The day was bright as the old man watched his design steadily come to fruition. The sunlight reflected off the brilliant white marble and pierced his wire-rimmed spectacles. Through squinted eyes, the man studied the workers, the steps, the columns, and the West Pediment. He stood firm in his neatly tailored suit. His tie was straight. And a black felt bowler hat rested upon his balding head. He carefully reached up and gave a tug on his silvery white handlebar mustache. His stature and dress told you this was a man of wealth and accomplishment. The man’s appearance, like this building rising from the ground, stood in stark contrast to many of those around him. These were hard times in America in 1930s.
Like many men and women living in the midst of the Great Depression, The United States Supreme Court was homeless. For 140 years since its inception, the Supreme Court had been in the basement of the U.S. Capitol building and had moved around at different times. In 1929, Chief Justice William Howard Taft successfully lobbied Congress for a Supreme Court building. It must be “a building of dignity and importance suitable for its use as the permanent home of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Now they needed an architect who could meet this challenge. They found the right man.
He was born in Zanesville, Ohio and later studied at MIT. His hundreds of architectural designs literally changed the landscape of America. He was thought to be the father of the skyscraper, with his design of the tallest building at that time, the Woolworth Building in New York. His firm designed libraries, hospitals, schools, churches, residences, offices, banks, stores, and government buildings in cities across the country. The Arkansas, Minnesota, and West Virginia state capitols are all part of his body of work. He was arguably the greatest architect of his time. It was little surprise that he was chosen to design the United States Supreme Court building.
His design for this building was a masterpiece and was comprised of three main sections. In the middle, a Roman inspired “Temple of Justice,” with a horizontal wing on each side. A Neoclassical style was chosen as a symbol of democracy. The famous steps and the sixteen Corinthian columns supporting the molding that reads “Equal Justice Under Law” was built using Vermont marble. This marble was chosen for its high mica content which was used to create a glistening white sparkle on a sunny day. Every detail was carefully planned and he recommended sculptor Robert Aitken to carve the West Pediment above the main entrance.
A shed had been built around this pediment to give Aitken privacy in creating a composition worthy of the highest court in the land. However, the crowd at the unveiling was amazed that they recognized some of the figures! Aitken surprised everyone with his composition. Look closely the next time you visit or see a close picture of the West Pediment in all its detail. You will see nine metaphorical figures in Roman attire. In the center is a figure representing “Liberty Enthroned” with the Scales of Justice across her lap. On her right is “Order” and on her left is “Authority.” At the far right representing Research Past is the likeness of Chief Justice John Marshall. He is holding Roman scrolls with an urn, tables, and an oil lap near his feet. Second from the right is the sculptor, Robert Aitken. Third from the right is Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Then to the far left of the central figures is a young William Howard Taft rendered as a young Yale University student and symbolic of Research Present. Second from the left is Senator Elihu Root. Finally, third from the left is the likeness of the building’s architect. The architect who would unfortunately die in 1934, one year before the building opened.
Today in Ridgefield, Connecticut at the Fairlawn Cemetery, you can find an ordinary rectangular headstone. There are no ornate columns or pediments to indicate the achievements of this man. There is nothing that prominently displays a list of his work or the fact that he designed one of the greatest symbols of the American justice system. His headstone simply reads “Cass Gilbert” NOV. 24 1859 – MAY 17 1934. He is buried with his wife Julia Finch who died in 1952. Cass Gilbert may not be a household name but his legacy lives on in his architecture. Chief Justice Hughes, as he set the cornerstone of the building on October 13, 1932 said, “The Republic endures and this is the symbol of its faith.”
To learn more about Cass Gilbert, visit the following sites which were used as reference in the writing of this post: