District of Columbia City Hall

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This article is about the former city hall. For the current Washington, D.C. municipal building, see John A. Wilson Building.
City Hall
District of Columbia Court of Appeals.JPG
District of Columbia City Hall is located in Washington, D.C.
District of Columbia City Hall
District of Columbia City Hall is located in the District of Columbia
District of Columbia City Hall
District of Columbia City Hall is located in USA
District of Columbia City Hall
Location 451 Indiana Avenue NW
Washington, D.C.
Coordinates 38°53′43″N 77°1′4″W / 38.89528°N 77.01778°W / 38.89528; -77.01778Coordinates: 38°53′43″N 77°1′4″W / 38.89528°N 77.01778°W / 38.89528; -77.01778
Built 1820
Architectural style Neoclassical
NRHP Reference # 66000857
Significant dates
Added to NRHP October 15, 1966[1]
Designated NHL December 19, 1960[2]

District of Columbia City Hall, also known as "Old City Hall" and the "District of Columbia Courthouse", is a historic building at Judiciary Square in downtown Washington, D.C. facing Indiana Avenue. Originally built for the offices of the D.C. municipal government, the District's City Hall was subsequently used as a Federal courthouse, and was the scene of several notable criminal trials including those of three accused presidential assassins. The building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960.[2][3] It now houses the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.


The government of the City of Washington held a competition for the design of a new municipal building in 1818. George Hadfield, a former superintendent during the beginning construction of the United States Capitol, 1795-1798.[4] submitted a design for a new city hall but it was judged to be too costly. Hadfield eventually won the competition in 1820 with a revised version of his original plan and construction began in August. The offices of the city government moved into the building in 1822. However, a lack of funds and other problems hindered construction and the building would not be completed in its entirety until 1849.[3][5]

To raise funds needed to finish the building, the city leased out space during construction to other federal government offices. Tenants included the U.S. Circuit Court and the Recorder of Deeds office, then headed by noted black leader and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, (1818-1895), who also later served as U.S. Marshal for the District. Following the passage of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862, the Old City Hall was then used to process payments to slaveholders.[6]

The federal government rented additional space in 1863 during the American Civil War and later purchased the building from the District government to house the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia.[3] In 1868, a statue of 16th President Abraham Lincoln sculpted by Lot Flannery was erected on the south side of the building, which became the first public monument in his honor.[5] The offices of the D.C. government moved to the new District Building in 1908 and the Old City Hall was left to house the federal courts until they finally vacated the property in 1910.[5][7]

In 1916, Congress approved funds for the complete renovation of the courthouse. The extensive work stripped the building to its brick framing and replaced the stucco exterior with limestone blocks on a granite base. The building was rededicated as the U.S. Courthouse in 1922. The federal courts moved to the new E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in 1952 and the Old City Hall eventually became the headquarters of the U.S. Selective Service System. The building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and was returned to the District government two years later for use by the local courts.[3][5]

Prominent cases[edit]

Many famous cases were tried at the city hall while it was a U.S. courthouse. U.S. Representative Sam Houston, (1793-1863), then of Tennessee, (later Governor of the "Volunteer State", and commanding General of Texan revolutionary forces and President of the Republic of Texas, then U.S. Senator and Governor of the State of Texas) was tried and convicted for using his cane to beat another member of Congress on the House of Representatives floor in 1832. Richard Lawrence, the failed assassin of 7th President Andrew Jackson, (the first assassination attempt against an American chief executive) was tried on the site in 1835 under D.C. prosecuting attorney Francis Scott Key, (1779-1843), and was sentenced to a mental institution.[7][8] The building was also the site of the 1867 trial of John Surratt, an alleged conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln who was later acquitted.[5][9] However, Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin of President James A. Garfield, was convicted at the courthouse in 1882.[5][7][10]

The Old City Hall was also the scene of a fugitive slave trial known as the "Pearl incident," the largest single escape by slaves attempted in U.S. history. Two men were convicted in 1848 of attempting to free more than 70 slaves by sailing them from Washington down the Potomac River then up the Chesapeake Bay.[7]

Current use[edit]

In 1999, the building closed for yet another extensive renovation by the architecture firm of Beyer Blinder Belle. Steel framing replaced the old masonry while leaving the stone façade intact. A new glass atrium was constructed on the north side of the building facing Judiciary Square and is now the main entrance, as had been originally intended. The D.C. Courthouse was rededicated on June 17, 2009 as the home of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.[5][7]


  1. ^ Staff (2007-01-23). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  2. ^ a b "District of Columbia City Hall". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2008-05-13. 
  3. ^ a b c d W. Brown Morton III (February 8, 1971). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination: District of Columbia City Hall" (PDF). National Park Service. 
  4. ^ Scott, Pamela (March 20, 1995). "'Temple of Liberty' Building a Capitol for a New Nation". The Library of Congres. Retrieved 2008-01-15. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "Renovation and Expansion of the Historic DC Courthouse" (PDF). DC Court of Appeals. Retrieved 5 October 2011. 
  6. ^ "D.C. Superior Court / Old City Hall". Cultural Tourism D.C. Retrieved 5 October 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Kennicott, Philip (17 June 2009). "In D.C., Old City Hall Is Expanded to Accommodate the Court of Appeals". The Washington Post. Retrieved 5 October 2011. 
  8. ^ Dershowitz, Alan M. (2004). "The Richard Lawrence Case". America on trial: inside the legal battles that transformed our nation. Hachette Digital, Inc. pp. iii. ISBN 978-0-446-52058-4. 
  9. ^ Jampoler, Andrew C. A. (2008). The last Lincoln conspirator: John Surratt's flight from the gallows. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. p. 263. ISBN 978-1-59114-407-6. 
  10. ^ "Charles Guiteau Trial: 1881". Great American Trials. New England Publishing. 1994. pp. 187–191. 

External links[edit]