The Neighborhood

In his grand plan for the city, Pierre L’Enfant selected three large city blocks on a slight rise between the President's House and the Capitol as the future site for the federal judiciary, thereby placing the three branches of government--executive, legislative, and judiciary--in geographical relationship along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Although the site is depicted with similar purpose on Andrew Ellicott’s 1792 plan, engraved after L’Enfant was dismissed from his position, the neighborhood did not originally develop as intended. When the City Commissioners made an inventory of all the buildings in the federal capital in 1801, just six wood structures stood in Judiciary Square. None were federal judicial buildings, as the name of the plot suggested. Of the buildings occupying the site, most were wood shanties housing Irish laborers working on constructing the city's federal buildings. An additional structure served as a hospital for the laborers and would later serve as the city's poorhouse. The closest thing to a judiciary structure to be found was “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 E Street, the jail cost $8,000 and was designed by George Hadfield. The new 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 served as an open common during the first few decades of the 19th century. In 1820 laborers began building a City Hall, the first major governmental project in the neighborhood. Designed by George Hadfield, the DC City Hall housed the board of aldermen and common council, mayor, and other municipal officials. The building also served as the first courthouse in the neighborhood, fulfilling the original intent of the district.

Throughout the 19th century the neighborhood was a popular residential enclave, due to its close proximity to both Capitol Hill and the White House. Famous former residents include Senator Thomas Hart Benton, Vice President John Calhoun, and Secretary of State Daniel Webster. In the 1930s, major federal development of the area began, adding several new courthouses to the neighborhood and transforming the district into its current iteration.

Last Reviewed: 2022-04-19