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The Supreme Court Building is the seat of the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker. It is situated in Washington, D.C.marker at 1 First Street, NE, on the block immediately east of the United States Capitolmarker. The building is under the jurisdiction of the Architect of the Capitol. On May 4, 1987, the Supreme Court Building was designated a National Historic Landmark.


Prior to the establishment of the Federal Citymarker, the United States government resided briefly in New York Citymarker, New Yorkmarker. As such, the Supreme Court met there during this time in the Merchants Exchange Building. When the capital moved to Philadelphiamarker, Pennsylvaniamarker, the Court moved with it and began meeting in Independence Hallmarker, and later in City Hallmarker.
Supreme Court Building, circa 1935
After the federal government was established in Washington, the court was housed in a small basement room in the United States Capitolmarker. It remained in the Capitol until 1935, with the exception of a period from 1812 to 1819, during which the Court was absent from Washington because of the British invasion and destruction of the Capitol in the War of 1812.

In 1810, the Supreme Court first occupied the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol.As the Senate expanded, it progressively outgrew its quarters. In 1860, the Supreme Court moved to the Old Senate Chamber (as it is now known) where it remained until its move to the current Supreme Court building. In 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft argued successfully for the Court to have its own headquarters to distance itself from Congress as an independent branch of government.

Temple of justice

"Equal Justice Under Law" over the western façade
"Justice the Guardian of Liberty" over the eastern façade
The Supreme Court courtroom interior
The Supreme Court Building is located at 1 First Street, NE (across the street from the Capitol) and was designed by architect Cass Gilbert. It rises four stories (92 feet) above ground. The cornerstone was laid on October 13, 1932 and construction completed in 1935, having cost $9.74 million, $94,000 under budget. "The building was designed on a scale in keeping with the importance and dignity of the Court and the Judiciary as a coequal, independent branch of the United States Government, and as a symbol of 'the national ideal of justice in the highest sphere of activity."

The public façade of the Supreme Court Building is made of marble quarried from Vermontmarker, and that of the non-public-facing courtyards, Georgianmarker marble. Most of the interior spaces are lined with Alabamamarker marble, except for the Courtroom itself, which is lined with Spanishmarker ivory vein marble. For the Courtroom's 24 columns, "Gilbert felt that only the ivory buff and golden marble from the Montarrenti quarries near Sienamarker, Italymarker" would suffice. To this end, in May 1933, he petitioned the Italian Premier, Benito Mussolini, "to ask his assistance in guaranteeing that the Siena quarries sent nothing inferior to the official sample marble".

Not all the justices were thrilled by the new arrangements, the courtroom in particular. Harlan Fiske Stone complained it was "almost bombastically pretentious...Wholly inappropriate for a quiet group of old boys such as the Supreme Court." Another justice observed that he felt the court would be "nine black beetles in the Temple of Karnakmarker," while still another complained that such pomp and ceremony suggested the justices ought to enter the courtroom riding on elephants. The New Yorker columnist Howard Brubaker noted at the time of its opening that it had "fine big windows to throw the New Deal out of."

The west façade of the building (essentially, the "front" of the court, being the side which faces the Capitol) bears the motto "Equal Justice Under Law," while the east facade bears the motto "Justice, the Guardian of Liberty."

The Supreme Court Building's facilities include:
  • In the basement: maintenance facilities, garage, on-site mailroom.
  • On the first (or ground) floor: Public information office, the clerk's office, the publications unit, exhibit halls, cafeteria, gift shop and administrative offices.
  • On the second floor: the Great Hall, the courtroom, the conference room, and all of the justices' chambers except Justice Ginsburg (she chose a roomier office on the third floor).
  • On the third floor: The office of Justice Ginsburg, the office of the reporter of decisions, the legal office, and the offices of the law clerks. Also, the justices' dining and reading rooms are on this floor.
  • On the fourth floor: The court library
  • On the fifth floor: The Supreme Court gym, including a basketball court nicknamed the "Highest Court in the Land"

In addition, the Supreme Court Building maintains its own police force, the Supreme Court Police. Separate from the Capitol Police, the force was created in 1935 to look after the building and its personnel.

Sculptural program

"Contemplation of Justice"
"Authority of Law"
Cass Gilbert's design for the building and its environs included an ambitious Beaux-Arts styled sculptural program that included a large number and variety of both real and allegorical figures.


  • On November 28, 2005, a basketball-sized chunk of marble weighing approximately 172 pounds fell four stories from the façade onto the steps of the Court; it had previously been part of the parapet above the word "under" in the "Equal justice under law" engraved on the court's façade immediately above the figure of a Roman centurion carrying fasces. The falling piece did not appear to be related to restoration work that was underway in the building at the time.
  • In 1997, the Council on American-Islamic Relations requested that the Supreme Court remove the image of Muhammad from the marble frieze of the façade. While appreciating the fact that Muhammad was included in the court's pantheon of 18 prominent lawgivers of history, CAIR noted that Islam discourages depictions of Muhammad in any artistic representation. CAIR also objected that the prophet was shown with a sword, reinforcing long-held stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant conquerors. Chief Justice William Rehnquist rejected the request to sandblast Muhammad, saying the artwork "was intended only to recognize him, among many other lawgivers, as an important figure in the history of law; it is not intended as a form of idol worship." The court later added a footnote to tourist materials describing the frieze, calling it a "a well-intentioned attempt by the sculptor to honor Muhammad."
  • On Sunday, January 13, 2002, a wild fox managed to enter the building. Although spotted by a police officer and observed on video cameras, it eluded capture for more than a day. The marble floors of the building made it difficult to track.

See also



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