When the seat of the federal government moved to DC in 1800, no provision was made for housing for the Supreme Court—a problem that wouldn’t be permanently resolved for 135 years.
Less than two weeks before the Court was to convene for the first time in the nation’s capital, Congress resolved to let the Justices use a room in the Capitol’s old north wing, the first of many temporary homes. Justices met in a committee room until 1810, when construction finished on what is now called the Old Supreme Court Chamber, located in the basement beneath the Senate chamber, where they remained—outside of temporary displacements, such as during the War of 1812—for 50 years.
In 1861, the Court moved upstairs to the former Senate chamber. Although this new setting offered more dignified environs and more space than the previous chamber in the basement, there were still no individual offices for Justices and their staff, leading many to opt to work from home instead.
The Supreme Court finally moved into its own permanent home in 1935, 145 years after the Constitution provided for the Court’s creation. That the Supreme Court ever received its own building at all is largely due to the persistent efforts of former President William Howard Taft, who served as Chief Justice from 1921 to 1930.
Shortly after his appointment, Taft began writing to members of Congress, emphasizing the importance of establishing a separate permanent residence for the judiciary. He also got in touch with the architect Cass Gilbert (whom Taft, while President, had appointed to his Commission on Fine Arts) about designing the new building.
Taft’s efforts paid off in 1928, when Congress established the United States Supreme Court Building Commission. The commission formalized Gilbert’s role in designing the building, and construction began in 1932.
Completed on April 4, 1935, the Supreme Court Building represents not only the ideal of justice, but also the nation’s commitment to the judiciary as an independent branch of the U.S. government, equal in importance to the legislative and executive branches.
The building is rendered in a Neoclassical style, featuring numerous Beaux-Arts-inspired decorative elements that allude to its purpose in housing the judiciary. Outside the building stand two statues, sculpted by James Earle Fraser, whose works also feature in the National Archives and Treasury Department buildings. The statues, titled Contemplation of Justice and Authority of Law, symbolize the wisdom and power necessary for ensuring justice. The building’s bronze doors, measuring 17 feet tall, depict key moments in legal history, from ancient Greece to the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision. Reliefs and medallions on the exterior and interior walls feature portraits of important jurists, philosophers, and lawmakers, as well as classical symbols of justice, wisdom, and related ideals.
Robert I. Aitken sculpted the West Pediment, which appears above the building’s entryway. Resting atop Corinthian columns, the pediment features the phrase “Equal Justice Under Law” and representations of Order, Authority, Research, and Council. In addition to representing these principles, the figures on the pediment actually depict several of the people who were key to the Supreme Court Building’s construction, including Taft, Gilbert, and Aitken himself.
In designing the building’s East Pediment, artist Hermon A. MacNeil sought to show the importance of Eastern civilizations in the development of the U.S. legal system. Depicted in the sculpture are Confucius, Moses, and Solon, leaders of Eastern civilizations, as well as ten allegorical figures representing ideas related to mercy and law enforcement. The inscription at the pediment’s base, reading “Justice the Guardian of Liberty,” was written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who served with Taft on the Supreme Court Building Commission.
Inside the building, two elliptical marble staircases are notable for their unusual cantilevered design. Rather than being attached to a central support, the steps are attached only to the surrounding marble walls and have been carefully sized and fit together so that they remain in place with only the pressure from the steps below to hold them up. Cantilevered staircases are sometimes described as “floating stairs,” as the lack of a central support makes them appear to be suspended in the air.
In its own building, the Supreme Court enjoys the space it lacked in the temporary homes it occupied before 1935. The main floor features the Justices’ chambers, offices for staffers, conference rooms, and four courtyards, each with its own fountain. A floor above are the Justices’ reading and dining rooms, as well as additional offices, with the Court’s library on the floor above that. On the top floor, a former storage space was repurposed in the 1940s and now serves as a gym. The ground floor houses more offices, as well as areas set aside for visitors.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
National Historic Landmark: May 4, 1987
Exempt from National Register listing (per Section 107 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966)