TwHP Lessons

Federal Courthouses and Post Offices: Symbols of Pride and Permanence in American Communities

The Pioneer Courthouse Today
Interior, U.S. Courthouse in Denver, CO, Today The Gene Snyder Courthouse Today
(General Services Administration)

ur Federal Government is the largest builder of buildings ever known in the world…; and the fact that it builds in every part of our great country gives it an unexampled influence upon the architectural art of the entire people. It cannot avoid affecting in a pronounced degree the architectural taste, knowledge, and enjoyment of the nation. It cannot avoid affecting the growth of good architecture in all communities…. The Government, therefore, enjoys in its building operations a tremendous opportunity for good, in the judgment of all who regard architecture as one of the important factors of the higher civilization.1 

This statement, made by Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh in 1912, reflects the important role federal buildings have played and continue to play in communities throughout the country. From 1852-1939, the Office of the Supervising Architect of the United States Department of the Treasury was responsible for designing and constructing custom houses, post offices, federal courthouses, and other buildings needed by the federal government. Ranging from modest structures in smaller communities to grand, ornately appointed buildings in large cities, they stood as symbols of the strength and stability of the federal government. Citizens across the country enthusiastically viewed a new federal building as a testament to their city’s prosperity and importance.

Through the years, buildings of the federal government have witnessed significant federal trials, housed the offices of numerous federal agencies, provided space for citizens to conduct business, and served as architectural models for non-federal buildings. Many of the buildings designed under the Office of the Supervising Architect have been meticulously restored by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and continue to house the operations of the federal government. Under the care and maintenance of GSA, these historic buildings remain important monuments both to the government of the United States and the communities of which they are a part.

1Annual Report on the State of the Finances, 1912. As cited in Darrell Hevenor Smith, The Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury: Its History, Activities, and Organization (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1923), 30.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Map
  1. Location of three historic General Services Administration buildings

Determining the Facts: Readings

  1. The Federal Building Program
  2. The Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, Oregon
  3. The Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse in Denver, Colorado
  4. The Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House in Louisville, Kentucky

Visual Evidence: Images
  1. U.S. Courthouse, Custom House and Post Office (now Pioneer Courthouse), Portland, Oregon, ca. 1877
  2. Courtroom, Pioneer Courthouse today
  3. U.S. Post Office and Federal Building (now Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse), Denver, Colorado, August 1914
  4. Courtroom, Byron R. White U.S. Courthouse today
  5. U.S. Post Office, Court House and Custom House (now Gene Snyder U.S. Court House and Custom House), Louisville, Kentucky, ca. 1935
  6. Post Office lobby, U.S. Post Office, Court House and Custom House (now Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House, November 1932)

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. The Federal Judicial System
 2. The National Register of Historic Places
 3. What If . . .

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This lesson is based on the United States Courthouse, Custom House and Post Office (also known as Pioneer Courthouse) in Portland , Oregon; the U.S. Post Office and Federal Building in Denver, Colorado; and the United States Post Office, Court House and Custom House in Louisville, Kentucky. They are among the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Pioneer Courthouse has been designated a National Historic Landmark.



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