40 Centre Street, Foley Square, 1931–1936

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

The Federal courthouse on Foley Square was architect Cass Gilbert’s last major work. Completed in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, he ignored current fashions and produced a late if somewhat heavy-handed, classical-style building. Though Gilbert had recently worked on the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. – a pristine white marble temple – this building bears little resemblance to the nation’s highest court. In Manhattan where skyscrapers dominate most areas, he pursued an entirely different strategy – a vertical courthouse – one of the earliest of its kind.

Some of this talented architect’s finer works stand within strolling distance of Foley Square. Here, one can survey his early development as a designer of high-rise structures, such as the Broadway-Chambers Building (1900), the West Street Building (1907), and the Woolworth Building (1913). In comparison with these richly-ornamented office towers, the United States Court House is somewhat austere. Consisting of two contrasting forms, one horizontal and the other vertical, the gray granite elevations rise to a gilt pyramid, crowned by an open lantern. While the six-story base resembles Gilbert’s unsuccessful competition entry for the adjacent New York State Supreme Court in 1912, the blocky 31-story tower brings to mind other buildings, such as the Metropolitan Life Tower on Madison Square and even St. Mark’s campanile in Venice, which gained international notoriety following its sudden collapse in 1902 and subsequent reconstruction.

From Centre Street, visitors climb the broad staircase and pass between ten massive unfluted Corinthian columns that incorporate tiny American eagles within each capital. At each end of the facade are simple medallions that represent four ancient law-givers: Aristotle, Demosthenes, Moses, and Plato. Inside. The building contains 35 courtrooms as well as a double-height law library on the 25th floor, which can be distinguished by its round-arched window openings.

These wood-paneled courtrooms serve the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It is one of 13 appeals courts distributed throughout the nation. Justices hear appeals from district courts in New York State, Connecticut, and Vermont. In 2001, the building was renamed for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Not only was Marshall the first African American appointed to the court, but, like current justice Sonia Sotomayer, earlier he had served in this building on the Court of Appeals.

Matthew A. Postal