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History of the Supreme Court

The building currently used by the U.S. Supreme Court was completed in 1935.

The Supreme Court of the United States met in the U.S. Capitol from 1801 until 1935. Chief Justice William Howard Taft was behind the effort to provide the Court with its own building, moving out of the Capitol in 1935 to its new location just across the street. In 1992 the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building opened, providing administrative offices for the Court.

In 1921 William Howard Taft, who had served as the nation’s 27th president, was appointed Chief Justice of the United States. For some time he had an idea of moving the Court into its own building and began pushing the idea as soon as he assumed his new duties. He wrote letters to members of Congress complaining about the inadequacy of the Court's quarters in the U.S. Capitol and pointed out that most lower courts were far better accommodated than the Supreme Court. There were no rooms for lawyers to review their cases or hang their coats. The law library was overflowing with books and most associate justices found it necessary to work from home. He did not tell the politicians that he had informally asked Cass Gilbert, the famous New York architect, to begin studies for a new building. (When president, Taft had appointed Gilbert to the Commission on Fine Arts.)

In December 1928, Congress responded to Taft’s initiative by creating the United States Supreme Court Building Commission. Taft was designated chairman and was joined by Associate Justice Willis Van Devanter and the chairmen and ranking members of the Committees on Public Buildings of the House and Senate, and the Architect of the Capitol. In April 1929 Gilbert was formally hired by the commission to design the Supreme Court building.

The United States Supreme Court Building Commission favored a site for the new Court building on First Street east, directly across from the Capitol between Maryland Avenue and East Capitol Street. Cass Gilbert did not like the site across from the Capitol because of it subordinate position and because Maryland Avenue, one of L’Enfant’s diagonal streets, made it irregular. Nor did he like the idea of building next to the baronial Library of Congress. But Chief Justice Taft and other members of the building commission liked the location on First Street, particularly due to its close proximity to Union Station. The design was approved and, on May 25, 1929, the Speaker was informed that the new Supreme Court building would cost $9,740,000.

The funds were appropriated on December 20, and demolition of the residential structures on the site began soon thereafter. On February 3, 1930, with the funding secure and the project well under way, the ailing chief justice retired from the Court and from the commission. A month later Taft was dead. President Herbert Hoover laid the building’s cornerstone on October 13, 1932. Work progressed during the depths of the Great Depression and was nearing time to consider the furniture when Gilbert himself died. Finishing the great work was left to Gilbert’s son, Cass, Jr., and his associate, John R. Rockart. Despite some labor strikes, the building was completed on April 4, 1935, at a final cost of $9,395,566.

In 1985, Architect of the Capitol George White was authorized to begin studying the possibility of providing an office building for the federal courts. He invited the country's leading architects and developers to submit proposals for the new building; they were to present ideas combining architectural solutions with creative financing options to "minimize or eliminate initial capital investment by the United States through the use of public-private partnerships or non governmental sources of financing." The invitation was an innovative scheme to provide the judicial branch with a first-class building without resorting to the usual appropriation process.

A jury unanimously selected the team of Edward Larraby Barnes/John M. Y. Lee & Partners as the architects and Boston Properties as the developer. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist approved the selection on January 13, 1989.

Ground was broken for the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building on April 4, 1990, and tenants began to occupy the finished building on October 1, 1992. It cost $101 million, providing more than 600,000 square feet of rentable space within its overall million-square-foot interior.