By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 17, 1913 [pt. 2, p. 1]
Barely had the echoes of the war of 1812 died away when the young city of Washington, whose people numbered scarcely 10,000 souls, was looking forward to a high place among the municipalities. At that period it had two school buildings and an almshouse in permanent structures, but the city government, mayor, register and other officers and boards of aldermen and council were in temporary quarters. About 1815 preparations were made for raising money by lottery to build a town house or city hall, and one of the reservations, that south of the Capitol, had been designated as the site for the town house. It was deemed inexpedient to erect a town house or city hall there, and after attempts had been made to raise the money clear of expenses to build such a hall in 1819 it was determined to erect a building, and then it was that the south part of Judiciary Square was designated as the most advantageous place for the building.
In April, 1820, the matter came to a head when the major was instructed to advertise for plans and specifications for a hall to cost $100,000, George Hatfield, who had been an architect of the Capitol, made a plan for building three wings, surmounted by a dome, but in the interest of economy the authorities objected.
Mr. Hatfield subsequently modified the plans, and July 14, the authorities having accepted them, the mayor was authorized to call for proposals for the erection of the structure.
Contract is Awarded
The invitation of Mayor Samuel H. Smallwood declared that the building would be devoted "to municipal purposes, and would be the seat of legislation and the administration of justice for this metropolis when it shall have reached its destined population, and is therefore erected on a scale worthy the uses for which it is intended. It is therefore to be constructed with a view to durability which will extend beyond the age of any of the living."
Court Records in Jeopardy
"The records of the courts, too, upon the preservation of which the fortunes, and in many cases the reputations, of not only the people of this District, but of great numbers who reside beyond its limits, in a great measure depend, have been, and still are, constantly exposed to loss and destruction by fire and other causes for want of secure places of deposit. Under these circumstances the city councils did not hesitate to assume a task which of right devolved on Congress, and therefore they determined to erect not merely a building for the use of the corporation offices, but an edifice calculated to afford ample accommodations and full security to the courts and records of the District."
Corner Stone Laying
At the site there was a large concourse of citizens, and, after the laying of the corner stone by William Hewitt, the grand master, the assembly listened to the address of John Law, in which he spoke of Jefferson's interest in the city, pictured its progress and predicted a bright future.
Ready for Occupancy June, 1822
Included in the membership of the councils were William A. Bradley, R.C. Weightman and Col. Peter Force, afterward mayor of the city, and Samuel M. Smallwood, who had been mayor since 1819, and who lived to see his hopes realized by the occupancy of buildings by his successor and corporation officers.
On conference with the judges of the court the preparation of the eastern part of the building was left to the United States authorities, and by the act of March 3, 1823, the President was authorized to finish the city hall and fit up suitable portions for the sessions of the Circuit Court, offices for the clerks, marshall, etc., and $10,000 was appropriated for the same. In 1824 this portion was fully occupied, and it became the seat of justice for the District. The building cost the city nearly $150,000, but the government appropriated from time to time money for improvements down to 1856, expending nearly $45,000, and finally purchased it under the act of March 3, 1873, for $75,000.
Arrangement of Offices
Many rooms in this part of the building the corporation had no use for and rented them from time to time, especially those in the basement, for offices to lawyers and others. Here the Columbia Typographical Society met, and, about 1830 the Odd fellows held a meeting here. The lodge room was used for religious, temperance, political, patriotic and, in fact, for general meeting purposes, and when in 1833 the patent office was destroyed by fire it resumed business on the third story of the west wing at the invitation of the Mayor and councils.
In the basement the janitor resided. There were always in the legislative bodies some fine debaters, and spurts of eloquence were not rare. Now and then the sessions compared with the bodies sitting in the Capitol. In more than one instance there were night sessions over the appropriation of a few dollars, the principle being involved, and over fifty years since there was a deadlock over the organization of the board of aldermen which continued over seven months.
District Courts Held Terms
As before stated, provision for the accommodation of the judicial branch of the District was made in this building, the eastern part being finished by the government.
The corresponding chamber to that was the common council quarters, being fitted up as a courtroom, and the officers were located on the main floor and jury rooms provided above, while those in the basement were used for officers and living quarters for the janitor, and, like the council the courtroom was sometimes used for meeting purposes.
As may be imagined, many notable trials took place here, and scenes were enacted which were long remembered. Among others who practiced here were Francis Scott Key of “Star Spangled Banner” fame; Henry May, who in the fifties spoke seven days in a case, and subsequently represented a district in Baltimore in the national legislature; Richard L. Coxe, Daniel Radcliff, Richard Wallach, the elder, and Joseph H. Bradley.
At times the leading members of the bar of national reputation appeared before Chief Justice Cranch and his associates.
Prisoners Pathetic Pleas
Thus from 1822 to 1871 the building was the home of the old corporation of the city of Washington and to the present the temple of justice for the District.
Prisoners confined in the jails nearby had a straight road from the courthouse to the penitentiary, near the south end of 4-1/2 street, from 1829 to 1862, when the latter was taken for military uses. There is an instance where a child born to a janitor in the basement grew up there, studied law and became a successful member of the bar before his death.