The US Supreme Court Building by Cass Gilbert

United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC
United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
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Overview of the Highest Court

The U.S. Supreme Court is shown from the dome of the U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Supreme Court is shown from the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images News Collection/Getty Images

The US Supreme Court building is big, but not the largest public building in Washington, DC. It stands four stories high, at its highest point, and is about 385 feet from front to back and 304 feet wide.

The US Supreme Court had no permanent home in Washington, DC until Cass Gilbert's building was completed in 1935—a full 146 years after the Court was established by the 1789 ratification of the US Constitution.

Architect Cass Gilbert is often praised for pioneering the Gothic Revival skyscraper, yet he looked back even further to ancient Greece and Rome when he designed the Supreme Court building. Before the project for the federal government, Gilbert had completed three US State Capitol buildings—in Arkansas, West Virginia, and Minnesota—so the architect knew the stately design he wanted for the highest court in the United States. The Neoclassical style was chosen to reflect democratic ideals. Its sculpture inside and out tells allegories of mercy and depict Classical symbols of justice. The material—marble—is the classic stone of longevity and beauty.

The building's functions are symbolically portrayed by its design and achieved through many of the architectural details examined below.

 

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Main Entrance, West Facade

US Supreme Court building West Entrance
US Supreme Court building West Entrance. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

The main entrance of the Supreme Court Building is on the west, facing the US Capitol building. Sixteen marble Corinthian columns support the pediment. Along the architrave (the molding just above the columns) are the engraved words, "Equal Justice Under Law." John Donnelly, Jr. cast the bronze entrance doors.

Sculpture is part of the overall design. On either side of the main steps of the Supreme Court Building are seated marble figures. These large statues are the work of sculptor James Earle Fraser. The Classical pediment is also an opportunity for symbolic statuary.

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Pediment of West Facade

West Pediment of the US Supreme Court Building
West Pediment of the US Supreme Court Building. Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images News / Getty Images

In September 1933, blocks of Vermont marble had been set into the western pediment of the US Supreme Court Building, ready for artist Robert I. Aitken  to sculpt. The central focus is of Liberty seated on a throne and guarded by figures who represent Order and Authority. Although these sculptures are metaphorical figures, they were carved in the likeness of real people. From left to right, they are

  • Chief Justice William Howard Taft as a youth, representing "Research Present." Taft was US President from 1909 to 1913 and on the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930
  • Senator Elihu Root, who introduced legislation to establish the US Commission of Fine Arts
  • the architect of the Supreme Court building, Cass Gilbert
  • the three central figures (Order, Liberty Enthroned, and Authority)
  • Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who was Chairman of the Supreme Court Building Commission
  • the artist Robert Aitken, sculptor of the figures in this pediment
  • Chief Justice John Marshall as a young man, on the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835, representing "Research Past"

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Contemplation of Justice Sculpture

The Contemplation of Justice Sculpture at the US Supreme Court Building
The Contemplation of Justice Sculpture at the US Supreme Court Building. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images (cropped)

 On the left of the stairs to the main entrance is a female figure, the Contemplation of Justice by sculptor by James Earle Fraser. The large female figure, with her left arm resting on a book of law, is thinking about the smaller female figure in her right hand—the personification of Justice. The figure of Justice, sometimes with balancing scales and sometimes blindfolded, is sculpted in three areas of the building—two bas reliefs and this sculpted, three-dimensional version. In Classical mythology, Themis was the Greek Goddess of law and justice, and Justicia was one of the Roman cardinal virtues. When the concept of "justice" is given form, Western tradition suggests the symbolic image be female.

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Guardian of Law Sculpture

The Guardian of Law Sculpture at the US Supreme Court
The Guardian of Law Sculpture at the US Supreme Court. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images (cropped)

On the right side of the main entrance to the Supreme Court building is a male figure by sculptor James Earle Fraser. This sculpture represents the Guardian or the Authority of Law, sometimes called the Executor of Law. Similar to the female figure contemplating Justice, the Guardian of Law holds a tablet of laws with the inscription LEX, the Latin word for law. A sheathed sword is also evident, symbolizing the ultimate power of law enforcement.

Architect Cass Gilbert had suggested the Minnesota sculptor as the Supreme Court building was began construction. In order to get the scale just right, Fraser created full-size models and placed them where he could see the sculptures in context with the building. The final sculptures (Guardian of Law and Contemplation of Justice) were put in place a month after the building was opened.

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East Entrance

East Entrance of the Supreme Court Building
East Entrance of the Supreme Court Building. Photo ©Jeff Kubina via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license (CC BY-SA 2.0) (cropped)

Tourists don't often see the back, east side, of the Supreme Court Building. On this side, the words "Justice the Guardian of Liberty" are carved in the architrave above the columns.

The east entrance is sometimes called the east façade. The west entrance is called the west façade. The east facade has fewer columns than the west; instead, the architect designed this "back-door" entrance with a single row of columns and pilasters. Architect Cass Gilbert's "two-faced" design is similar to architect George Post's 1903 New York Stock Exchange building. Although less grand than the Supreme Court building, the NYSE on Broad Street in New York City has a columned façade and a similar "back side" that is rarely seen.

Pediment of East Facade:

The sculptures in the eastern pediment of the US Supreme Court Building were carved by Herman A. McNeil. At the center are three great lawmakers from different civilizations—Moses, Confucius, and Solon. These figures are flanked by figures that symbolize ideas, including Means of Enforcing the Law;  Tempering Justice with Mercy; Carrying on Civilization; and Settlement of Disputes Between States.

MacNeil's pediment carvings stirred controversy because the central figures were drawn from religious traditions. However, in the 1930s, the Supreme Court Building Commission did not question the wisdom of placing Moses, Confucius, and Solon on a secular government building. Rather, they trusted in the architect, who deferred to the artistry of the sculptor.

MacNeil didn't intend his sculptures to have religious connotations. Explaining his work, MacNeil wrote, "Law as an element of civilization was normally and naturally derived or inherited in this country from former civilizations. The 'Eastern Pediment' of the Supreme Court Building suggests therefore the treatment of such fundamental laws and precepts as are derived from the East."

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The Court Chamber

Interior of the US Supreme Court, Washington, DC
Interior of the US Supreme Court, Washington, DC. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images (cropped)

The US Supreme Court building was built in marble between 1932 and 1935. The exterior walls are of Vermont marble, and the inner courtyards are crystalline flaked, white Georgia marble. Interior walls and floors are cream-colored Alabama marble, but the office woodwork is done in American quartered white oak.

The Court Chamber is at the end of the Great Hall behind oak doors. Ionic columns with their scroll capitals are immediately evident. With high 44-foot ceilings, the 82-by-91-foot room has walls and friezes of Ivory Vein marble from Alicante, Spain and floor borders of Italian and African marble. The German-born Beaux-Arts sculptor Adolph A. Weinman sculpted the courtroom's friezes in the same symbolic manner as other sculptors who worked on the building. Two dozen columns are constructed from Old Convent Quarry Siena marble from Liguria, Italy.  It is said that Gilbert's friendship with fascist dictator Benito Mussolini helped him obtain the marble used for the interior columns.

The US Supreme Court building was the last project in the career of architect Cass Gilbert, who died in 1934, one year before the iconic structure was completed. The highest court of the United States was completed by members of Gilbert's firm—and under budget by $94,000.

Sources: Architectural Information Sheets, Office of the Curator, Supreme Court of the United States—The Court Building (PDF), The West Pediment Information Sheet (PDF), Figures of Justice Information Sheet (PDF), Statues of Contemplation of Justice and Authority of Law Information Sheet (PDF), The East Pediment Information Sheet (PDF), [accessed June 29, 2017]