AKA: United States Government, US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, James R. Browning U.S. Courthouse, San Francisco, CA

Structure Type: built works - public buildings - post offices

Designers: Kelham, George William, Architect (firm); United States Government, Department of the Treasury, Office of the Supervising Architect, Taylor, James Knox (firm); George William Kelham (architect); James Knox Taylor (architect)

Dates: constructed 1897-1905

95 7th Street
Civic Center, San Francisco, CA 94013

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America has had few public buildings that possessed a Baroque level of decorative intricacy and ornamental profusion. San Francisco's Post Office and Federal Court Building, however, completed in 1905 at a cost of $2.5 million, rose to that level of lavishness. When completed, it ranked as one of the most ornate Federal Buildings west of the Mississippi, fulfilling the US Government's bold symbolic agenda for its center of power on the rapidly-developing Pacific Coast.

Building History

Site planning for San Francisco's US Post Office and Federal Court House was in process in 1890. An article in the San Francisco Call stated: "Eight bids have been received by the Commissioners appointed to select a site for the new Postoffice, and at an early date this week the members of the commission will meet to take action upon the most available location. Until the Secretary of the Treasury decides upon the location the report of the Commissioners will not be made public." ("Sites for the New Postoffice," San Francisco Call, 05/04/1890, p. 8.) Additionally, the US Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1891, aka the "Evarts Act," establishing an intermediate Federal court in each judicial circuit. The US Courts.gov web site said of the Evarts Act: "The U.S. Courts of Appeals were the first federal courts designed exclusively to hear cases on appeal from trial courts. Creating the appellate courts in 1891 was an effort to relieve the Supreme Court’s overwhelming caseload by dealing with the dramatic increase in federal appeals filings. Over time, Congress expanded the types of cases appellate courts could hear." (See US Courts.gov, "The Evarts Act: Creating the Modern Appellate Courts," accessed 10/07/2019.) Providing an appropriately grand space for the new 9th Circuit Court of Appeals would be an important factor affecting the building's appearance.

Construction on this new Federal facility had to wait for the worst effects of the 1893 Depression to pass, which didn't occur until 1897, when the first ship entered San Francisco harbor filled with Klondike gold. Gold mining in the Yukon helped to stimulate business activities in many West Coast cities, most notably San Francisco and Seattle. Ground for the steel-frame Post Office/Federal Building began in 1897, and took eight years to complete, an unusually long time-frame for construction.

The US Goverment spent$2.5 million on the Post Office and Federal Courthouse, a very considerable sum at the time, to transport white Sierra granite to clad the exterior, to erect its steel frame and concrete foundations, and to import the Italian craftsmen required to execute the interior's decorative work. Its exterior displayed an elaborate rustication pattern on the first floor, white the second had a similarly grand appearance punctuated by pilaster pairs with abundant quions, and a tight row of windows framed by scrolled modilions and crowned by alternating triangular and circular pediments. Main rooms of the interior displayed a Baroque profusion of plasterwork, ironwork and frescoes, a degree of lavishness rarely seen in American public building projects. This grandiosity was seen particularly well in the Circuit Court Room which possessed an unusually florid system of plasterwork covering its vaulted ceiling and a visually busy arrangement of mosaicwork and veined marble cladding the walls.

The Supervising Architect of the US Treasury, James Knox Taylor worked on many federal building projects at this time. Usually, he would delegate a great deal of the design work to his subordinates or engage private architects to supervise the large number of post offices and other federal office buildings being erected at the time, but he took a leading role in the design of this San Francisco commission that had high visibility and symbolic political importance. Taylor worked with J.W. Roberts who served as the superintendent of construction.

San Francisco at the time was the unchallenged financial and cultural capital of the expanding American West, and was viewed as a key bulwark of America's growing wealth, power and political importance on the Pacific Rim. A strong Federal government presence was viewed as appropriate at the time, particularly while the Spanish-American War raged in the Philippines and America's naval rivalry with Japan grew. (This rivalry greatly heightened following the decisive end of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905.)The Post Office/Federal Office Building's enhanced political symbolism can help to explain the high level of expense and craftsmanship expended on it.

A commentator in the Western Architect said of the building: "That the building stood the shock and resisted the fire in every particular, except, perhaps a cracked stone or two over entrances, is a matter of common knowledge. While the exterior is drawn on the severe lines, with small openings in the walls, that seem common to governmental structures, it was found that this quality was a 'saving clause' when the earthquake came. The interior, however, takes on a more rich and generous aspect, even the courtrooms being attractive rather than severe in richness of decorative effect. The whole building shows the results of placing the supervising architect's office under ordinary civil-service rules where merit and ability is the standard for place rather thant the favoratism of some congressman, was too generally the case prior to the appointment of James Knox Taylor, the preent supervising architect and the designer of this building, and his predecessor, William Martin Aiken." (See "Illustrations," Western Architect, vol. 9, no. 6, 06/1906, p. 68.) The writer picked out the importance of the new meritocratic civil service system as being critical to achieving the building's aesthetic quality.

Building Notes

In 1996, the Federal Building/Post Office contained about 350,000 square feet.


The Supervising architect of the US Treasury, James Knox Taylor, supervised reconstruction and repairs to the Federal Building and Post Office between 1906 and 1910. (See "Public Buildings," Municipal Journal and Engineer, vol. XXV, no. 5, 07/29/1908, p. 156.) Peter Lee, architect for Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, said of the damage sustained to the Post Office in 1906: "During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the city was devastated; however, the court building and post office facility were left standing. Although the exterior granite and interior finishes suffered extensive damage, the building was restored and reopened four years later." (See Peter Lee, "Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals, San Francisco, California," in 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Centennial Field Guide, Carol S. Prentice, Judith G. Scotchmoor, Eldridge M. Moores, and John P. Kiland, eds., [Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America, 2006] p. 70.) The General Services Admininstration commissioned the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to coordinate renovation efforts after the 10/17/1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

San Francisco architect George Kelham (1871-1936) designed a fourth section that was added onto the U-shaped building in 1933. architect Lee said of this addition: "The 1933 addition consisted of a four-story addition at the east wing enclosure of the post office, with a total construction cost of US $625,000. While the exterior replicated the original 1905 construction, the interiors were much more restrained, reflecting the economics and aesthetics of the Great Depression era." (See Peter Lee, "Ninth District U.S. Court of Appeals, San Francisco, California," in 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Centennial Field Guide, Carol S. Prentice, Judith G. Scotchmoor, Eldridge M. Moores, and John P. Kiland, eds., [Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America, 2006] p. 70.)

The Loma Prieta Earthquake caused significant structural damage to the building. A renovation campaign took seven years, with extensive alterations made to the building's structural systems. This full-scale rehabilitation enabled the building to be reused as the new home of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

National Register of Historic Places (Listed 1971): 71000188 NRHP Images (pdf) NHRP Registration Form (pdf)

PCAD id: 19246