Completed in 1940, the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse was the first single-purpose federal courthouse in the western United States. The building represents the United States' commitment to democratic ideals and evokes the stability, permanence, and authority of the federal government.
Opened ten years after the Great Depression halted virtually all Seattle construction, the building signaled the potential for new growth in downtown Seattle and substantial federal investment in the region. Constructed on the former site of Seattle's first hospital, the Nakamura Courthouse cost $1.7 million to complete and brought together federal agencies previously scattered throughout the city. These included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Clerk's Office, Probation Office, Secret Service, and the Alcohol Tax Unit. Additionally, naturalization ceremonies for immigrants to the Pacific Northwest occurred here. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, now the principal tenant, moved into the courthouse in the early 1970s.
Located at the eastern edge of a large site in Seattle's Central Business District, the courthouse's expansive lawn, with views of Elliot Bay to the west, is a distinctive open space in the densely developed district. The consulting design architect was Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who designed numerous Union Pacific railroad stations and the Neoclassical Modernist San Francisco Mint of 1936-1937. The building's final plans were likely approved by Supervising Architect of the Treasury Louis A. Simon, who in the 1930s went to Europe to study emerging Modern design techniques with a goal of incorporating them into new federal architecture. This experience shaped the use of modernized Classicism on hundreds of federal buildings with designs Simon oversaw in the 1930s and 1940s.
In 2001, the building was renamed to honor Seattle native, Private First Class William Kenzo Nakamura. Before joining the U.S. Army in 1942, Nakamura and his Japanese family were sent to an internment camp. He was killed near Castellina Italy on July 4, 1944, while singlehandedly protecting his platoon by his own initiative. Nakamura was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2000.
Noted American master architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood designed the William Kenzo Nakamura U.S. Courthouse. Ten stories with a penthouse, the courthouse has a monumental and restrained but modern presence. Its elevations are of a solid, symmetrical, Neoclassical massing. Its east-facing facade presents the illusion of an elevated, abstracted temple colonnade. The building's reinforced concrete skeleton frame is clad in terracotta plates, with Art Deco accents of patterned terracotta, metal moldings, and glass.
The abstracted Neoclassical features seen upon this building are characteristic of many federal buildings constructed in the 1930s. The courthouse is distinguished by its location on the eastern third of a large parcel that slopes down the hill twenty-four feet toward Fifth Avenue, facing Elliot Bay in the distance. As originally constructed, the landscape surrounding the building is an integral part of the building's design. An axial, centered walkway, flanked by polished granite planters and cheek blocks, leads to three centered entries and reiterates the building's formality. The large landscaped area between the front elevation and Fifth Street consists of lawn and symmetrically placed groupings of hedges and large oak trees. This green space is among the largest in downtown Seattle and has become a popular public gathering place.
Exterior ornamentation occurs primarily on the first three stories, which form a broad pedestal. The main body of the building steps back from the pedestal base, rises seven more stories, and is capped by a recessed, two-story penthouse. On the principal facades, west and east, the pedestal and main building mass is broken up into a series of solid bays with vertical bands of recessed glass and decorated cast metal spandrel panels in the upper stories, creating a pronounced feeling of verticality. Three entrance doors are recessed into the first-story portions of both west and east elevations. The north and south elevations complement the west and east, with one centrally located continuous vertical window bay.
In contrast to the relatively restrained exterior design, the public interior spaces are distinguished by exuberantly colored tile and other ornamentation, such as Art Deco aluminum radiator covers and pyramid-shaped light fixtures. Each floor of the building is accessed through a public elevator lobby. On the first two floors, the walls are surfaced with salmon, turquoise, and mustard terracotta panels and the floors are highly polished starburst-patterned terrazzo in shades of brown and beige. The ceilings are accented with stepped coffers. The courthouse features five courtrooms with fifteen-foot windows, engaged columns of walnut in the Doric order, aluminum stars and wheat staff ornamentation.
The interior of the building was renovated in 1983-1984, when the original steel windows were replaced. The public elevator lobbies and major courtrooms retain their original finishes and locations, although interior corridors and office spaces are altered. In 1985, GSA's Art in Architecture program commissioned two oil-on-canvas paintings titled The Effects of Good and Bad Government from artist Caleb Ives Bach. Originally located in the lobby, the paintings were conserved in 2008 and reinstalled in the law library.
From 2006 to 2009, the building underwent an extensive renovation project. A new secured underground facility was added and the building was upgraded to meet current seismic standards. The renovation received LEED certification for design, energy efficient building systems, reuse and recycling of existing materials and other measures.
1936: Congress approves $1.7 million for site acquisition and construction
1938-1940: Building design and construction
1980: Building and site listed in National Register of Historic Places
1983-1984: Structural and interior improvements are made and windows replaced
1985: The Effects of Good and Bad Government by artist Caleb Ives Bach installed
2001: Building renamed to honor Congressional Medal of Honor recipient William Kenzo Nakamura
2006-2009: LEED-certified building renovation, modernization, and seismic upgrade project
Location: 1010 Fifth Avenue
Architect: Gilbert Stanley Underwood
Construction Date: 1939-1940
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Architectural Style: Art Deco
Primary Materials: Concrete and terracotta
Prominent Features: Art Deco ornamentation; Smooth-faced, stepped facade; Courtrooms with black walnut benches and trim
As important as the building’s style is its relationship to its site. The William Kenzo Nakamura Courthouse is surrounded by a symmetrical layout of planting and paving that serves to reinforce the authority and stability that the building evokes as a symbol of the federal government.
The building occupies the eastern third of a 240’ x 255’ site in Seattle’s Central Business District (CBD), bounded by Fifth and Sixth Avenues to the west and east, and Madison and Spring Streets to the south and north. The site slopes down approximately 24’ from east to west, allowing the west (primary) façade to front directly onto an expansive lawn, which is one of the major green open spaces in the CBD. The expanse of grass and the large oak trees at the perimeter of the site serve to focus attention on the building’s Fifth Avenue façade, forming extensions of the building’s classically proportioned elements. A straight, stepped walkway extends from the lower Fifth Avenue sidewalk through the middle of the lawn to the front entrance of the building. Granite cheek blocks extend from the building and partially flank the walkway. As originally conceived and constructed, the landscape surrounding the building is an integral part of the building’s design. The straight walkway and flanking polished granite planters and cheek blocks accent the formality of the building and serve to tie the structure to the symmetrically organized lawn and planting areas. The walkways and steps are constructed of exposed aggregate concrete sections, finished with a terrazzo-like appearance. Originally the walk featured octagonal, geometric patterns. Replaced in the 2005-2009 rehabilitation to accommodate the new underground structure, the walk is presently a reddish background with wide dark grey stripes that mimic the tall verticals of the window strips. The landings and secondary walk contain geometric patterns. Original bronze handrails with scrolled ends and Art Deco bronze flagpole bases complement the overall exterior detailing of the building.
The building utilizes the smooth finished and metal construction materials characteristic of the PWA Moderne style. The exterior is clad with smooth terra cotta plates and accents are created with patterned terra cotta, metal moldings, and glass. Characteristic of its style, the building is arranged with a series of setbacks. A broad pedestal (104’ x 220’ in dimension) is formed by the first three stories, which also feature most of the exterior ornamentation. The main body of the building (74’ x 190’) steps back from the pedestal base and rises up the next seven stories. The building mass is capped by a two-story penthouse, reaching a height of 138’ above the ground level.
Tall continuous window bays on all façades pierce the smooth skin of the building and provide a sense of verticality. A series of individual square windows encircle the building at the tenth-floor level, providing a cap to the main body of the building. The two-story penthouse is set back and has tall narrow window openings on all four sides.
The structure has a reinforced concrete skeleton frame with poured-in-place reinforced concrete outer walls, interior floors and ceilings. Concrete shear walls were added in the 2005–2009 rehabilitation to improve seismic performance. The building is supported on concrete spread footings, and the roof is surfaced with EPDM roofing membrane. Original interior partitions are of metal studs and lath, surfaced with smooth plaster. New partition walls consist of metal studs with gypsum wallboard and wood paneling.
The interior of the building remained largely unchanged until 1973, when a new heating and ventilating system was installed throughout, resulting in lowered ceilings, and again in 1983, when major exterior improvements and interior alterations occurred. The 1983 modifications included the installation of a new fire sprinkler system and the replacement of the original steel windows. The 2005–2009 rehabilitation project included construction of a new secure underground garage; installation of new power, communications infrastructure, and mechanical systems; reconfiguration, particularly within judicial office support spaces; and rehabilitation of the courtrooms. Security and accessibility improvements were also made. The 1983 windows above the third story were replaced with new blast resistant glass and frames that more closely resemble the original steel fenestration.
For the most part, the public elevator lobbies and the major courtrooms have retained their original locations and many original finishes. Numerous changes have occurred in the interior corridors and in most of the judicial offices and support areas.
The most noteworthy rooms in the courthouse are the five original courtrooms (Floors 4 through 8), although all have been modified. All five are rectangular in shape and originally had a judge’s platform at one end. In each, the main entrance is on one long side, with four large windows—each 15’ tall by 4’ wide—centered on the opposite side. The more elaborate treatments can be seen in the fourth and eighth floor courtrooms; the more simple treatment expressed in the fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-floor courtrooms. In the 2005–2009 rehabilitation, the fourth-floor courtroom was converted to a law library, the sixth-floor courtroom became a judges' conference room, and the eighth-floor courtroom became an "en banc" courtroom. All of the courtroom spaces retain original finishes and volumes. Non-original suspended acoustical ceilings were removed and coffered ceilings were installed using the original design as a precedent.
Each floor of the building is accessed through a public elevator lobby. On the first and second floors, the lobby walls are surfaced with polychrome terra cotta panels, the floors are of highly polished patterned terrazzo, and the ceilings are accented with stepped plaster coffers. The elevator lobbies of the upper floors contain simplified versions of the same floor and ceiling finishes.
Originally, the courthouse was heated by radiant heat provided by cast iron radiators, with the steam furnished by Puget Sound Power and Light. The courtrooms were mechanically ventilated by central fan systems located in fan rooms on the penthouse levels. Three coal-fired boilers provided backup steam. In 1973, when air conditioning was added, the original piping systems were removed from the building. New induction heating units were installed in place of the cast iron radiators, and new ductwork was added throughout the building, creating the need for lowered ceilings in most of the building’s public and private spaces.
HISTORICAL AND ARCHITECTURAL SIGNIFICANCE
The United States Courthouse in Seattle was the first building in the West designed exclusively as a federal courthouse and only the second single-use federal courthouse constructed in the United States. Most courthouses also had a post office or another non-judicial tenant in the building. When the subject building was completed in 1940, the smooth-faced, symmetrical building mass was conspicuous in its architectural expression of government austerity. The William Kenzo Nakamura US Courthouse has been described as Federal Art Deco or PWA Moderne—a style that, while employing classical proportions and massing, exhibits a "stripped-down" appearance. This simplicity of detailing contrasts with the relative opulence of the developed Art Deco commercial structures of the same period and serves as a major example of the Federal interpretation of the style.
When the design for the new US Courthouse was approved in November 1938, Louis A. Simon was the Supervising Architect of the Federal Works branch of the Department of the Treasury, and Gilbert Stanley Underwood was the Consulting Architect. Although Simon was the Chief Administrator, and has been credited with popularizing the Modernistic style in the federal building design, Underwood probably designed the courthouse. Underwood was educated at Yale and Harvard, and designed a number of Spanish Revival railroad depots. He was acclaimed for his public architecture—work including lodges in National Parks, over two dozen post offices, and a number of federal courthouses. His later buildings evince the stripped classicism of the Art Moderne style, visible in his designs for the San Francisco Mint and the Los Angeles US Courthouse and Post Office.
WILLIAM KENZO NAKAMURA
In March 2001, the courthouse was rededicated to honor William Kenzo Nakamura, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Nakamura was born in Seattle in 1922, graduated from Garfield High School, and attended the University of Washington. He was a student there during the outbreak of World War II, when Japanese Americans on the West Coast were ordered to internment camps. Nakamura and his family were sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho.
Along with his older brother George, William Nakamura enlisted in the Army. He was part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was chiefly comprised of Japanese-American soldiers and became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Private Nakamura was killed by German machine gun fire on July 4, 1944, in Castellina, Italy. Earlier the same day, he had crawled toward a German machine gun nest as he threw grenades, halting the enemy fire long enough for his platoon to escape. Nakamura was recommended by his commander for a Medal of Honor. It was not until more than 50 years later, in 2000, that Nakamura and 21 other Nisei veterans posthumously received their medals.