DC Courts' Release Video Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of DC's Historic Courthouse

Construction of the Historic Courthouse as a seat of city government in DC began in July 1820; a public celebration of the major undertaking was held on August 22, 1820.  The DC Courts intended to hold a major public event to commemorate this 200th anniversary, a significant milestone in DC's architectural and legal history.  The pandemic prevented that from happening, however.  Until large public events may be safely held, the DC Courts offer DC residents, area historians and legal scholars a short video with information about the building's history, the numerous major events and trials that occurred within its walls, and the famous and infamous people who walked its halls.

The Historic Courthouse was originally DC's city hall, it later served as a courthouse, then housed government offices including the US Civil Service Commission (the then-commissioner Theodore Roosevelt had his office in the building) and the US Marshals Service for the District (the Marshal at the time was Frederick Douglass, whose also had his office located in the building).  Most recently, in the late 20th century, it was home to DC's Office of Corporation Counsel (now Office of the Attorney General) and the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia.  The building was vacated in 1999 in preparation for a major renovation project to bring the building into the 21st century.  The renovated courthouse was rededicated on June 17, 2009 as the new home for the District’s highest court, the D.C. Court of Appeals.  

"I am so thankful for the honor to serve as your chief judge in this truly historic building at this unique time in our history.  A full understanding of the history of this building, even the darker times, is important as we commemorate this 200th anniversary," said DC Court of Appeals Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby.  "I am always encouraged by the many historical figures ...who worked in and walked the halls of this historic building.  They worked hard to ensure that justice was accessible to everyone, so that this historic courthouse continues to be a symbol for equal justice for all, here at the heart of Judiciary Square."  The Chief Judge expressed her appreciation to the members of the 200th Anniversary Committee for their work producing the video tribute and closed by saying she looked forward to the celebration that would take place once the pandemic recedes.

 “We encourage all D.C. residents to visit the courthouse - it is a centerpiece of our city and, more specifically, the heart of the Judiciary Square neighborhood.  The renovations the courts made just over a decade ago have allowed the courthouse to once again serve its historic role as a symbol of the proud history of our city and our commitment to equal justice under the law,” said former D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Eric T. Washington.   


History:    Originally designed by George Hadfield in 1820 to serve as the Courthouse and City Hall for the District of Columbia, the Historic Courthouse is a National Historic Landmark and one of the oldest public buildings in the District of Columbia.  Located between the White House and the U.S. Capitol, Judiciary Square was designed by Pierre L’Enfant to be one of the most important green spaces in Washington, second in importance only to the National Mall. Prominently located at the heart of Judiciary Square, the courthouse has been the setting for many notable events in our nation’s history. Daniel Webster and Francis Scott Key practiced law in the building, and John Surratt’s trial for his part in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln took place there.  In addition, the National Park Service has designated the courthouse as an essential part of the Underground Railroad’s Network to Freedom.  The designation of the nearly 200-year-old building was based on it housing the trials for the ship captain and owner of the Pearl which attempted to sail 77 slaves to freedom in 1848, as well as it being the site of the compensation hearings for slave owners after President Lincoln signed the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act law, on April 16, 1862.

ArchitectureA central feature of the renovation was a new glass-and-steel entrance pavilion on the north façade, which replaced the original portico that was removed during the early 20th century. Serving as the ADA-accessible main entrance, the  pavilion re-oriented the courthouse to once again face Judiciary Square and engage with the surrounding ensemble of civic buildings. The south façade and previous entrance, with its grand steps leading to a colonnaded portico, has been preserved, and the Lincoln statue which has stood at the base of those steps since 1868, has been renovated and restored to its place. As the centerpiece of Judiciary Square, the restored Historic Courthouse has played a powerful architectural role in its rejuvenation.

The video is here:  https://youtu.be/mZrHrDIZvso