Walter E. Hoffman U.S. Courthouse, Norfolk, VA
Location: 600 Granby St, Norfolk, VA 23510
The Walter E. Hoffman U.S. District Courthouse, located in downtown Norfolk at 600 Granby Street, was constructed as a Post Office and Courthouse in 1932-34. Local Norfolk architects, Benjamin F. Mitchell and the firm of Rudolph, Cooke, and VanLeeuwen, were jointly responsible for the architectural design. Although built during the Depression, the building is quite lavish in its design and finishes. Upon its completion, this four-story, gray limestone building was considered at the time to fall "little short of magnificence", according to the local paper, the Virginian-Pilot. The elaborate Art Deco interior is marked with a high level of craftsmanship.
During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the city of Norfolk experienced an explosion of prosperity, in part due to the rapid growth of the Naval Base. The need for a new, larger courthouse and post office was becoming so acute that temporary postal stations were established to handle the overflow of postal congestion. At the time, the courthouse and Post Office were both housed in the circa 1898 Federal Courthouse at 235 E. Plume Street. In 1915, a committee was appointed and headed by Norfolk's Mayor Wyndham R. Mayo to petition Congress for an appropriation of funds for the construction of a new Federal building in the city. The committee included Postmaster Major Clinton L. Wright, as well as many civic and business leaders. This petition was never approved, despite being submitted and resubmitted throughout the 1920s as the need for more space increased. In 1922, funds to acquire temporary housing for mail operations were allocated.
In 1929, Congress made a tentative allocation of $1,150,000 for the Norfolk Federal building. Menalcus Lankford, Congressman elect from Norfolk, and Postmaster Major Wright, successfully realized $2,050,000 in appropriations for the federal building. A site was selected on January 12, 1931. The location consisted of two small blocks between Brambleton Avenue on the north, East Bute Street on the south, Monticello Avenue on the east and Granby Street on the west, bisected by York Street. The site consisted of approximately 81,000 square feet, part of which had been occupied by St. Luke's Episcopal Church, destroyed by fire ten years earlier.
On April 9, 1931, the Virginian-Pilot announced that a team formed by local architect Benjamin F. Mitchell in association with the firm of Rudolph, Cooke and VanLeeuwen was selected to design the new building. B.F. Mitchell, a noted architect of many Norfolk projects, had worked for the city in the planning and building of the City Market. He designed Booker T. Washington High School and Southgate Terminal, one of the largest construction projects in the area. The firm of Mitchell, Rudolph, Cooke and VanLeeuwen was known for designing several apartment buildings, the addition to the Virginia Beach Casino, and several buildings in North Carolina.
Bids were opened in Washington on April 11, 1932 for the construction of the foundation of Norfolk's new Federal Building. The Virginia Engineering Company of Newport News won the contract with the lowest offer of $210,000. Part of the bid required that the foundation of the building was to be completed in 120 days.
The construction of the remainder of the building was opened for bid on October 21, 1932. Shortly after this time, the Treasury Department decided to reduce the building to four stories in height instead of five stories. The construction contract was awarded to Consolidated Engineering Company (Baltimore, MD) with the low bid of $1,034,000. Although the height of the building was scaled down, measures were taken during construction to allow for the addition of a fifth story at a future date. Although more than $2 million dollars had been appropriated for the construction, the funding was later cut to $1,925,000. The building's total cost was $2,710,000, including $575,000 for the purchase of the site and $210,000 for construction of the foundation.
John Rapelye was selected to serve as the consulting engineer by the Treasury Department in January, 1933. By the following September, the cornerstone was laid "with solemn rites" (The Virginian-Pilot, September 8, 1933). Postmaster General James A. Farley and Virginia Senator Harry Byrd were among the special guests who spoke at the ceremony. The building was officially complete on October 14, 1934, when the keys to the building were turned over to the Post Office by Rapelye. However, the Post Office did not move into its quarters until the following week, October 21, 1934. The courthouses were moved in shortly afterwards. The Post Office remained in the building for 50 years, moving to a separate facility in 1984. At this time the remainder of the building was rehabilitated for additional courthouses for the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia. The building, renamed the Walter E. Hoffman U.S. Courthouse, was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in October, 1984.
Although this outstanding Art Deco building is one of only a few Art Deco federal buildings in the Tidewater area, the building reflects a national trend in Federal building design of the 1930s that became the Art Moderne style of the 1930s and 1940s. These new federal buildings were monumental in scale, a tribute to the democratic ideals of the 1930s, with reference to the strength of the government. A Virginian-Pilot article from September 22, 1934 noted that the building was "fashioned in conservative modernistic design and giving the impression of unlimited stability and bulk." Compared to the earlier Beaux Arts style, the designs were restrained in ornament, expressing a new attitude that was fresh, clean-lined and modern in the simplicity of the forms and materials. The building illustrates the strong rectilinear qualities associated with the Art Deco style, and later Art Moderne style, and incorporates classical features popular in earlier governmental buildings.
Also typical of the Art Deco style was the choice and use of the materials. Limestone is the primary exterior material, with a contrasting dark granite base and decorated aluminum spandrels between aluminum-framed windows. On the interior, the design and use of slick materials, such as granite, marble, aluminum, are presented in a simply composed geometric design with a high level of refinement. All of the cast aluminum designs are the work of a young local artist, Wyatt Hibbs. "All the appointments here are ultramodern, combining beauty with utility to a high degree" (Virginian-Pilot, September 8, 1934). It is the materials and their exquisite design and treatment that separates the building from the general body of Depression era work. Although the buildings designed and constructed under the WPA/PWA programs present similar stylistic devices and some of the same materials, the economic situation forced a more restrained approach, eventually resulting in a distinct style - the Art Moderne. Significant to the building's history is the short period of time required for its construction, just over two years. Today, having undergone a complete rehabilitation, with relatively few exceptions, both the exterior and interior are in excellent condition.
The Walter E. Hoffman Courthouse stands as a significant Federal building, contributing to the architectural and historic character of Norfolk. It specifically enhances its streetscape as part of a planned complex of civic structures.
- Architects: Mitchell, Rudolph; Cooke & VanLeeuwen
- Construction Dates: 1932-1934
- GSA Building Number: VA0054ZZ
- National Register of Historic Places Landmark Status: National Register Listed