US Supreme Court Building by Cass Gilbert

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The US Supreme Court Building

US Supreme Court in Washington DC
US Supreme Court in Washington DC. Photo © VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm, Getty Images

Built 1932 - 1935
Cass Gilbert, architect

The Supreme Court had no permanent home 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 skyscraper, yet he looked back to ancient Rome when he designed the US Supreme Court Building. The Neoclassical style was chosen to reflect democratic ideals. Its sculpted pediments tell allegories of justice and mercy. Ironically, Gilbert's friendship with fascist dictator Benito Mussolini helped him obtain the marble used for the interior columns.

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The US Supreme Court Building: Main Entrance

US Supreme Court Building
US Supreme Court Building. Photo © Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

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."

The west entrance is sometimes called the west façade. The east entrance is called the east façade.

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The US Supreme Court Building: Western Pediment

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"

Source: The West Pediment Information Sheet (PDF), Office of the Curator, Supreme Court of the United States [accessed February 2, 2017]

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The US Supreme Court Building: Contemplation of Justice Sculpture

Contemplation of Justice - Sculpture at US Supreme Court Building
Contemplation of Justice - Sculpture at US Supreme Court Building. Photo © Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

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. On the left is a female figure, the Contemplation of Justice.

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The US Supreme Court Building: Guardian of Law Sculpture

US Supreme Court Building Sculpture, Guardian of Law
US Supreme Court Building Sculpture, Guardian of Law. Photo © Hisham Ibrahim/Getty Images

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.

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The US Supreme Court Building: East Entrance

East Entrance of the Supreme Court Building
East Entrance of the Supreme Court Building. Photo by Flickr Member Jeff Kubina

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.

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.

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The US Supreme Court Building: East Pediment

East Pediment of the US Supreme Court Building
East Pediment of the US Supreme Court Building. Photo by Flickr Member Jeff Kubina

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:

  • Moses
  • Confucius
  • Solon

These figures are flanked by figures that symbolize ideas:

  • Means of Enforcing the Law
  • Tempering Justice with Mercy
  • Carrying on Civilization
  • Settlement of Disputes Between States

Herman A. 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, Herman A. MacNeil.

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 US Supreme Court Building: Fast Facts

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 was the last project of architect Cass Gilbert's career and was a team effort by members of his firm. Gilbert died in 1934, one year before the Supreme Court Building was completed.

Facts About the US Supreme Court Building:

  • Built: 1932 - 1935
  • Size: 385 feet from front to back, 304 feet wide.
  • Stories: 4 stories at highest point
  • Exterior Walls: Vermont marble
  • Inner Courtyards: crystalline flaked, white Georgia marble
  • Interior Walls and Floors: Cream-colored Alabama marble
  • Office Woodwork: American quartered white oak

Sculptors: