E. Barrett Prettyman US Courthouse History

Site History

The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse was built on Reservation 10, a site bounded by Constitution Avenue, 3rd Street, C Street and John Marshall Place. The building faces south across Constitution Avenue towards the National Mall and the National Gallery of Art.

In July of 1790, Congress voted to establish a new federal city, moving the capital from Pennsylvania to a new district, created with land ceded by Maryland and Virginia to the government. The land on which the courthouse would be built was labeled ‘Reservation 10’ and early in the city's history became a vital center of residential and commercial development.

In the nineteenth century, the land just north of Reservation 10 became a center for municipal (and later judicial) activity that spurred development in that area. George Hadfield designed his Greek Revival City Hall in this neighborhood. Built of granite, the City Hall's stylistic idiom became a de-facto paradigm for later public works, including the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse. In 1873, the federal government seized the building for use as courts, which spurred later court development here, and eventually led to the neighborhood's name, "Judiciary Square."

Design & Construction

The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse was designed by Louis Justement and constructed from 1948-52. The building's exterior is a stylized combination of the stripped classicism promoted by architect Paul Phillipe Cret and prevalent in 1940s government buildings and the emergence of the Art Modern style in the surrounding Judiciary Square neighborhood.

By the 1940s, a new federal courthouse was desperately needed in the District of Columbia due to the overcrowding of both the courts in Old City Hall and the Court of Appeals building. President Harry Truman laid the building's cornerstone on June 27, 1950, and the building opened in November 1952. Justement's building responds to Wyeth's nearby Municipal Center in its materials, massing, and stripped classicism while employing the grand scale and urban presence of pre-war federal architecture. The building's H-plan is composed of an eight floor rectangular block intersected by two perpendicular six story wings on the east and west facades. The courthouse exterior adheres to the Modernist aversion to ornament, employing no pediments, entablatures, porticoes, or carved decoration.

In 1997, the General Services Administration selected Michael Graves to design a 350,000 square foot annex to the historic courthouse. The new building was constructed in the parking lot located immediately to the east of the courthouse at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues. The annex is connected to the historic building and houses nine courtrooms, 19 judges' chambers, and office space.

Elijah Barrett Prettyman

On March 20, 1997, the U.S. Courthouse was renamed in honor of Justice Elijah Barrett Prettyman. Prettyman was first appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia by President Harry S Truman in 1945 and served the court for the next 26 years in variety of roles, including as Circuit Judge (1945-1971) and Chief Judge (1958-1960). Judge Prettyman took senior status in 1962, but continued to assist the Court until his death in 1971.

The renaming of the courthouse was precipitated by Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, a longtime friend of Justice Prettyman, in conjunction with his son, Elijah Barrett Prettyman Jr., and his mentor, Judge Gasch. The decision to rename the courthouse in his honor was due not only to the impact made in his professional career but also due to his service and involvement in the law community.

Judge Prettyman's extra-judicial work included the creation of the Administrative Conference of the United States, the creation of a Legal Aid Society to represent indigent criminal defendants, and service as Chairman of President Kennedy’s President’s Advisory Commission on Narcotics and Drug Abuse.

Last Reviewed: 2020-09-16