Erie Federal Courthouse
The Erie Federal Courthouse and Post Office was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Erie Federal Courthouse and Post Office rear elevations, facing the parking areas and loading dock, preserve the fenestration and cornice lines of the main facade, but signal their lesser importance through the complete absence of ornament and the substitution of yellow brick for limestone and granite. As with the other elevations both the windows and coping have been replaced within the last two decades.
To a large extent, the exterior elevations reflect the plan of the building. The double-loaded corridors align with the north and west entrances to form a "cross" plan (albeit modified at the eastern arm). The multi-story window bays on the North and West elevations express the grand courtroom spaces, while the loggia fronts the courtroom lobby.
On the first floor, the vestibules are fitted with blue, matte glazed terra cotta wainscotting to a point approximately 4' high. This wainscotting continues into the corridors and lobbies and is complemented in these areas by ceramic tile floors that are bordered with a Greek fret pattern similar to the motif used on the exterior soapstone panels. These spaces are largely intact with the exception of modern lighting and "lay-in" ceilings that mask retrofitted HVAC equipment. The main stairwell of the building is relatively simple, and is placed in close proximity to the elevator core. The stair balusters are of iron with slate treads and risers, and oak handrails. A secondary stairwell, of similar detailing, is located adjacent to the State Street entrance.
The main postal lobby is the most interesting space on the first floor. It is rectangular in plan, and follows the vocabulary, established in the vestibule and corridors with ceramic tile floors and walls. Additional features worth noting are the plaster ceiling, with shallow cornice, decorative grilles which feature the familiar pattern of the floors, and original bronze post office boxes and lanterns. Behind this principal public space are the functional spaces such as the sorting room and the loading bays. The remainder of the first floor contains various federal offices.
The courtrooms located on the second floor are the most elaborately finished spaces of the building. These rooms are handsome period designs, trimmed in paneled wood wainscotting and capped by molded friezes at the height of the door heads. The paneling continues around the room, interrupted by the windows and by the elaborate backdrops of the judges' dais. The judges' benches and backdrops are executed in holly, ash, and beech veneer. The rooms are crowned by decorative plaster ceilings. Each courtroom is part of a complex of service rooms that include the judge's chambers, the clerk's offices, and a library. These rooms generally are finished more ornately than other office space in the building.
Built-in courtroom furnishings conform to the generally classical detail of the building. Wood benches were designed with console arms that follow the modified classical lines of the building. Ornamental metal balustrades, that carry familiar motifs found throughout the building, partitions the judges' bench and lawyers' desks from the gallery. Each courtroom also has an elaborate metalwork clock executed in copper and copper alloy.
The remainder of the first, second, and third floors is dedicated to corridor and office space for federal agencies. Typical treatments include stained and clear-finished doors, molded base, chair rail, and picture rail with flat plaster walls and ceilings. The corridors in these areas also received the ceramic tile finish, while the offices have concrete floors that are either tiled with resilient flooring or carpeted. The basement originally was largely given over to mechanical spaces, with one double-loaded corridor of offices off of the elevator lobby. In recent years, a significant portion of the mechanical area has been converted to court and office-related uses.
The Erie Federal Courthouse and Post Office is a product of the federal government's effort to stimulate the building industry during the 1929 Depression. The Moderne influence, which is evident in the building's modified classical design, reflects the stylistic features and typical design elements characteristic of federally commissioned buildings of this period throughout the United States. Built in 1937 to function as a U.S. Federal Building and Courthouse, the building continues to house the federal offices of the district, including the Federal Court and the Perry Square station of the U.S. Post Office.
The U.S. Courthouse marks a high point of Erie's growth and regional significance before changing transportation systems, and then the deflation of America's heavy industry, reduced the city's importance as a manufacturing and transportation center. Erie is situated in the far northwest corner of Pennsylvania on a tiny strip of lakeshore land that developed from a trading post fort to a ranking industrial center largely because of its physical attributes, namely its location on the transportation corridor of Lake Erie. With the transportation monopoly in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, many industries located in Erie at the end of the nineteenth century and the city underwent a period of rapid expansion.. Many of Erie's late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings, including the U. S. Federal Building and Courthouse, reflect the city's success during that period.
Erie's Federal Building and Courthouse was designed by Rudolph Stanley-Brown (1890-1944), grandson of President James A. Garfield, and a consulting architect of the U. S. Treasury Department. Stanley-Brown received his formal training at Yale and studied architecture at Columbia University and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Two years later he enlisted in the Army and served in the first World War. Upon his discharge he joined the firm of his uncle, Abram Garfield, Cleveland architect, and later was made a partner. He practiced in Cleveland before moving to Washington D.C. several years before his death.
Louis A. Simon, FAIA (1867-1958), served as supervising architect for the Erie Federal Building, and was a highly regarded designer who was made supervising architect for the Treasury Department. Simon attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduated in 1891. Shortly after, he joined the Supervising Architect's office in the Treasury Department, assuming the position of principal architectural designer. During the first thirty years of the twentieth century, Simon was the designer of many small, post offices and courthouses for the federal government.
In his own right, Simon is of interest as a colorist and classicist whose designs incorporated modern motifs with success and skill. At the end of his career, he had been involved with a thousand or more buildings, though his name is on the cornerstone only of those erected during his tenure as Supervising Architect, a position which he held from 1934 until 1937 when he reached the federal mandatory retirement age of seventy. President Roosevelt extended his tenure for an additional eighteen months, and then asked him to stay on as consultant to the Treasury Department.
The Erie Federal Courthouse and Post Office is a principal element in Erie's business district, and therefore of great local importance. It was recommended that the Erie Federal Building, in view of its architectural and historical importance as a representative example of federally commissioned buildings of its period, be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under criterion C.
"R. Stanley-Brown, 54, Garfield's Grandson." New York Times, Obituaries, February 9, 1944.
Withey, Henry F., AIA and Elsie Rathburn Withey. Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased). Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, Inc., 1970.
† Erie Federal Courthouse and Post Office, nomination document, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.