U.S. Court of Appeals Building, San Francisco

Outings on Fridays tour, 3 November 2006


Courtesy of som.com

The James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building at Seventh & Mission streets is the most opulent public building in California. This imposing granite edifice was designed in the 1890s by James Knox Taylor, chief architect for the U.S. Treasury Department, to house the federal courts and the main San Francisco post office. When it opened in 1905, Sunset magazine called it the Versailles of the West. It was one of the few buildings to survive the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. On 17 October 2012, the building was declared a National Historic Landmark.


The grand pediment over the main entrance (photo: Allen Stross)

The splendid interiors display grand colonnaded marble halls, vaulted ceilings, elaborate bronzework, intricate mosaics, and rich wood paneling. Italian craftsmen were imported to do the work, and rare marbles in many colors were brought in from disparate countries. Find out more about the building in this National Historic Landmark nomination.


In the lobby: mosaic floors, Carrara marble walls, bronze and glass doors (photo: Allen Stross)

Having suffered major structural damage during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the building was “red-tagged” as unsafe and closed. In 1993, rehabiitation work began with seismic retrofitting utilizing a base-isolation system. Contemporary craftsmen, working in the tradition of those turn-of-the-century Italian artisans, repaired and restored the interior finishes. Almost two and a half years after construction began, the Court of Appeals was reopened on 19 October 1996.

Kicking off BAHA’s third annual Outings on Fridays series of guided tours, we were led through the Court of Appeals Building by a docent from the Fine Arts museums of San Francisco. We visited the new Law Library, the three original courtrooms, and the Art Deco Courtroom No. Four.


The restored grand corridor on the first floor preserves the old postal bronze windows. (photo courtesy of som.com)


The central atrium once occupied by the post office is now a gleaming law library and office complex designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. (photo courtesy of som.com)


The Law Library study (photo courtesy of som.com)


The Great Hall on the third floor leads to the courtrooms and judges’ chambers. Many functions have taken place here. (photo: Allen Stross)

We were fortunate in having the singular favor of being invited, as a Berkeley group, into Senior Judge John T. Noonan’s chambers. Judge Noonan is a longtime Berkeley resident. After admiring his very elegant office (“a perk of seniority,” he told us) we were led by the judge into the robing room, then into Courtroom No. One, where he gave a talk about the workings of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.


Coutroom No. One is the largest most lavish of the three original courtrooms. (photo: Allen Stross)


Carved in marble, garlands of fruits and vegetables represent the bounty of California agriculture. The allegorical scenes depicted in the lunettes are composed of ceramic mosaics. (photo: Allen Stross)


Marble mosaics, behind the podium and cast-plaster figures are illuminated by a skylight with stained-glass panels. (photo: Allen Stross)


Coutroom No. Four is part of the 1933 addition designed by George Kelham. Depression-imposed budget constraints and changing tastes dictated the austere Art Deco styling. The walls are lined with cork panels. (photo: Allen Stross)



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