United States Tax Court Building
National Register of Historic Places Designation: August 26, 2008; Washington, D.C. Historic Landmark Designation: June 26, 2008
The building was constructed specifically to house the U.S. Tax Court. The U.S. Tax Court is a federal trial court that adjudicates disputes between the Internal Revenue Service and the people of the United States. The commission called for the creation of a building that was responsive to the “Principles for Federal Architecture” developed in the Kennedy administration, which recommended architecture that would convey, “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American government,” as well as the initiative of the General Services Administration in the arena of modern architecture.
The five-story, south-facing building is located on a plot of approximately 70,000 square feet. The site is bounded on the south by 2nd Street NW, on the east by E Street NW, on the north by 3rd Street NW and on the west by D Street NW. In general, the building’s exterior is designed as a cantilevered block resting on a two-story podium, flanked by similar blocks to the east and west. There is an open plaza in front of the building comprising a central reflecting pool bounded on east and west by walkways lined with trees. The plaza is built on an elevated deck over Interstate Route 395, which runs beneath the plaza from east to west.
The building contains 151,420’ of floor space; the square footage is divided into 343 interior spaces plus a lower-level garage which accommodates approximately 100 cars. Of the 343 interior spaces sixty-three are used to provide public conveniences or service function for the building; the remainder of the spaces are used as courtrooms, offices, and related functions of the Tax Court. The most prominent interior space is a central public hall, called the Hall of Justice, which is four stories high and has a clerestory ceiling. The four-story public hall, visible above the podium, acts as the main circulation zone, linking all parts of the building. Four-story units on the north, south, and west sides of the hall contain offices and judges’ suites, while the cantilevered block on the east houses three courtrooms. Galleries with plate glass railings open onto the Hall of Justice from the adjacent office and courtroom blocks The courtroom block which projects from the east wall of the public hall contains three, two-story courtrooms; a large courtroom in the center and two smaller courtrooms on the north and south. The first-story podium of the building provides court support facilities: library, dining areas, storage facilities, mailrooms, and operations offices.
Exterior finishes of the building are Royal Pearl granite and bronze-tinted glass with narrow bronze anodized aluminum mullions. Exterior handrails were fabricated from bronze tubing. Interior finishes utilize a number of materials associated with the Modern Movement including concrete walls, louvered teak screens, and a tongue-in-groove hemlock plank ceiling in the Hall of Justice. The plaza also uses granite in the cladding of the reflecting pool, walkways and exterior stairways.
Some of the engineering techniques used in constructing the building were quite innovative at the time of its construction. Compression and post-tensioned bridges, steel cables hidden in the walls and six narrow columns support the 4000 ton courtroom block cantilevered over the entrance and additional compression and tension bridges are used for interior circulation. Additionally, the walls of the building were made of continuous, vertical, reinforced concrete shear walls. The floors were supported by precast, pre-stressed concrete tees spanning between the shear walls. The flat roof was surfaced in gravel. The plaza, a bridge spanning Interstate 395, is of structural steel and concrete construction.
The U.S. Tax Court building is located in the northwest sector of Washington, D.C., the area of the city in which most federal office buildings are located. This sector is the location of many related government buildings, including the Internal Revenue Service building in which the Tax Court was once housed and the Department of Justice building, which houses Justice’s Tax Division. The building is easily accessible from Interstate Highway 395 which runs beneath it, making it an easily reached location for litigants and attorneys. The structures immediately adjacent to the Tax Court Building are of the same period and of modern design and not, therefore incongruent with the design of the Tax Court. The five-story building fits well into the low rise urban landscape that surrounds it.
Victor Lundy, already known for his use of innovative structural designs, boldly planned a massive cantilevered central element that appears to be resting, unsupported, on a first story podium in his design for the U.S. Tax Court Building. Implementing this design concept required the use of several construction innovations in order to assure the stability of the cantilevered central section. As previously noted, Lundy used compression and post-tensioned bridges, steel cables hidden in the building’s walls and six narrow columns to support the cantilevered section of the building. He also incorporated interior compression bridges and under-pavement ice melting systems in a design that Ada Louise Huxtable called “fully part of the mid twentieth century.” The extensive use of precast concrete throughout the building was also a key structural and design element. The technical aspects of this design are considered so important that they are listed among the reasons given for its landmark designation in Washington D.C. and for its acceptance as a National Historic Place, with the staff report indicating that “Lundy’s design for the Tax Court building is noted as showing a structural daring without precedent in federal architecture.”
The U.S. Tax Building is socially significant because it was one of the initial episodes in a federal initiative in modern architecture. This initiative was the product of President Kennedy’s desire to improve the aesthetics of federal architecture in Washington, D.C. and his establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space. The Committee recommended new emphasis on public architecture, as well as the landscaping, site selection and layout of federal buildings. In response, the General Services Administration (GSA), which acts as construction manager for federal buildings, initiated a construction program fostering modernist design of important public buildings. During this period, essentially the 1960s, important commissions for federal buildings were given to modernist architects Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Victor Lundy. In doing this, the federal government demonstrated a growing acceptance of the government’s social responsibility to be a leader in support of the arts and a developing understanding of the relationship between public architecture and perception of government.
The tax court is a building designed in the mid-1960s and reflects that era’s aesthetic sensibilities. The flat unornamented facades, the interplay of rectilinear volumes, and the floating stories above glass can identify the Tax Court Building as a study in modernism. Victor Lundy has described his design concept as a “monolithic block separated into its constituent functional units within which you will always have a sense of where you are, and of the sky outside.” This highly sculptural design has been described by Ada Louise Huxtable, in her 1967 review of Lundy’s plan, as a “progressive, sensitive, contemporary solution fully responsive to Washington’s classical tradition and yet fully part of the mid-20th century.” The design established four related but separately defined volumes tied together by the central hall in the cantilevered central section. It uses a clerestory ceiling in the Hall of Justice and curtain walls of bronzed glass to bring light into the building’s four massive granite clad sections. The use of granite to clad the exterior surfaces and the balance and order provided by the symmetries of the two end blocks and entry plaza provide a dignified aesthetic suitable to the building’s purpose, while the incorporation of modern technologies as a key design factor and the use of precast reinforced concrete as a structural element is clearly indicative of a modern building. The design is, as Lundy intended, “truth for today and tomorrow.”
Victor Lundy’s final design for the Tax Court Building drew praise from all sides. The Fine Arts Commission, in approving the revised design on November 16, 1966, noted that it had “nothing but admiration” for the design that “superbly solves the problem of limited space.” The local press reported that the approval of the building, along with the new buildings in the District designed by van der Rohe and Breuer, assured that “we will have outstanding modern architecture represented in a city thus far dominated by Roman temples and architectural mediocrity.” The national architectural press as represented by the comments of Ada Louise Huxtable in the New York Times was equally laudatory. Lundy’s design received a GSA Honor Award in the first Design Awards Program held by the agency in 1972.
In 1976, Progressive Architecture writer Stanley Abercrombie rated the U.S. Tax Court among the best federal buildings constructed in the previous 50 years and, more recently, a 2003 GSA study of federal government office buildings rated the U.S. Tax Court as one of a small group of buildings that “qualify as Modern masterpieces with high levels of architectural significance.” In providing historic designation to the Tax Court in 2008 the District of Columbia Preservation Commission noted that it “is an outstanding example of federal architecture of its time, using the most advanced structural engineering to achieve an expressive purpose” and the National Register nomination of the same year says of the building “the U.S. Tax Court Building is a striking and highly sculptural example of mid-century Modernist architecture.”
Lundy’s U.S. Tax Court Building has modernist significance on several levels. When the Court Building was designed it was in the vanguard of modernist public architecture in the United States, and remains a structurally innovative building whose design fully integrated technical and design choices. This building and those of Gropius, van der Rohe, and Breuer demonstrate a new attitude toward modernist architecture among government bureaucrats that acknowledged the artistic as well as the functional aspects of the nation’s public buildings. Most significantly, The U.S. Tax Court is important because it succeeds in conveying the modernist design aesthetic in a building that is timelessly beautiful.
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