Exterior:  Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse, Savannah, Georgia

Building History

The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Savannah (originally constructed as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse) is located on a prominent site within the city's National Historic Landmark District. The building occupies an entire city block bounded by Bull, York, Whitaker, and State Streets, adjacent to Wright Square. The building makes an important visual contribution architecturally to the city due to the high quality of its design and materials, and as such is individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style, with richly carved ornamentation, it is one of the most distinguished and imposing buildings of its era in Savannah.

The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse was built primarily to house the Savannah post office, which was previously located in the U.S. Custom House. In 1889, work had just begun on a new post office at the corner of York and Abercorn Streets when construction was suspended because the citizens of Savannah wanted a "more suitable" building than the one originally planned. As a result, the U.S. Congress was persuaded to appropriate additional funds for the new post office, and in 1894, excavations began at a new site in the southern half of the block now entirely occupied by the building. (This site itself was notable in Savannah's history as the former location of a courthouse where

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, preached in 1736 and 1737.) The original building was designed between 1893 and 1894, during W. J. Edbrooke's tenure as Supervising Architect of the Treasury. The building cornerstone lists Jeremiah O'Rourke as the architect.

By July 30, 1899, all departments of the post office were in the new government building. It also housed the U.S. Courts, the U.S. Engineers, and the U.S. Weather Bureau. The building was enlarged between 1930 and 1932, when it was extended north to encompass the remainder of the block. Today, the building serves as offices for the U.S. District Court and Court-related functions.

Architecture

Designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style, the original portion of the building is constructed entirely of white Georgia marble, and features the typical Italianate tripartite facade divisions characteristic of the style. The richly varied fenestration is one of the most prominent characteristics of the building. Various forms are skillfully used, resulting in distinct yet unified facade treatments.

The original portion of the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse (visible on the York Street side and in the southernmost bay on Bull Street) is a richly ornamented, rectilinear building, to which an L-shaped wing was added in 1932 to form the current U-shaped plan. The main facade of the original building faced President Street. In the 1930s, President Street was closed and the building was extended north to State Street, enlarging it to over twice its original size. The 1932 addition was executed in marble with terra cotta ornamentation emulating the marble detailing of the original building.

The building is three stories in height, with a granite/ashlar foundation. On both the original building and the 1932 addition, scale is carefully manipulated as the building rises on the exterior-from the heavily rusticated base with massive semicircular arched openings, to the third floor where triple arched openings are used to give the appearance of a colonnade.

The building's exterior ornamentation, both that executed in marble on the original portion of the building and the terra-cotta detailing on the extension, is rich and varied. Motifs relating to nature--including flowers, animals, and fruit-are incorporated into the frieze (the carved band below the eaves) alternating with medallions of variously colored marble. Similar motifs are repeated above certain windows and at the bases of the main entrance arches. Two carved faces (one on the north facade and one on the south) are traditionally said to be likenesses of the architect, Jeremiah O'Rourke.

Arched entrance openings, which occur singly, in pairs, or tangentially connected, on the street level of the building give the appearance of an arcade. On the second level, flat-topped windows are recessed in double-arched openings, continuing themes established on the street level. These arched openings are successfully mixed with flat-topped window openings. The third level displays an even more intricate composition of forms. Here, flat-topped windows recessed in triple-arched openings are combined with flat-topped windows topped with elaborately carved semicircular panels. These latter openings, which are hung singly and in triplicate, provide continuous visual unification of patterns and forms. The elaborate carvings over many of the openings are similar to the stylized motifs found elsewhere on the building. The walls terminate in a Corinthian entablature consisting of an elaborate frieze, dentil course, and bracketed cornice. The red pantile roof with tile cresting and ornamental ball finials was manufactured by the well-known Ludowici Company.

One particularly imposing feature of the building is a 150-foot marble bell tower rising from the north center of the original 1899 building. The tower is square in plan with two levels of open loggias near the top. These loggias are arcaded with colored marble disks above the architrave on the first level, and arched openings with a bracketed balcony on the second.

Although the interior has been substantially renovated to accommodate various tenants through the years, original materials-including 1899 fireplace mantles in some rooms on the upper floors of the south wing-are still evident in parts of the building. In other areas, later dropped ceilings have been removed, returning many rooms to their original height and exposing original window transoms. In the 1980s a new courtroom was constructed in the first floor postal work area of the 1899 building. In 1995, the attic was converted to a fitness center with a cathedral ceiling. Recent U.S. General Service Administration preservation efforts include restoration of the third floor courtroom in the 1932 addition and replication of historic lighting in the 1899 lobbies.

Significant Events

1894-1899: Construction of the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, later renamed the Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, takes place.

1932: A major addition more than doubles the building's size.

1974: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1992-93: The U.S. General Services Administration completes the restoration of the lobby,
third-floor courtroom, and other spaces.

1999: U.S. Postal Service vacates the building.

Building Facts

Architect: Jeremiah O'Rourke

Construction Dates: 1894-1899, Addition 1930-1932

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 125-127 Bull Street, on Wright Square

Architectural Style: Second Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: White Georgia marble, terra cotta, and marble ornamentation

Prominent Feature: Marble bell tower and elaborate exterior ornamentation

The Federal Building, previously called the U.S. Post Office, was less than half its present size when first built. At the time of construction, President Street ran into Wright Square. The main facade of the Post Office, with five arched entrance doors including leaded glass and a centrally placed square tower, originally opened onto President Street. President Street was closed in the 1930s and the building was extended north to State Street.

The Tomochichi Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Savannah is a richly ornamented, rectilinear white marble building erected in 1894, with a matching L-shaped addition constructed in 1932. The style is Second Renaissance Revival executed totally in marble on the original building. On the 1932 addition, however, all of the ornamentation was duplicated in terra cotta. The original building has the typical Italianate tripartite elevation common to Renaissance Revival buildings. It has a rusticated base with massive semi-circular arched openings. At the second floor arched openings are typically paired. The scale is reduced on the third floor where triple arched openings give the appearance of a colonnade. The surface is enriched with relief in the arches, friezes and entablatures. A heavy bracketed cornice intersects a red Ludowici tile, hipped roof. A massive square bell tower with a slate roof rises about four floors above the roof at the north side of the original structure, now within the Light Court.

The 1932 addition emulates most of the detailing of the original building, but executes it in glazed white terra cotta rather than carved marble. Elevations of the 1932 addition are symmetrical and have very slight projecting and receding planes.

Various openings are used on the building. The first floor openings have large rounded arches, including the two main entrances now located on the east facade that lead to recessed landings. Second floor openings are flat across the east front and on the end bays of both sides. Other openings on the second story, and those of the third floor, are arched and grouped in twos and threes. Openings at the second and third floors in the central mass of both north and south elevations and in the entrance bays on the east facade are typically recessed with balconies creating a loggia effect. Balusters at the second floor and bracketed marble balconies at the third floor end pavilions also reinforce this effect. Second floor windows are connected by a string course. There are elaborate carvings over many openings. The entablature is heavily carved and inset with medallions of varying colors of marble at the frieze. The cornice is bracketed. At the rear of the building on Whitaker Street is a covered loading and service area.

The interior has been extensively renovated to accommodate the various tenants through the years. Even so, many finishes date from the original construction period as well as to the period of the 1932 addition.

The Tomochichi Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Savannah, Georgia, was originally constructed to house the U.S. Post Office as well as the U.S. Courts, U.S. Engineers and the Weather Bureau. It was built on the site where John Wesley, founder of Methodism, preached in 1736 and 1737 in a courthouse erected by James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia.

The post office had first been located in the U.S. Customs House. Post office functions then moved to the corner of Bay and Drayton Streets, and then to 25 Whitaker before the U. S. Courthouse was built. Work began in 1889 on a U.S. Post Office at the corner of York and Abercorn Streets, but the work was abandoned when Savannah citizens wanted a "more suitable" structure. This first site was in more of a residential neighborhood.

Congress was persuaded to appropriate additional funds and excavations were begun on June 14, 1894 for a new post office (the Federal Building which is the subject of this report). The new site was several blocks to the west, occupying the full block bounded by Bull (one of Savannah's main streets), York, Whitaker and President Streets. The building, designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style, was probably designed in 1893-1894 during the tenure of W.J. Edbrooke as Supervising Architect of the Treasury. The cornerstone lists Jeremiah O'Rourke as architect. Included in the ornate carving on the north and south elevations of the original building are two identical stone units at the springing point of the central 2nd floor windows. A sculptural face is carved into each of these stones. Local opinion holds that the likeness of the architect was the basis for these two sculptures. By July 30, 1899, all departments of the post office were in the new government building. A local newspaper called it "an ornament and a pride to the city."

The building was enlarged between 1930 and 1932. At that time, President Street was closed and the structure was extended to cover what had originally been two city blocks, with the extended site having its north frontage on State Street. Today the building serves as offices for various federal agencies, and as a District Court.

Savannah’s historic urban core was recognized in 1966 as a National Historic Landmark District. Its primary significance was based on the city’s distinctive plan which has survived and grown since it was established in 1733 by Governor James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia. Based on the ward as the unit of social aggregation, Oglethorpe’s plan made use of public squares, boundary and axis streets, and lanes to create a highly efficient and attractive urban setting that could be easily defended. Downtown Savannah today has a chronology of more than 250 years of architectural styles superimposed upon the eighteenth century plan.

Savannah’s plan has several exceptional features that distinguish it from other settlements and which continue to allow the city to grow in an orderly and aesthetically pleasing manner. The basic units are the wards which were each named and organized as neighborhoods of equal size. Each ward includes a central public square, flanked by two trust lots to the east and two to the west. The importance of the trust lots to each square was consistently reinforced by the civic buildings which were placed in these premier locations. At the northern and southern sides of each ward are four tithing blocks (two on each side reserved for private ownership. The tithing’s originally had ten town lots each, making a total of forty town lots per ward available for houses. Each town lot faces north-south and was designed to be sixty feet wide and ninety feet deep. The grid of streets intersects at right angles with several widths depending on their intended use and importance. A single street enters the square in the middle of its north and south sides, and three streets enter the square from the east and west. The tithing blocks are each bisected by narrow east-west lanes.

Savannah’s character cannot de understood without comprehending the rationality of its spaces and the rhythmic placement of its buildings, streets, and open areas. Each square developed as a unique expression of its own ward and also as a part of a series of linked open spaces which provided physical relief in the hot, humid climate. Bull Street became an important north-south corridor connecting the seat of government to the series of squares which contained some of the most prominent monuments and works of public art. The plan combined visual diversity with organizational effectiveness.

Within the ward there is a hierarch of structures. Gateways to each square exist on the north-south and east-west axis streets, the streets which run to the centers of each square. Thus the buildings which front the squares on these axis streets are of greatest significance within the plan. These include the trust lot structures and the buildings on the north-south streets facing the square. The trust lot structures are the most significant, while those on the north-south axis street corners are the next most significant. These are followed in importance by the structures which are visible from the square on the tangential and axial streets respectively.

The Tomochichi Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse (FB-CT), opposite Wright Square, is in Percival Ward, one of the first four wards established. Not only is the plan, as a structure of city streets and open spaces, well preserved in this location, but this site is also in a remarkable intact state regarding the relationship of its structures. The trust lots on either side of Wright Square support monumental public buildings. The presence of both religious and civic architecture on these lots is in keeping with the intentions of Oglethorpe’s plan. The corner buildings on three of the four corners facing Wright Square are substantial structures with a prominence to the adjoining buildings on three blocks. In fact, the City Plan surrounding Wright Square has only been altered by the expansion of the Federal Courthouse and Post Office. When first built, the Federal building occupied one of the west trust lots and opened onto President Street. The building was enlarged in the 1930s to more than twice its original size and extended north to State Street. It now covers two trust lots and resulted in the loss of President Street between the west trust lots. This older façade is now on the interior of the “U” and is not visible from the street.

In 2004, the building was named after Tomochichi, a Native American who befriended Oglethorpe during the establishment of the City of Savannah. The English general, James Oglethorpe, first launched Savannah on the Savannah River in 1733. He founded the British colony there and he met Tomochichi as he came up the bluff at what is now the city of Savannah. Unlike the tragic history of conflict between settlers and Native Americans in other colonies, Tomochichi brought lifelong friendship to the infant colony, granting the settlers permission to peacefully settle in the Savannah region. Among Savannahians the hospitality that Tomochichi showed these young settlers is legendary. But Tomochichi's gifts to the State were just beginning.
Thanks to his diplomatic skills, this Yamacraw leader was instrumental in convincing the other Creek tribes in the immediate vicinity to accept the fledgling colony of Georgia. Without his political leadership, Georgia may well have perished in its infancy, with a hostile Spanish administration in what is now Florida, intent on turning Native Americans against English settlers.

Tomochichi and his family then traveled to England where they met with the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Upon his return to Georgia, Tomochichi successfully lobbied his new neighbors to establish the first missionary school among the Lower Creeks, recognizing that education was the key to the future as these two cultures became intertwined.

Tomochichi passed away at around 93 years of age on October 5, 1739, at what we used to call the Yamacraw Indian Village, just upstream from Savannah. But before he died, he requested that his body be buried in Savannah among his new friends. He was buried with full military honors in the largest public ceremony of the day, with cannons firing a final salute and his old friend General Oglethorpe serving as a pallbearer. His body was laid to rest in the center of the city's main square at the time, later to be named Wright Square, with a traditional Indian burial mound atop his grave. A century and a half later in the 1880s, some shortsighted city officials allowed the mound to be removed and another statue placed on the site. Admirers of the great chieftain responded by placing an inscribed granite boulder in honor of Tomochichi a few feet from his remains.

The current memorial to Tomochichi consists of a rough granite fragment displaying an inscriptional bronze plaque. It was erected in 1899 by the Georgia Society of Colonial Dames of America. The inscription reads: "In memory of Tom-o-chi-chi. The mico of the Yamacraws, The Companion of Oglethorpe, and the Friend and Ally of the Colony of Georgia." It is possible this is the only memorial erected for a Native American by descendants of European settlers.

The Tomochichi Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse makes a visual contribution to the city even though it is of a later period than historic Savannah; it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse was individually listed on the National Register on June 4, 1974 and is a contributing property to Savannah's National Historic Landmark District whose period of significance extends through 1934. This designation places the area on the National Register with a national level of significance. The nomination lists the period of significance as the 19th and 20th centuries, with specific periods 1875-1899, and significant years: 1883, 1899 (completed), and 1932 (addition completed).

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1894 1899 Original Construction O'Rourke, Jeremiah
1932 60,242 square foot addition built Unknown