History behind US Supreme Court Building


“The Republic endures, and this is the symbol of its faith.”

— Justice Charles Evans Hughes,

Laying the cornerstone for the Supreme Court Building, 1932

“No court can make time stand still.”

— Justice Felix Frankfurter,

Scripps-Howard Radio v. FCC, 316 U.S. 4 (1942)

There is no school excursion more common than the trip to Washington D.C. Students pack into buses and make the long journey so that they can marvel at the White House, see the Capital Building, and nearly be killed by falling marble at the Supreme Court. Admittedly, that last experience is not generally part of the tour, but it was back in 2005 for a group of Columbus school children.

In November of that year, a 172-pound chunk of marble roughly the size of a basketball fell from the parapet immediately above the word “under” from the phrase “equal justice under law.” The piece shattered and then fell four stories onto the main steps into the Supreme Court building. Among those waiting to enter the building were a group of middle school students from Columbus. The students tried to pocket smaller pieces of the marble as souvenirs, but Capital police made them put the pieces back.

The Supreme Court building was constructed in 1935 and underwent a $122 million, 5-year renovation project approximately a decade ago. Prior to 1935, there was no building dedicated to the Supreme Court, and it was relegated to cramped quarters borrowed from the other branches of government.

The street plan of Washington D.C. was laid out, beginning in 1791, by French émigré Pierre Charles L’Enfant. He came to the United States as a military engineer under the marquis de Lafayette. He was wounded at the battle of Savannah in 1779 and served on the staff of General Washington for the remainder of the war. After the war, he designed homes, coins, furniture and medals.

Partially because of his friendship with Alexander Hamilton, L’Enfant was chosen as the architect for the new federal district along the banks of the Potomac River. L’Enfant’s design was a standard grid — but with a twist; broad avenues that cut across the grid diagonally and create long vistas. He also designed two structures, a “congress house” and a “president’s palace.” But he designed no permanent home for the third branch of government — the judiciary — an oversight that aptly sums up the prevailing view of the Supreme Court at that time.

Sadly, L’Enfant insisted that the entire city be constructed at one time and became known for his temper. The new nation did not have adequate funds to undertake the entire project and the commissioners of the district disagreed with L’Enfant about how to proceed. Washington dismissed L’Enfant in 1792, and the furious architect took his plans for the city with him when he left. The job was turned over to surveyors Andrew and Joseph Ellicott and brilliant mathematician Benjamin Banneker, who was the grandson of a freed slave. Banneker redrew the plans from memory and construction continued.

As for the Supreme Court, it continued to suffer under the weight of L’Enfant’s snub. Originally, the court was housed at the Merchant’s Exchange Building in New York City. When the capital was moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the Supreme Court had quarters in the State House and City Hall. Upon moving the government to Washington D.C. in 1800, Congress loaned space to the Supreme Court in a small basement room in the Capital Building.

The court would be moved no less than a half dozen times from room to room inside the Capital Building. In 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, a former president, convinced Congress that the court needed a permanent home. Construction began in 1932 when Justice Charles Evans Hughes laid the corner stone. The building was completed in 1935 and was built for less than its budget of $9.7 million.

The Ohio Supreme Court hardly fared better. Prior to 1857, the court was essentially homeless, with the justices riding circuit on horseback. In 1857, the court moved to borrowed space in the Ohio Statehouse. In 1901, they were booted to the “Judiciary Annex,” and in 1974, they relocated to the Rhodes state office tower. Finally, in 2004, after a massive renovation project, Chief Justice Thomas Moyer moved the court to what was then known as the Ohio Departments Building. Following his untimely passing, the building was renamed in his honor. It is truly a marvelous structure and well worth the drive to Columbus for a tour.

No trip to Washington is complete without a visit to each of the major memorials, the White House, the Capital Building and the Supreme Court. But if you go, be sure to keep an eye out for falling marble.


By David Hejmanowski

Case Study

David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.

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