Old Washington
Judiciary Square – Part III

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 17, 1913 [pt. 2, p. 1]

Barely had the echoes of the war of 1812 died away when the young city of Washington, whose people numbered scarcely 10,000 souls, was looking forward to a high place among the municipalities. At that period it had two school buildings and an almshouse in permanent structures, but the city government, mayor, register and other officers and boards of aldermen and council were in temporary quarters. About 1815 preparations were made for raising money by lottery to build a town house or city hall, and one of the reservations, that south of the Capitol, had been designated as the site for the town house. It was deemed inexpedient to erect a town house or city hall there, and after attempts had been made to raise the money clear of expenses to build such a hall in 1819 it was determined to erect a building, and then it was that the south part of Judiciary Square was designated as the most advantageous place for the building.

In April, 1820, the matter came to a head when the major was instructed to advertise for plans and specifications for a hall to cost $100,000, George Hatfield, who had been an architect of the Capitol, made a plan for building three wings, surmounted by a dome, but in the interest of economy the authorities objected.

Mr. Hatfield subsequently modified the plans, and July 14, the authorities having accepted them, the mayor was authorized to call for proposals for the erection of the structure.

Contract is Awarded
The contract was awarded to Henry Smith, a well known builder, who had built Smith's row, at the southeast corner of 11th and F streets, and soon after the foundations were laid the preparations followed for laying the corner stone. This ceremony took place the 22d day of August, and was an occasion of unusual interest to the authorities and citizens generally.

The invitation of Mayor Samuel H. Smallwood declared that the building would be devoted "to municipal purposes, and would be the seat of legislation and the administration of justice for this metropolis when it shall have reached its destined population, and is therefore erected on a scale worthy the uses for which it is intended. It is therefore to be constructed with a view to durability which will extend beyond the age of any of the living."

Court Records in Jeopardy
In justification for adopting such a plan, the mayor and council said that the courts had been “sometimes crowded into small obscure rooms at the Capitol, assigned to them by the doorkeepers of Congress, and at times the tribunal to represent the dignity of the national government and maintain the majesty of its laws was compelled to seek temporary accommodations in the most public rooms of public taverns, thus presenting the disgraceful spectacle of violations of law and punishment of offenses in the same apartment or apartments separated from each other by only a light partition.

"The records of the courts, too, upon the preservation of which the fortunes, and in many cases the reputations, of not only the people of this District, but of great numbers who reside beyond its limits, in a great measure depend, have been, and still are, constantly exposed to loss and destruction by fire and other causes for want of secure places of deposit. Under these circumstances the city councils did not hesitate to assume a task which of right devolved on Congress, and therefore they determined to erect not merely a building for the use of the corporation offices, but an edifice calculated to afford ample accommodations and full security to the courts and records of the District."

Corner Stone Laying
The cornerstone was laid by the Grand Lodge of Masons, the ceremony being preceded by a procession, in which were the subordinate bodies, and, forming at the hall on 11th street near C, then used by the councils, escorted the invited guests from Strother's Hotel, 14th street and the Avenue, to the site. Included in the line were President Monroe, members of the cabinet, judges of the courts and officers, mayors of the three cities of the District, etc.

At the site there was a large concourse of citizens, and, after the laying of the corner stone by William Hewitt, the grand master, the assembly listened to the address of John Law, in which he spoke of Jefferson's interest in the city, pictured its progress and predicted a bright future.

Ready for Occupancy June, 1822
The building was ready for the occupancy of the mayor and councils in the west portion by June, 1822, when Mayor S.N. Smallwood was succeeded by Thomas Carbery, and June 10 the latter was inaugurated.

Included in the membership of the councils were William A. Bradley, R.C. Weightman and Col. Peter Force, afterward mayor of the city, and Samuel M. Smallwood, who had been mayor since 1819, and who lived to see his hopes realized by the occupancy of buildings by his successor and corporation officers.

On conference with the judges of the court the preparation of the eastern part of the building was left to the United States authorities, and by the act of March 3, 1823, the President was authorized to finish the city hall and fit up suitable portions for the sessions of the Circuit Court, offices for the clerks, marshall, etc., and $10,000 was appropriated for the same. In 1824 this portion was fully occupied, and it became the seat of justice for the District. The building cost the city nearly $150,000, but the government appropriated from time to time money for improvements down to 1856, expending nearly $45,000, and finally purchased it under the act of March 3, 1873, for $75,000.

Arrangement of Offices
On the main floor of the west wing of the building were the offices of the mayor, Thomas Carbery, and William Hewitt, the register, and in the south end of the upper story was a chamber of the board of aldermen, Col Seaton was then the president of the aldermen, and he gave Middleton the secretaryship, who served as such until 1859. The council chamber was on the main floor to the left of the colonnade, and the board was then presided over by George Waterson, with Thomas L. Noyes, secretary. This chamber is now used as a courtroom.

Many rooms in this part of the building the corporation had no use for and rented them from time to time, especially those in the basement, for offices to lawyers and others. Here the Columbia Typographical Society met, and, about 1830 the Odd fellows held a meeting here. The lodge room was used for religious, temperance, political, patriotic and, in fact, for general meeting purposes, and when in 1833 the patent office was destroyed by fire it resumed business on the third story of the west wing at the invitation of the Mayor and councils.

In the basement the janitor resided. There were always in the legislative bodies some fine debaters, and spurts of eloquence were not rare. Now and then the sessions compared with the bodies sitting in the Capitol. In more than one instance there were night sessions over the appropriation of a few dollars, the principle being involved, and over fifty years since there was a deadlock over the organization of the board of aldermen which continued over seven months.

District Courts Held Terms
The Circuit Court of the District of Columbia had since its erection, in 1801, held its sessions in the Capitol, and after 1814 to this time was in the temporary capitol at the corner of 1st and A streets northeast. Judges William Cranch, Buckner Thurston and James S. Morsell were then on the bench. William Brent was the clerk; Francis Scott Key, United States attorney, and Tench Ringgold, marshall. R. Bland Lee was judge of the Orphans'' Court and Capt. Henry Neale, register of wills.

As before stated, provision for the accommodation of the judicial branch of the District was made in this building, the eastern part being finished by the government.

The corresponding chamber to that was the common council quarters, being fitted up as a courtroom, and the officers were located on the main floor and jury rooms provided above, while those in the basement were used for officers and living quarters for the janitor, and, like the council the courtroom was sometimes used for meeting purposes.

As may be imagined, many notable trials took place here, and scenes were enacted which were long remembered. Among others who practiced here were Francis Scott Key of “Star Spangled Banner” fame; Henry May, who in the fifties spoke seven days in a case, and subsequently represented a district in Baltimore in the national legislature; Richard L. Coxe, Daniel Radcliff, Richard Wallach, the elder, and Joseph H. Bradley.

At times the leading members of the bar of national reputation appeared before Chief Justice Cranch and his associates.

Prisoners Pathetic Pleas
Eloquence was indulged in, not only by the members of the bar, but ofttimes the pathetic pleas of prisoners about to be sentenced drew tears from stern judges and spectators, and it is related that the very best piece of eloquence ever heard within its walls came from a poor prisoner about sixty years ago, who was about to be sentenced to be hanged. And later, another prisoner in a similar predicament, for the space of half an hour appealed for his life, and as best he could enacted a scene to impress all who heard him.

Thus from 1822 to 1871 the building was the home of the old corporation of the city of Washington and to the present the temple of justice for the District.

Prisoners confined in the jails nearby had a straight road from the courthouse to the penitentiary, near the south end of 4-1/2 street, from 1829 to 1862, when the latter was taken for military uses. There is an instance where a child born to a janitor in the basement grew up there, studied law and became a successful member of the bar before his death.