One of a group of stately public buildings along Des Moines' riverfront, the U.S. Courthouse at 123 East Walnut Street is a significant monument in the Civic Center Complex. It illustrates principles of Beaux Arts architectural design and urban planning.
In 1902, as Des Moines initiated plans to establish a civic center based on City Beautiful ideals, the river-front was recommended as the site of a new federal courthouse. Other sites were considered in 1913 when funds were allocated, but the riverfront was still preferred as "one of the most desirable sites offered." Land was bought in 1918, but concerns over the need for additional space delayed the project until adjacent sites were purchased in 1926. The new U.S. Courthouse was finally constructed in 1927-1928 under Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury James A. Wetmore.
When the building opened in 1929, it housed the courts and federal departmental offices including War, Justice, Navy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury, and the U.S. Post Office. The U.S. Courthouse was the site of a landmark legal decision in 1979 when Judge William C. Stuart held that it is the federal government's right to legislate travel by "long" trucks on interstate roads maintained by federal funding. The Supreme Court subsequently upheld this decision.
The U.S. Courthouse is one of seven monumental public buildings constructed along the Des Moines River. The other Civic Center buildings include: the Des Moines Public Library (1900-1903); the Post Office (1909-1910); the Municipal Building (1909-1910); the Coliseum (1909-1910; burned 1949), the Municipal Court and Public Safety Building (1918-1920), and the Armory and World War Memorial Building (1934-1935). These buildings are distinguished by their location and harmonious design. Five of the extant buildings are Classical Revival; while the Armory is Art Moderne. All reflect the City Beautiful Movement precepts by promoting civic patriotism, and enhancing urban economics and beauty.
In 1988 the riverfront area, including the U.S. Courthouse, was designated as the Civic Center Historic District and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1995 a build-to-suit leased annex with addition-al court space was constructed to the building's south.
As part of a dramatic grouping of monumental civic buildings along the banks of the Des Moines River, the U.S. Courthouse holds an important role in the urban landscape of Des Moines. Sited on the river, the building occupies an entire city block and is accessed from a major thoroughfare through the central business district.
The five-story, E-shaped building is a steel-frame structure clad with Indiana limestone. Its four variations of stone finishes emphasize the aesthetic ideals of the Classical Revival style. The raised basement is clad in smooth ashlar limestone with flat-arched window openings. The piano nobile is finished with rusticated limestone pierced by semi-circular arched openings ornamented with keystones. Two-story Corinthian columns and pilasters veneered in smooth limestone mark the third and fourth stories. The recessed attic story is articulated with paneled pilasters and a banded cornice. A striking feature is the pronounced entablature at the top of the third story, featuring sloping modillions, a modestly detailed stone cornice, and molded frieze.
The primary (north) facade is the most elaborate elevation. It is nineteen bays wide with slightly projecting pavilions. The thirteen center-most bays are enhanced by fourteen massive engaged columns with Corinthian capitals. Fenestration is formally organized and includes arched windows on the first story, large rectangular windows on the second story, and square windows on the third story and attic level. The central (main) entrance is articulated with three, two-story semi-circular arches adorned by rusticated voissoirs and large scrolled keystones. Secondary entries are set within three arched openings at the center of the more austere east and west elevations. The east and west facades are seven bays wide and presented in a three-part composition that echoes the primary facade.
The interior of the Des Moines courthouse reflects the restrained quality associated with late Classical Revival design. The ceremonial entrance hall contains the original gold, black, and white speckled terrazzo flooring framed by a base of Red Verona marble. The grand stair leading to the entrance hall is composed of Napoleon gray marble treads and buff-colored marble risers. The elaborate, classically styled, cast-iron balustrade is composed of vine-like curved scrolls with floral accents, fitted between bands of floral discs and squares. The stair hall is ornamented with an intricate plaster coffered ceiling and classically inspired entablature.
The most significant space in the building is the main courtroom on the second floor, a stunning and exceptionally intact example of Classical Revival design. Restored in 1988, notable features are the original floor bordered in pink Tennessee marble, decorative coffered ceiling, and walls plastered to imitate travertine ashlar masonry. Raised on a pink Tennessee marble platform, the judge's bench sits in the center of the wall in front of a small alcove flanked by two Corinthian columns. Above the alcove in gold letters are the words, "Justitia Omnibus" (Justice for All). Adjacent to the main courtroom are the judge's chambers, which include the judge's office, anteroom, and law library.
The building has undergone extensive renovation to meet modern office requirements, including installation of new mechanical systems, rehabilitation of spaces to meet the changing needs of the courts, and construction of an addition at the rear to accommodate the U.S. Marshals Service. The relocation of the original entrances from the first floor to the basement level meets modern needs but negates the importance of the original grand foyer. Despite these changes, the beauty of the building and its public spaces continue to convey the historic significance of the building.
1902: The U.S. Government recommends the construction of a new courthouse along the banks of the Des Moines River.
1913: The Public Buildings Act of 1913 allocates $350,000 for the construction of a new Federal building in Des Moines.
1918: The U.S. Government purchases a site along the Des Moines River for a new U.S. Courthouse.
1926: Land adjacent to the 1918 Courthouse site is purchased to accommodate space requirements, allowing the project to begin.
1927-1929: The U.S. Courthouse is constructed.
1979: The building is the site of a landmark decision on the Federal Government's right to legislate travel by "long" trucks on interstate roads maintained by Federal funding.
1988: The U.S. Courthouse is recognized as a contributing resource to the Civic Center Historic District; the building undergoes historic rehabilitation.
1995: A build-to-suit Annex with additional court spaces is constructed to the south of the building.
Architect: James A. Wetmore, Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury
Construction Dates: 1927-1929
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Contributing building to the Civic Center Historic District
Location: 123 East Walnut Street
Architectural Style: Classical Revival
Primary Materials: Indiana limestone
Prominent Features: Engaged Corinthian columns and pilasters; Main courtroom