On his grand plan for the city, Pierre L’Enfant chose this area on a slight rise between the President’s House and Capitol as the site for the federal judiciary, thereby placing the three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judiciary in geographical relationship. L’Enfant marked this site encompassing the area of three large city blocks to indicate intended plantings or buildings. Two avenues were planned to emanate from the rounded south end of appropriation; that to the west was to provide an impressive vista to the planned monument to George Washington at the apex of the Mall and the grounds of the President’s House.
This site is depicted similarly on Andrew Ellicott’s plan, engraved in 1792 after L’Enfant was dismissed from his position. Ellicott included on his map the footprints of two buildings in the southern two-thirds of this appropriation. When the City Commissioners made an inventory of all the buildings in the federal capital in 1801, six wood structures stood in Judiciary Square. None were federal judicial buildings, as the name of the plot suggested, but the area probably retained this designation in reference to L’Enfant’s intent. Of the buildings occupying the site, shanties to the southern end of the space house the Irish laborers working on the city’s federal buildings. An additional structure served as a hospital for the laborers and would later serve as the city’s poorhouse. Another was described as “an old barn or tobacco house…[where] prisoners were confined until they could be removed to a place of greater security.”
In 1802 the commissioners directed that a city jail be erected in the appropriation, presumably to replace or complement the clapboard barn, thereby turning over the valuable land to one of the lowliest of public necessities. Built just north of the line of E Street, the jail cost $8,000 and was designed by George Hadfield. The two-story brick building was 100’ x 21’ and housed debtors, criminals, runaway slaves, and the mentally insane.
When Robert King’s plats of the city were published in 1803, Judiciary Square had taken on its rectangular shape. Despite the firm outlines indicated on the map, the space remained largely unimproved and probably appeared more as an open common during the first few decades of slow city growth. In 1820 laborers began building a City Hall, designed by George Hadfield, to house the board of aldermen and common council, mayor, and other municipal officials. The mayor urged all residents to attend the laying of the cornerstone where the speakers used the occasion as an opportunity to lambast the federal government for its stinginess in funding improvements in the young city. Although it was not fully completed until 1840s, it housed the mayor and city officials as well as the U.S. Circuit Court for Washington County.