Frederick Douglass Worked Here

    taken 4_2009        Frederick Douglass did indeed work here, though obviously not in the new glass pavilion that serves as a security atrium for the Old City Hall building. Rededicated on Wednesday, the building will now serve as the home for the District Court of Appeals. I wrote about it on Wednesday (with slideshow).

            Douglass, who served as Federal Marshall for the District, was among the famous occupants of the building, which was begun in 1820 and expanded several times over the years. It was a controversial appointment. In 1877, newly elected president Rutherford B. Hayes gave Douglass the job, despite vociferous objection from lawyers in the District, and racists everywhere. Their ire was raised by one of the job’s symbolic functions, as Douglass explains in his best and most florid style of suppressed rage:

             The apprehension doubtless was, that if appointed marshal, I would surround myself with colored deputies, colored bailiffs and colored messengers and pack the jury-box with colored jurors; in a word, Africanize the courts. But the most dreadful thing threatened, was a colored man at the Executive Mansion in white kid gloves, sparrow-tailed coat, patent-leather boots and alabaster cravat, performing the ceremony—a very empty one—of introducing the aristocratic citizens of the republic to the President of the United States. This was something entirely too much to be borne; and men asked themselves in view of it, To what is the world coming? And where will these things stop? Dreadful! Dreadful!

             I looked through the last of the three Douglass autobiographies for some little description of his office or time in the building. Unfortunately, the observation of place, so present in the first two of his narratives, is diminished in the last and most verbose of his memoirs. He becomes more preoccupied with psychology and slights to his dignity (there were many and they must have been tremendously galling to a man of his intelligence, erudition and irony). As politics and political maneuvering take a more prominent place in his life, we learn less about the material world around him. So unless I’ve missed some small reference to his time in the building, Douglass’s memory of it was clouded out by the fracas over his appointment. Too bad. I live in one of his old neighborhoods, and I’d love to hear his voice talk about places I know.

             As an aside, there were several reactions to my Post piece on the courthouse renovation.  Mid-Century Mike at Modern Capital linked to the article (he has a great website if you’re passionate about mid-century architecture) as did this website, which specializes in military justice (one of the Old City Hall’s flanking buildings, built much later, houses the U.S. Court of Appeals for Military Justice). Didn’t mean to slight it too much, but it’s a supporting cast member in the little drama of Judiciary Square. The fine folks at BeyondDC and GreaterGreaterWashington took issue with the modernist elements of the new glass addition (and my support of it), arguing (fairly enough) that modernism is now a  retro style. That’s one reason I think the addition works. No, it’s not cutting edge, but by reaching back to a very neutral style that is still in sharp contrast with the classicism of the original, I think architect Hany Hassan has added without subtracting. Your call: Just take the Red Line to Judiciary Square and make a 180 coming out of the Metro.

Photo Credit: Joseph Romeo Photography

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