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Old Supreme Court Chamber

Old Supreme Court Chamber

The Old Supreme Court Chamber is the first room constructed for the use of the nation's highest judiciary body and was used by the Court from 1810 until 1860. Built by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, it was a significant architectural achievement, for the size and structure of its vaulted, semicircular ceiling were virtually unprecedented in the United States.
Overview 

The Old Supreme Court Chamber is the first room constructed for the use of the nation's highest judiciary body and was used by the Court from 1810 until 1860. Built by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, it was a significant architectural achievement, for the size and structure of its vaulted, semicircular ceiling were virtually unprecedented in the United States.

A masterpiece of architecture and engineering, the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the U.S. Capitol was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and built as part of his north wing reconstruction in 1808-1810. The unusual ceiling is formed by nine lobed vaults held by stone ribs supported by heavy brick piers and a three-bay arcade built parallel to the old east wall. The new masonry ceiling did not impose any additional weight or put new lateral pressure on the old walls and thus was supported independently of the old work. It was daring to attempt such a ceiling over a one-story room and clever for not using the old walls for support. It is one of Latrobe's most admired achievements.

The Supreme Court first met in this chamber in 1810 with Chief Justice John Marshall presiding. In 1860 the Court moved upstairs into the former Senate Chamber and this room was converted into the law library. After the Court left the Capitol in 1935 this chamber was divided into four rooms and used by the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. In the 1960s the chamber had been abandoned and stood vacant until restored in 1975. (Read more on the history of the Old Supreme Court Chamber.)

Entrance to the chamber is gained through the robing room at its southern end. In this room are displayed the judicial robe and a bust of Roger B. Taney, the nation's fifth chief justice, who held the post from 1836 to 1864. The coat hooks on the wall opposite the bust carry the names of the justices on the Supreme Court from 1858 to 1860 (the label "Chief" indicates Chief Justice Taney).

The chamber is semicircular and measures 74 feet 8 inches wide and 50 feet deep. Its vaulted ceiling is divided into lobes by 10 ribs. The windows on the eastern wall originally looked out on the Capitol Plaza; because the mid 20th-century extension of the Capitol's east front blocked the windows, they are now artificially lighted.

Displayed at the rear of the room are busts of the first four chief justices. From south to north, they are John Marshall, John Rutledge, John Jay, and Oliver Ellsworth.

Over the west fireplace hangs a clock ordered for the chamber by Chief Justice Taney in 1837. Above the clock is a plaster relief sculpted in 1817 by Carlo Franzoni. The central figure in the relief is Justice, who is seated and holds a pair of scales in her left hand; her right rests upon the hilt of an unsheathed sword. Unlike many depictions of Justice, she wears no blindfold. The winged youth seated beside her is Fame, who holds up the Constitution of the United States under the rays of the rising sun. At the right side of the sculpture, an eagle protectively rests one foot upon books containing the written laws.

In front of the eastern arcade are mahogany desks for the nine Supreme Court justices, set off from the rest of the room by a mahogany railing. Seven of these desks are 19th-century originals, believed to have been purchased for the court in the late 1830s. The chairs behind the desks represent various styles used around the year 1860; each justice selected the style of his own chair.

Desks at either end of the row of justices' desks were used by court officials. On the justices' right sat the Attorney General and the clerk and deputy clerk of the Supreme Court. On the justices' left sat the court reporter, the marshal, and the deputy marshal.

The floor in the central area of the chamber is approximately 1 foot lower than the level upon which the justices' desks are placed. In this area stand four baize-covered mahogany tables used by lawyers presenting cases before the Supreme Court. Facing these tables and lining the area's western end are the wooden panel-back settees provided for the audience.

Last Updated: September 25, 2014