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.
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.
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