Uncle Sam’s Buildings
From Anniston, Alabama, to Laramie, Wyoming, smaller cities once profited from beautiful federal architecture.
My mentor, Henry Hope Reed (1915–2013), did more than anyone to launch the postwar movement to make classical architecture relevant again, both through his prolific writing and his co-founding in 1968 of Classical America, an educational organization that was incorporated into the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art a couple of decades ago.
At the time he wrote The Golden City (1959), an influential denunciation of modernism’s aesthetic perversities, it was Henry’s assumption that it was a fashion that would fade from the scene before long. He was mistaken about that. Following a pattern easily observed in sundry departments of our nation’s latter-day administrative state, modernist architects haven’t learned from their mistakes. They’ve doubled down on them, concocting one new mode of aesthetic dysfunction after another guaranteed to provoke oohs and aahs from the legacy media, academics and curators.
Even so, for any reader interested in understanding how and why American architecture went astray starting in the 1930s, Henry’s book (a new edition of which was recently published by the Monacelli Press) is an excellent place to start. Henry had a particular interest in Uncle Sam’s architectural patronage. The United States Capitol was in his view the nation’s greatest building, largely because its grandeur is in sync with its institutional importance. Fortunately, he never saw the banal, neo-deco, subterranean Capitol Visitor Center complex added to the building’s east front early in the new millennium.
A lifelong New Yorker and a Harvard graduate, Henry studied the decorative arts at the Ecole du Louvre in World War II’s aftermath. He took his aesthetic cues from the classical grandeur of Rome and Paris. Little surprise, then, that he greatly admired The Apotheosis of Washington, Constantino Brumidi’s crowning mural in the canopy of the Capitol’s rotunda. A three-year project completed in 1865, the Apotheosis covers an astounding 4,664 square feet. Technical challenges—as Henry noted in one of his last productions, The United States Capitol: Its Architecture and Decoration (2005)—included the canopy’s concavity, exceeding twenty feet in height from edge to center, and the medium, fresco, in which paint must be rapidly applied to wet plaster. Because the center of the canopy is 180 feet above the rotunda’s floor, human figures in the Apotheosis are as much as fifteen feet tall.
The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress was another edifice Henry particularly admired—again, for its abundant decoration, ranging from the fountain in front with Roland Hinton Perry’s Neptune and frolicking sea nymphs astride seahorses, to the main entrance hall with its grand, cherub-encrusted staircase, to the awe-inspiring Main Reading Room with its massive piers beautifully articulated with engaged columns, its arches and arcades, statues of historic luminaries and allegorical figures, sumptuous plasterwork, and a dome whose oculus was painted with figures representing the progress of civilization. “It is astonishing,” Henry remarked in a 1997 lecture about the building, “how deeply fixed in American intellectual circles is the disdain—or is it fear?—of abundant ornament.” Fear might sound hyperbolic, but Henry was well aware that cultural elites were viscerally hostile to the perpetuation of the great tradition for two reasons: first, modernism’s handiwork was artistically abysmal by comparison; second, because they were allergic to the very notion of a cultural superstructure that loomed larger than modernity’s apotheosized Self.
What Henry saw in modernism was the morbid narrowing of American civilization’s imaginative horizons even as the nation was attaining new heights of prosperity. Where were our latter day Brumidis—or the enlightened patrons eager to put them to work?
When Henry wrote The Golden City, the Federal Triangle complex facing Washington’s mall from the north side of Constitution Avenue was incomplete, with a large portion towards its west end that had been intended to serve as a great plaza serving instead as a parking lot. Henry included a proposal for its completion in his book. The Triangle, which covers seventy-five acres between 6th and 15th Streets and Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, was conceived by Andrew W. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury during the Coolidge, Harding, and Hoover administrations. Mellon wanted the Triangle to be Washington’s answer to Paris’s Louvre precinct. Design got underway during the 1920s, but the Triangle was largely constructed during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency—a useful reminder that American civic art worthy of the name once enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. FDR personally intervened to ensure that John Russell Pope’s Archives Building got built to his design.
The Interdepartmental Building facing Constitution Avenue, with the Mellon Auditorium in the center, was one of the Triangle buildings Henry most admired. Completed in 1935, it was designed by Arthur Brown Jr. of San Francisco. This exquisitely massed building features a rusticated basement and, above, a magisterial array of Roman Doric columns with a major central pediment and flanking minor ones decorated with allegorical sculpture. Brown (1874–1957) was trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His San Francisco City Hall, completed in 1916, and Veterans Building and War Memorial Opera House, both dating to 1932, Henry considered the finest architectural ensemble in America. It has a pronounced French accent. The design of the City Hall dome was influenced by that of the Church of the Invalides in Paris.
Returning to the Federal Triangle, another building Henry singled out for admiration in The Golden City is what is now the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building, which serves as EPA’s headquarters. Designed by the celebrated New York office of Delano and Aldrich and completed in 1934, this elegant hemicyclical structure is located on 12th Street and abuts Brown’s Interdepartmental Building. A major feature of Henry’s Triangle completion proposal was a complementary hemicycle to face Delano and Aldrich’s across 12th Street in accordance with the original Triangle plan.
Part of that second hemicycle had been built into the existing IRS headquarters building. Demolition of the Old Post Office (1899) was intended by the Triangle’s planners to permit its completion. Henry’s plan accordingly called for a theater to be attached to the IRS, its interior modeled on Palladio and Scamozzi’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza. He proposed architectural frontages harmonizing with the Triangle’s along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue as well as the south side of Constitution.
None of this materialized, nor did the Great Plaza. I don’t know whether The Golden City had a role in this, but when the General Services Administration (GSA), Uncle Sam’s postwar real estate developer and property manager, commissioned modernist architect Vincent Kling to come up with a plan for the Triangle’s completion, he proposed adherence to the established classical idiom. Surprisingly, Kling got a green light and assigned a young assistant, Alvin Holm, to work out the plan. Holm had flipped through the pages of The Golden City while a Yale undergraduate, but he was no classicist—at least not yet. His Triangle plan of 1969 called for federal office buildings only, along with completion of the second 12th Street hemicycle and creation of the Great Plaza. The latter was to be the length of a long city block and feature a central rectilinear pool extending from fountains at each end. From the plaza there would be access to underground parking as well as the planned Federal Triangle Metro station. On Pennsylvania Avenue, Holm astutely retained the tower of the Old Post Office, a familiar Washington landmark and the building’s most-loved feature.
Unfortunately, preservationists carried the day and the Old Post Office, which was lately home to the Trump International Hotel, was “saved” in toto. It was Holm’s excellent plan that was shelved—partly, it may be, because of budgetary constraints brought on by the Vietnam War. The 12th Street circle envisioned by the original Triangle planners, as well as Henry and Holm, was never realized. As a result, the eastward vista from that street is disjointed rather than inspiring.
This is a perfect example of why Henry could never be pigeonholed as a preservationist. He looked at the ensemble, the big picture, not the isolated object. He was also far more interested in shaping the future than mothballing the past.
Instead of the Great Plaza, Washington got stuck with Freedom Plaza, a neurotically misshapen space largely configured by the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (1998). This enormous postmodern edifice, the second largest federal building after the Pentagon, parodies rather than emulates the Triangle’s historic classicism. And instead of the uniformly classical frontages on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue that Henry envisioned, we got a disjointed mélange featuring the notoriously hideous J. Edgar Hoover FBI headquarters. This Brutalist concrete pile, one of GSA’s major disasters, was completed in 1975. Its protruding attic volume is wrapped in a sort of hairnet to protect unsuspecting pedestrians against the fallout from a potentially lethal case of concrete dandruff.
The following decade, however, saw construction of the classical Market Square complex across the avenue from Pope’s Archives. Itself configured as a hemicycle featuring an elevated, monumental Doric order, Market Square is bisected by 8th Street, allowing the southern pediment of Robert Mills’s Greek Revival Patent Office building, now home to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, to provide a handsome terminated vista. A commercial development, Market Square engages the Triangle’s classicism instead of negating it. It is easily the best of the various postwar projects along the avenue between the Treasury Department and the Capitol.
What is now named the Howard M. Metzenbaum United States Courthouse in Cleveland offers the kind of grandeur Henry would have liked to see more of in our nation’s capital and elsewhere across the land. It was one of Henry’s favorite federal buildings. Of course, we’re all accustomed to the saying that they don’t build ’em like they used to. But Henry’s take was that ours was a very wealthy nation—much wealthier, in fact, than it was when the Metzenbaum courthouse was erected—so we could and should be building ’em like we used to, and why not even better than we used to?
Completed in 1910 and designed by New York architect Arnold Brunner, the Metzenbaum building’s generous decoration includes allegorical sculpture groups by Daniel Chester French flanking its main entrance and devoted, respectively, to the themes of adjudication and commerce. The courthouse’s splendid entrance hall features a vaulted ceiling that, again, reflects French influence. The two main courtrooms are majestic chambers featuring monumental pilasters whose shafts are covered with scagliola imitating veined marble, with gilt bases and capitals, along with elaborately coffered ceilings richly encrusted with gilt plasterwork, handsome chandeliers and sconces, and, behind the judges’ benches, large, multifigured mural paintings devoted to legal themes. Even the carpeting contributes to the courtrooms’ richly polychromatic effect.
Is all this nothing more than idle splendor? Jeffry Gallet, a judge who served for a time in New York City’s Brutalist family court building in Lower Manhattan (1975), recalled his daughter’s horrified reaction when he took her there: “That building looks like Darth Vader. Do we have to go in?” Darth Vader was an appropriate reference. Designed by a New York office with a pedigree extending back to the 19th century, the family court building is part of a modernist civic center including several other judicial facilities. The misshapen, jumbled forms of this colossally pretentious edifice are dismally clad in dark gray granite. Its forbidding appearance is particularly regrettable, Gallet observed in an essay published in 2001, insofar as this courthouse is “the place where children and their families go at their moments of highest distress.”
Fortunately, Gallet had the good fortune to be promoted to the federal bench, and presided as a bankruptcy court judge in the superb edifice then known as the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House (1907) at the foot of Manhattan’s Bowling Green. The building—much admired by Henry—was designed by the great Cass Gilbert, who operated on the same artistic wavelength as Arnold Brunner, the architect of the Metzenbaum courthouse. The front of the customs house, now home to the Museum of the American Indian as well as the bankruptcy court, thus boasts four monumental statuary groups, symbolizing the four continents, designed by French and Adolph Weinman. Gallet also occasionally served at the appellate level in the Foley Square (now Thurgood Marshall) U.S. courthouse, also designed by Gilbert and completed three decades after his customs house. This remarkable building is a skyscraper whose fine tower surmounts a monumental colonnaded base.
Gallet, whose essay appeared in a monograph devoted to Gilbert, experienced the magic worked by the august courtroom settings designed by the latter, who was assisted on the Foley Square project—and also on the design of the Supreme Court in Washington—by his son. “Every so often, I see in bankruptcy court lawyers or litigants who appeared before me in family court or civil court,” wrote Gallet, who died the year his essay was published. “The difference in their appearance and demeanor is striking. Invariably, they dress better, hold themselves more erect, and speak in a softer, less belligerent way.”
Such is the magic that motivated Henry’s classical advocacy.
From the founding until World War II, classicism provided the formal vocabulary for federal buildings ranging in style from Palladian to Spanish and English colonial, to the grand manner of the Bourbon kings, to “stripped classical” and even Art Deco. The 19th century, however, witnessed an emphatically eclectic profusion of styles. The Greek Revival that gave us Mills’s Patent Office building was of course a classical development. In the Civil War’s aftermath, the Victorian Gothic mode, which fused Italian and French with English motifs, famously shaped the Connecticut State Capitol, which dates to the 1870s. The quest for picturesque effect during these postbellum decades yielded overwrought architectural confections such as the old State, War, and Navy building erected just west of the White House. This edifice took its cues not from Ancient Greece or Rome, or Jefferson’s beloved Palladio or the France of the Louis, but from the exceedingly pompous Second Empire style that emerged during the reign of Napoleon III.
That style proved of brief duration on our shores. The same goes for the Romanesque employed at Washington’s aforementioned Old Post Office, an inevitably pale reflection of Henry Hobson Richardson’s brilliant Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail in Pittsburgh (1888). Unlike the classical, Richardson’s Romanesque has a narrow expressive range. In his hands it was, at its best, very massive—meaning that in other hands, it tended to be merely ponderous.
The eclectic confusion, if not eclecticism itself, came to an end near the close of the 19th century with the most important architectural event in American history, the World’s Columbian Exposition staged in Chicago, on Lake Michigan’s western shore, in 1893. With its stunningly monumental integration of architecture and the decorative arts in a gorgeously scenographic setting, the fair epitomizes Henry’s abiding civic-art ideal.
This being a fair, the architecture was temporary, clad in plaster bonded with shredded hemp. The centerpiece was the Court of Honor and its Grand Basin. The Court was terminated at its east end by a peristyle or colonnade, in front of which stood French’s hieratic statue, The Republic. At the opposite end stood the domed Administration Building. The court was flanked by large, richly decorated structures housing exhibits devoted to agriculture, machinery, manufactures, mines and electricity. Plazas and esplanades were replete with sculpture, fountains, flagpoles, and balustrades. The Court’s aesthetic impact was overwhelming, and this explains more than anything why the fair attracted such a tremendous number of visitors, more than 27 million over six months. (As of 1890, the nation’s population was 63 million.)
Not surprisingly, serious thought was given to making the Court of Honor and its buildings permanent. An exceptionally handsome classical structure devoted to the fine arts that was located elsewhere on the grounds was in fact rebuilt in permanent form. It now houses Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. But the influential New York architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler was hostile to such ideas—and not for reasons of practicality. “Men bring not back the mastodon,” he proclaimed in an essay published months after the fair’s close. He was referring directly to the exposition’s physical resurrection, but the comment was of course a double entendre grounded in misuse of Darwin’s revolutionary theory.
For Schuyler the classical grandeur of Athens, Rome, Paris, London, and, yes, Washington—of whose architectural impact on the public he was well aware—was obsolete as a model for contemporary practice. Architecture, no less than scientific knowledge, technology, or organic nature itself, must evolve. It was past time to give authentic expression to the new building technologies, especially steel construction technology, that the industrial age had ushered in. Thomas U. Walter, one of the great architects who worked on the U.S. Capitol, had done precisely the opposite with his celestial cast-iron dome (1865), which is painted so as to appear marmoreal.
Schuyler portrayed the fair in terms of “the entertainment of a holiday crowd,” the architects’ achievement as “the stage-setting for an unexampled spectacle” and “a fairy city,” utterly divorced from and antithetical to true architecture, which he defined in starkly materialistic terms as “the correlation of structure and function.” If architecture is to be “real and living and progressive,” Schuyler added, “its forms must be the results of material and construction.” To give the critic his due, it’s hard to imagine architecture not being the result of material and construction. But there’s no question we see wholly mistaken modernist dogma adumbrated in his commentary on the Chicago fair. Schuyler’s assessment of the exposition’s architectural ramifications was hamstrung by a pseudo-scientific materialism. The misapplication of scientific dogma to the arts of form is one of the titanic blunders of the modern age. Among other things this fallacy leads inexorably to architecture’s conversion from technology’s master into technology’s slave.
We are fortunate that Henry Adams recorded his thoughts on the exposition in his famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. Henry quoted them at length in The Golden City. Adams may have worshiped the Gothic of Chartres Cathedral and resided in a rather gloomy Washington mansion designed by the aforementioned Henry Hobson Richardson, but he was profoundly moved by what he called the Court of Honor’s “inconceivable scenic display.” Sitting on the steps of the Administration Building, Adams pondered the fact that the Chicago fair, though dedicated largely to the exhibition of the nation’s dizzying technological progress—involving everything from ocean steamers to explosives—had taken an altogether different tack with regard to architecture. “Here,” he wrote, “was a breach of continuity, a rupture in historical sequence! Was it real, or only apparent?” Dismissing ill-considered, deterministic schemes of historical “progress” such as Schuyler’s, Adams dared to hope that “the new American world would take this sharp and conscious turn towards ideals.” His conclusion: “Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity. One must start there.”
Adams reached that bold conclusion because the exposition embodied the aspiration that America’s material progress should not be an end in itself but rather serve the higher purpose of nurturing a great American civilization. Needless to say, it was precisely this aspiration that underlay the classical visions of Washington and Jefferson and the architects they employed, starting with Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the Frenchman who planned the city of Washington. Eminent designers like Charles Follen McKim, the architect who most decisively influenced the Court of Honor’s design, were acutely aware of the fact that they were reinstating and building on an American tradition of monumental civic art that originated with the Founders. Within a decade of the Chicago fair, McKim played a key role in shaping a U.S. Senate commission’s plan for the extension of L’Enfant’s Mall in Washington, which created space on the Potomac’s reclaimed tidal flats for the Lincoln Memorial. In the event, the memorial, which celebrated its centennial last year, was designed by McKim’s protégé Henry Bacon.
The civic work of architects like Brown, Brunner, and Gilbert was in keeping with the spirit of the fair. Another key figure in this cultural dispensation was James Knox Taylor, the supervising architect of the Treasury from 1897 to 1912. Returning to San Francisco, we encounter the majestic breadth and powerful rustication of the U.S. appeals court building designed by Taylor and his staff. It was completed in 1905, a few years before the Metzenbaum courthouse. From Anniston, Alabama, to Laramie, Wyoming, smaller cities also profited from this dispensation through the erection of federal buildings of a level of refinement some of them had never seen. With construction costs increasing after Taylor’s tenure, Uncle Sam’s patronage tended to be less sumptuous, but it nevertheless bankrolled a consistently impressive level of architectural competence for a quarter-century.
It is interesting to contemplate the muscular, richly detailed articulation of Taylor’s appeals court building in comparison with the nearby Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Courthouse completed six decades later. The latter was designed by a “name” architect, John Carl Warnecke, but its urban presence is that of a generic postwar high-rise. Of course, the federal government’s vastly increased demand for space is reflected in the Burton edifice’s 21 floors. But the fundamental difference is that the appeals court building is an artifact, while Warnecke’s boxy edifice registers as a commodity. This is the consequence of an excessive modernist preoccupation with “material and construction,” not to mention the irruption of a dehumanized building ethos often accompanied by meager budgets. The Burton edifice was erected under the auspices of the GSA, which began operating in 1949. The office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, which dated to 1852 and had guided the construction of thousands of courthouses, customs houses, post offices, federal office buildings, border stations and other structures, had ceased to exist on the eve of World War II.
With the Depression’s onset, cultural elites were increasingly won over to the conviction that the classical idiom that had done so much to define Western civilization over some 2,500 years was indeed going the way of the mastodon. The Rayburn House Office Building (1965) at the foot of Capitol Hill was just the sort of edifice to nurture this conviction. Its classicism achieves the remarkable feat of seeming both anemic and pretentious by comparison with numerous nearby buildings—starting, of course, with the Capitol itself. The Rayburn project was something of an outlier: a boondoggle managed by an Architect of the Capitol who wasn’t even an architect. Even so, it seemingly vindicated the Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture, drawn up in 1962 by the Kennedy Administration aide and future senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in their stipulation that Uncle Sam avoid reliance on an “official style”—meaning classicism—while letting the architectural profession show him the way to modes of building reflecting “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American Government.”
The Chicago Federal Center, designed by Mies van der Rohe, would appear to be what Moynihan had in mind. It consists of a thirty-story courthouse slab that was completed in 1964. The forty-five-story skyscraper and one-story post office came later. But such “skin and bones” architecture, as Mies himself famously referred to his relentlessly rectilinear buildings, cannot build an esthetically resonant, meaningful city. The same goes for the reductionism of the Sixties-vintage John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Boston, designed by Bauhaus pioneer Walter Gropius. The building is a signature presence in the Government Center urban renewal precinct whose catastrophic advent entailed demolition of a large swathe of downtown Boston’s historic architectural fabric.
Over the succeeding decades, GSA’s patronage has been all over the stylistic map—especially since its so-called Design Excellence program was launched in 1994 in an effort to up the agency’s architectural game—and overwhelmingly favorable to modernist and postmodern trends. True, not all of its buildings are eyesores. Completed at the turn of the millennium, the Thomas F. Eagleton Federal Courthouse in St. Louis is a postmodern high-rise whose massing and domed entrance pavilion and crown endow it with an unambiguously institutional aura. The fact remains that it falls far short of the monumental gravitas of Gotham’s Thurgood Marshall courthouse. It is also true that the courthouses GSA builds are a good deal more user-friendly than the family and civil court buildings Gallet deplored for the simple reason that the federal judiciary has significant input on its accommodations, whose complexity has increased considerably over the years.
But this hasn’t prevented disasters like the preposterously glassy six-story atrium of the Sandra Day O’Connor United States Courthouse (2000) in Phoenix, designed by celebrity architect Richard Meier. Temperatures in the atrium can soar into the upper nineties. As I reported in a 2019 essay in City Journal, “Why America Needs Classical Architecture,” buildings erected by GSA have had a very spotty performance record. And at the cultural or symbolic level, the public has been ill-served by the agency’s tendency to blow with the ever-shifting winds of fashion. Federal architecture should stand apart from the anomie of our postmodern culture. GSA-commissioned buildings are far too likely to embody it.
The upshot is that in city after city, one is struck by the vastly inferior quality of federal buildings erected after GSA’s creation compared with those designed by the Office of the Treasury’s Supervising Architect. In Denver, the Byron Rogers U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building (1965)—an oversized pillbox joined by an exiguous pergola to a high-rise slab distinguished by little more than its elongated hexagonal plan and, at one of its narrow ends, a perfectly blank concrete-paneled wall facing Stout Street—are embarrassingly anorexic by comparison with Egerton Swartwout’s Byron White courthouse (1916) next door, with its fine Ionic colonnades. San Antonio’s old Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse is a fine essay in the Spanish Baroque, while the city’s new federal courthouse conforms to a fashionably glassy aesthetic outrigged with a plethora of metallic sun-screening gear. The robust masonry construction and elegant fenestration of the old courthouse are far preferable, insofar as the new building’s glass expanses are fundamentally untectonic, ephemeral and thus unreceptive to what Henry called the patina of time. Yet the occupants of modernism’s Tower of Babble prattle on about glass’s symbolizing “democratic” openness and transparency, as opposed to inane elite obsessions. Needless to say, they’ve got GSA’s ear.
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In sum, the history of federal architecture serves to fill out The Golden City’s opening chapter, a photographic essay entitled “The City of Contrasts.” Perhaps the most extreme contrast of all is between that San Francisco appeals court building and the Federal Building across the street that, incredibly, was expected to be the crown jewel of GSA’s Design Excellence program when it was completed in 2007. Designed by perennial enfant terrible Thom Mayne, it is essentially a wide, shallow glass box whose main elevation is enclosed within a hideous steel-cage wrapping that slinks into the plaza in front and covers a concrete café bunker. Are we seeing “dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability” here? Or what Henry would call “visual nihilism” of an inconceivably brazen kind? Most Americans, I have no doubt, would agree with the latter assessment. And by the way, the U.S. courthouse Mayne designed for Eugene, Oregon, isn’t much better.
At the end of 2020, Donald Trump signed an executive order stipulating that classical and traditional architecture be given priority in the design of U.S. courthouses, agency headquarters, and other federal buildings with a price tag exceeding $50 million. It prescribed classicism as the default idiom for the nation’s capital only. It did not exclude modernist design across the board, though it did very reasonably ban Brutalism and Deconstructionism—Mayne’s San Francisco jumble being a specimen of the latter mode. The executive order retained Moynihan’s watchwords, while providing guidelines that were more consistent with them. Not surprisingly, Trump’s successor wasted little time in canceling the order. Later on, he took the unprecedented step of firing most of the members Trump had appointed to an influential federal review board, the Commission of Fine Arts, before they had served their allotted terms. Those ejected included the chairman of the commission, the National Civic Art Society’s Justin Shubow, and Atlanta architect and monument impresario Rodney Mims Cook Jr.
Sensible politicians should be giving serious thought to the improvement of Uncle Sam’s architectural patronage. Bad architecture is a bad investment of taxpayer dollars. A federal courthouse completed in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a decade ago warrants attention. It features three pedimented masses, designed in a Greek Revival idiom well suited to the region’s cultural heritage, that are connected by recessed volumes. Its atrium features an upper-level gallery with paintings devoted to historical themes that are apt to register with the public at large. This courthouse’s classicism is attributable to the clout of a recently-retired senator, Richard Shelby, not GSA preferences. One can only hope it proves a modest harbinger of a federal architecture once again expressive of “American thought as a unity.”