How to Use
Determining the Facts
Reading 3: The Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse in Denver, Colorado
A group of prospectors founded Denver on November 22, 1858, after discovering gold at the confluence of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. This area was part of Kansas Territory at the time, and the group named the new town for the Governor of Kansas Territory, James W. Denver. In 1859, the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush drew roughly 100,000 people to the region. The increase in population led the federal government to establish Colorado Territory in 1861. Denver, which had become a mining supply town, was named the territorial capital in 1865. On August 1, 1876, Denver became the state capital when Colorado was admitted to the Union as the 38th state.
In 1870, Denver citizens financed construction of a railroad that connected Denver to the transcontinental line in Wyoming. This action ensured that Denver would remain viable when many other mining towns went bust. In fact, Denver’s population grew from less than 5,000 to more than 100,000 between 1870 and 1890. The discovery of silver in the 1880s brought more prosperity to the city. When the silver panic of 1893 threatened Denver's economy, the city changed its focus and became an important center for livestock sales and agriculture. By 1900, Denver was a major transportation crossroads and second only to San Francisco as the largest city west of Omaha, Nebraska. However, the city still reflected the dusty, unplanned character of many boom towns.
In 1904, Robert Speer became Denver’s new mayor and set out to transform the city. He had visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and been impressed with the fair’s orderly and grand layout. He began an extensive effort to organize and beautify Denver with planned boulevards, parks, and new buildings that would reflect Denver’s permanence. Denver’s U.S. Post Office, which had been built in 1893, was considered too small and outdated to meet the growing city’s needs by this time. The Denver Chamber of Commerce petitioned Congress in 1904 for a new federal building. The petition argued that the old federal building was insignificant compared with surrounding structures and compared to the “more pretentious” federal building in Pueblo, Colorado.1 The people of Denver wanted a federal building more suitable for a growing metropolis.
In 1908, Congress finally appropriated the necessary funds, and a site for a new building to house all federal agencies in Denver was purchased. James Knox Taylor served as Supervising Architect of the Treasury during this time. Under the provisions of the Tarsney Act, Taylor selected the New York architectural firm Tracy, Swartwout, and Litchfield to design the building. It was the largest building project ever undertaken in Denver, and citizens were enthusiastic as construction began in 1910. The $1,500,000 appropriation was not enough, however, and an additional $400,000 was necessary to complete the project. In January 1916, the federal government finally occupied the new facility.
Denver’s new federal building was designed in the Neoclassical or Classical Revival style of architecture. This style, which dominated federal building design at the time, helped bring design elements popular in the eastern United States to newer western cities such as Denver. Characteristics of the style included a symmetrical design, classical details such as columns, and a grand scale. Denver’s monumental, four-story, marble building took up an entire city block in downtown. The main entrance facade featured 16 three-story columns. On the interior, the impressive main lobby spanned the width of the building. The U.S. Post Office occupied most of the first floor. The second floor included space for the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and a law library. Other federal agencies such as the Immigration Department and the Bureau of Internal Revenue occupied the third and fourth floors. The building’s monumental scale and elegant design was deemed an appropriate expression of the city’s importance and served as inspiration for other civic buildings in the city.
The federal building also boasted notable artwork. A New York artist designed four canvas murals for the lobby in 1918. In 1936, Denver artist Gladys Caldwell Fisher added two limestone sculptures of Rocky Mountain sheep at one of the entrances. The Depression-era Treasury Relief Art Program (TRAP) funded this project. TRAP was established in 1935 with a $530,000 grant to the Treasury Department from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The program, part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, was designed to provide relief for unemployed painters and sculptors by hiring them to create art in new and existing federal buildings nationwide.
In the years following World War II, Denver’s population expanded rapidly as more federal agencies moved to the city. Despite undergoing major interior changes, the building was not able to keep up with the office space needs of the federal government in Denver. In 1965, the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit moved to a new courthouse. The old building came to be used almost entirely by the U.S. Post Office. To accommodate its needs, the Post Office changed the lobby, demolished the appellate courtroom and grand jury room, and expanded the third floor.
The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. By the late 1980s, decades of remodeling had destroyed much of the grandeur of the original structure. Around this time, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit again was in need of a new facility. Rather than construct a new courthouse, GSA decided to undertake a major renovation of the old federal building. In 1991, GSA closed the building to begin the $28 million renovation. GSA was able to reverse many of the earlier alterations while making the building suitable for the court. GSA reconstructed the appellate courtroom and the grand jury room as well as restored the former post office lobby for use as a public gallery. In 1994, the building was rededicated as the Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse to honor a prominent Colorado lawyer who served on the U.S. Supreme Court from 1962 to 1993. The building has won several preservation awards including the Presidential Award for Design Excellence in 1997.
Questions for Reading 3
1. Give a brief synopsis of Denver’s history from its founding to the turn of the 20th century. What are some of the reasons Denver became and stayed a successful town?
2. Why did the Chamber of Commerce petition Congress for a new federal building?
3. What was the Tarsney Act? (Refer to Reading 1 if necessary.) How did this act affect Denver’s federal building?
4. What was TRAP? Why do you think this program would have been important to federal building projects?
5. Describe the Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse. How did the building and its uses change over time? Why did these changes occur?
Reading 3 was adapted from Susan A. Nieminen, “U.S. Post Office and Federal Building” (Denver County, Colorado) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1972); U.S. General Services Administration, Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse [Brochure] (GSA, n.d.); and U.S. General Services Administration, A Poem in Marble, a Place on the Map: The Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse [Video Recording].