Clio Logo
The courthouse is one of the last buildings constructed in the Judiciary Square and Municipal Center complex, an important civic enclave since the 1820s. It constitutes an almost entirely unaltered example of early 1950s Stripped Classicism, a non-representational abstraction of the classical style that permeated institutional (especially government) architecture after the Second World War. President Harry S. Truman laid the cornerstone on June 27, 1950, and the building opened in November of 1952. It was listed by the National Register of Historic Places and is a contributing property to the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site. It was renamed in 1997 in honor of E. Barrett Prettyman, the former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

  • Front of the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse.
  • South side of the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse.

The courthouse was built on Reservation 10, a site bounded by Constitution Avenue, Third Street, C Street and John Marshall Place. The building faces south across Constitution Avenue towards the Mall, and was erected on the northwest quadrant of its site. This placement accommodated driveways along the south and west facades, and along with the subsequent plazas and landscaping, provided a buffer between the colonnades of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse and the verdant Mall, onto which it opened before I.M Pei's 1970 addition to the National Gallery.

With construction starting in 1949, the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse was the last addition to a neighborhood of important civic and municipal structures. Known as the Municipal Center, this neighborhood's history of civic activity dates to the 1820 completion of George Hadfield's Old City Hall. In 1932, a formal plan for a Municipal Center, bounded by Constitution Avenue and G Street between 3rd and 6th streets, was designed. By 1934, municipal, police, and juvenile courts had been built on the site; however, the current site of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse was left vacant due to budgetary concerns. The site was used as a parking lot until 1949 when construction on the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse commenced on the south eastern corner of the Municipal Center site.

While composing the building's exterior, Louis Justement, the architect, employed the grand scale and urban presence of pre-War federal architecture, but relied on "simplicity and architectural expression based on adaptation to functions." The building's H-plan was generally composed of an eight floor rectangular block that intersected two perpendicular six story wings on the east and west elevations. These secondary pavilions projected forty feet beyond the main building envelope to the north and south, and provided 20 foot setbacks at the sixth floor. A repetitive vertical fenestration pattern classically organized according to base, body, and attic, with recessed aluminum windows surmounted by Virginia serpentine spandrels, unified the main block with its flanking elements. Juxtaposition between the building's dark attenuated verticals with the light, planar mass of its limestone walls also alluded to the traditional colonnades seen in the Municipal Center buildings of Harris and Wyeth, Cret's Folger Shakespeare library of 1928-32 and even to Justement's own architecture of the 1920s and 30's. (Note that Justement used no pediments, entablatures, or porticoes, as seen in the Municipal Center, Judiciary Square and Federal Triangle Buildings) These traditional references were further enhanced by the incised flute-like lines of the window returns, and the building's tripartite organization. The base, (first floor) used floor-to ceiling openings for both windows and doors. A projecting granite frame defined these voids and separated the lower portion from the piers above. The rigorous colonnade then marched across floors 2-4 on the side pavilions and floors 2-5 of the central block. Smaller square windows on the fifth floor of the side wings and the sixth floor of the central block defined the attic floor of the classically organized facade. Although the E. Barett Prettyman Federal Courthouse exterior showed strong classical influences in its fundamental geometric articulation, its facades also reveal interest in the modern aesthetic. The facade composition relied on the juxtaposition of dark attenuated verticals with light, planar sheets of limestone. This architectural reliance on the subtle (light, shadow, and richness of material) indirectly responded to the increasing popularity of Modernism.

One contemporary writer labeled the building "a rather conservative version of modern architecture in order not the conflict with the traditional architecture of the other buildings on the Federal Triangle." Chief Justice Harold M. Stephens' comment recounted a fundamental element of modernism: "We wanted the building to be functional, not monumental." As a dual classical/modern expression, the building remains a period work, and evidences the federal government's search for new architectural identities in the wake of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Staff (2007-01-23). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. History | United States District Court General Services Administration page on the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse. Locy, Toni (March 27, 1997). "A Tribute to a Champion of the Law: U.S. Courthouse Named After Longtime Appellate Judge". The Washington Post. pp. J01. Retrieved October 23, 2011.