brackets painted with stenciled foliate designs. The library's high, arched windows offer stunning views of the Manhattan skyline.

The courthouse has three particularly striking neighbors. Flanking it are two highrise structures: the Municipal Building (1914) by McKim, Mead and White; and the Daniel P. Moynihan U.S. Courthouse (1994) by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. Adjacent to the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, and also facing Foley Square, is the New York County Courthouse (1926) by Guy Lowell.

Significant Events

Mid-1800's: The Five Points area (which surrounds present-day Foley Square) gains notoriety as a violent, impoverished immigrant neighborhood and center for organized crime.

1926: Foley Square is given its name in honor of Thomas F. Foley, saloon-keeper and Tammany Hall district leader.

1932-1936: The U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square is constructed.

1987: The Courthouse is added to the National Register of Historic Places.

1992: Restoration of six historic courtrooms including the three large courtrooms in the building's base.

2001: The Courthouse is officially renamed the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse.

Building Facts

Architect: Cass Gilbert

Construction Dates: 1932-1936

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 40 Foley Square, on the east side of lower Manhattan

Architectural Style: Neoclassical

Primary Materials: Minnesota white granite

Prominent Features: Thirty-story tower main portico with ten Corinthian columns and a monumental staircase

Exterior:  Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, New York, NY

The United States Courthouse, Foley Square, is located at 40 Foley Square in the Civic Center of Manhattan. The site is an irregular parcel facing Foley Square to the north. To the east, across Pearl Street is the New York County Courthouse (1926). On the southwest is a service yard and two non-historic metal bridges which connect the third level of the courthouse to the Silvio Mollo U.S. Attorney's Building (1976) and the Metropolitan Correction Center (1976) across Cardinal Hayes Place. On the northwest side, a pedestrian plaza connects Foley Square with the Municipal Building (1914) (NHL). The Foley Square courthouse is located in a well-established and distinguished complex of civic buildings in New York City. These are the Federal period City Hall (1811) (NHL) and a number of government buildings erected in the area during the 1920s. These buildings include the Surrogate's Court (1911) (NHL), a Beaux-Arts style granite structure built to the plans of John R. Thomas in the French "Hotel de ville" style, the Municipal Building (1914) by McKim Mead and White, an innovative adaptation of the Classical Revival, the Neoclassical style New York County Courthouse (1926) by Guy Lowell, the New York State Office Building (1930) by Sullivan W. James and William E. Haugaard. The 31 story U.S. Courthouse is divided into three main parts: a six story base occupying the entire site, out of which rises a rectangular tower shaft surmounted by a classical temple crowned by a gold-tiled pyramid, culminating in a lantern. All the exterior elevations are finished in Minnesota granite, of off-white color, and mottled with peach and gray. The base of the courthouse is irregularly shaped following the shape of the lot. The site slopes from south to north, allowing ground floor space below grade at the south to open directly on grade at Pearl Street along the northeast side of the site. The base section contains the first six floors, together with a monumental granite stair leading to the main portico and entrance along Foley Square. The ground floor is above grade and the remaining sides of the building except along the south side at St. Andrew's Place. The south side of the building is interrupted for the out parcel of St. Andrew's Church. The base has an irregular plan which is built around three interior courtyards. The tower extends to the ground outside the enclosing base only at its southwest corner behind the church. Above the base rises a thirty-story tower that provided the necessary floor space and recognized its "modern" character. The tower is set back on the base in such a way that it is hardly noticeable within normal view from the sidewalk on the east side of Foley Square. Gilbert apparently wanted the tower to appear as a skyline element among the skyscrapers of the lower Manhattan, while the street level mass of the building blended in with the size and scale of the neighborhood. The shaft consists of a square tower extending from floors seven to twenty-two. The tower section contains courtrooms, judges' offices and judges' chambers. The first sixteen stories are given vertical emphasis by the piers separating the window bays. The windows are separated horizontally from each other by rectangular spandrel panels. Above the seventeenth story, a denticulate cornice sets off the three stories above it, which are treated as a unit. A series of horizontal cornices marks the change in window pattern to give two-story arched windows surmounted by small square ones. This space corresponds to the library on the 25th floor. The end bays at the corners are of solid masonry pierced by slit windows. This section is crowned by a pierced stone parapet with urns at the corners emphasizing the setbacks of the tower section above. The small setback portion above the shaft supports the pyramidal roof. The setback is divided into five bays on each side separated by three-story high, engaged Ionic columns with paired pilasters. A shallow cornice and low attic story crown the topmost section of the tower with eagles at the corners connected by simple low parapets. These floors contain a variety of services and functions, including elevator equipment and water storage. This small section forms the base for the steep pyramidal roof, which is adorned with gold leaf. At the base of the roof, small pedimental dormers adorn the upper portion of each side. The roof is crowned with a small gold-leafed lantern which has a railing at its base and is crowned by corner finials and a steep roof with an oblong finial. On the first floor the main lobby spans the entire width of the building along the Foley Square side. The walls of this double-height space are lined with white marble and superimposed colossal Ionic pilasters. The wood and plaster ceiling is divided into seven rectangular sections separated from each other by ornate Greek fret molding. Each section is coffered, edged in gold, and large rosettes of red and blue are centered in each coffer. White marble lintel molding trims the ceiling. Elevator banks are housed in the rear. The elevator doors were originally planned to be brass, but to reduce the costs they were made of steel and were recently painted gold. There are thirty-five courtrooms in this building; each one has similar ornamental motifs. Many of the smaller courtrooms have undergone extensive alteration and little of the original fabric remains. The larger courtrooms, however, contain many of the original features: wood paneled walls with engaged fluted Ionic pilasters set between colossal round arches and paneled ceilings enflamed with Greek fret molding. The remainder of the interior space consists of offices and the library. Many of the offices have been altered and have little resemblance to the original plans. The double-height library on the twenty-fifth floor, however, remains relatively unchanged. Of special note are the large ceiling beams supported on foliate brackets, which still display their original stenciled foliate designs. The more recent additions to this room are the balconies erected to increase shelf space and improve lighting. Excerpted from National Register Nomination Form

Exterior:  Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse, New York, NY

According to the National Register Nomination statement, the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square (1932-1936) is architecturally and historically significant as one of the largest and most distinctive examples of the Federal architecture erected by the U.S. Treasury Department during the expanded public buildings programs of the 1930s. One of the last commissions executed by nationally prominent architect Cass Gilbert, the design of the courthouse embodies the restrained Neoclassicism that had become the preferred idiom for federal buildings during the 1920s. The building reflects a shift in Gilbert's work at the end of his long career, as more conservative designs replaced the more imaginative and richly decorated compositions (such as the U.S. Customs House at Bowling Green and the Woolworth Building) that had established his reputation several decades earlier. Gilbert's design for the Foley Square Courthouse - particularly the monumental six-story base articulated by a Corinthian colonnade on the principal elevation (itself remarkably similar to McKim, Mead and White's General Post Office of 1914) - maintains its link to the public architecture of the earlier twentieth century and harmonizes in style and scale with the buildings in the surrounding neighborhood. These include the New York County Courthouse (1926) and the Municipal Building (1912-14), both classical in inspiration, which flank the courthouse. At the time, the 31-story "modern" office tower component of the courthouse, believed to have been inspired by the form of the campanile in St. Mark's Square in Venice, reflects Gilbert's interest in and proficiency with, steel frame skyscraper construction, as well as his concern with satisfying the practical needs of his clients within the limits of the site. One of the last Neoclassical style office buildings erected in New York as well as one of the earlier skyscrapers built by the federal government, the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square illustrates an important turning point in American architectural history.

The Foley Square Courthouse was designed by Cass Gilbert, one of the most prominent architects of his day. Gilbert (1859-1934) was born in Zanesville, Ohio and began his architectural career as an apprentice in the office of Abraham Radcliff of St. Paul. In 1878, he enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he spent a year studying architecture. In 1880, he spent several months traveling and studying in England, France and Italy before returning to New York and joining the prestigious firm of McKim, Mead and White as Stanford White's personal assistant.

During the 1890s, Gilbert established a national reputation, designing residences, churches, commercial buildings, government buildings, railway stations and bridges. Around 1900, Gilbert moved his office to New York. His most important early commissions in that city include the Broadway Chambers Building (1899), an early steel-frame skyscraper that exhibited a traditional three-part classical composition, and the U.S. Customs House at Bowling Green (completed 1907), a monumental, richly decorated Beaux-Arts building (NHL) that epitomized the ideal federal style as conceived by James Knox Taylor.

Gilbert reached the height of his popularity with the completion of the Woolworth Building in 1913. This slender 742-foot-tall skyscraper, a romantic interpretation of the Gothic Revival clad in light-weight, fire resistant terra cotta, was the tallest building in the world for the next quarter century.

Gilbert's early designs for the federal government, particularly Bowling Green Customs House, are imbued with the Beaux-Arts spirit that he and Taylor had embraced as ideal for federal architecture. His later work, however, is characterized by a more restrained classicism, reflecting a similar shift in federal design ideals during the 1920s under the leadership of Louis A. Simon, who served in the Treasury Department as Superintendent of Architects from 1915 to 1933. During this period, Gilbert is credited with three federal buildings in Washington, D.C.: the U.S. Treasury Annex (1918), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (1925), and the U.S. Supreme Court Building (1933-35); completed after his death), all in a restrained Neoclassical idiom, as well as the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square.

Gilbert died in England on May 8, 1934, with the Supreme Court Building and the Foley Square Courthouse under construction. Both projects were brought to completion by his son, Cass Gilbert, Jr.

The use of a skyscraper form for a federal building was a significant departure from the accepted norm for federal architecture, which favored horizontal forms. Only in Boston had the skyscraper form appeared in federal architecture earlier, with the tower that was added to the U.S. Custom House in 1915. By the time the Foley Square Courthouse was designed and constructed, however, modern forms and decoration had already significantly changed the appearance of much public and private architecture and were beginning to influence federal architecture as well. Construction was begun nearby on the Church Street F.O.B. (designed by Cross and Cross and Pennington, Lewis and Mills) only about a year after the Foley Square Courthouse, yet the Church Street building features stylized forms and decoration that clearly reflect the influence of modernism.

Description Architect
1932 1936 Original Construction Cass Gilbert
1961 Refinishing interior metal Elliott Metal Maint. Inc.
1961 Paint judges' chamb.; Paint & Decor. Dunrite Painting&Dec.Co.Inc.&others
1961 Painting & decorating elevator lobby - ceilings Joseph Zaikov
1962 Jury boxes in crtrms #1505 & 1506 & bookcases The Gothic Alter Studio Inc.
1962 Add'l. judges' chambers & 2 balconies in Main Lib. Crosby Cont. Co. Inc.
1965 Electronic birdproofing Electrepel Inc.
1968 Partial interior painting - partial exterior paint Ahern Painting Contractor Inc.
1968 Remove tile & replace w/composition roof Unity Sheet Metal Works, Inc.
1969 1971 Rehabilitate courtrooms, Phase I & II Morris Park Contracting Co.& others
1972 Additional court facilities - Phases III & IV Pluto Construction Corp.
1973 Modernization & Alterations - prof. services Gruzen & Partners
1974 Modernization & alterations - Phases I & II Joseph Morton Co., Inc. & others
1974 Modernization of rooms 509 & 1601 Nativo Gen. Contracting Inc.
1975 Restoration of Fed. Crt. of Appeals Harbig Contracting Corp. & others
1977 Wood door refinishing Weiss & Woolrich Contracting Co.
1977 Refinishing bronze work Stuart-Dean Co., Inc.
1977 Restoration work court room 506 Weiss & Woolrich Contracting
1977 Artistic restoration of Lobby Ceilings Rambusch Decorating Co.
1977 Renovation of toilet rooms for handicapped PJR Construction Corp.
1978 Fire safety items & sprinkler system A.&S. Automatic Sprinkler
1979 Upgrade pistol range Gramery Contr., Inc.
1985 Roof replacement - 6th floor Star Painting & Contracting
1986 Sprinkler system throughout building
1986 New fire alarm & 2-way voice communication system Proj. #RNY86001
1991 US Magistrate hearing rm & clerical area Proj. # RNY88115
1991 Exterior facade & appurtenances repairs Proj. # RNY 87052
1991 Clean and restore apx 30 interior windows Proj. #N9766497
1991 Terra Cotta roof repairs - 27th-31st fl pyramid Proj. # RNY 87051
1991 3rd Fl. US magist. hearing rm & clerical area Proj. #RNY88532
Last Reviewed: 2022-05-19