Celebrating the art and architecture in Baltimore’s Mitchell Courthouse
By Judge M. Brooke Murdock, Baltimore City Circuit Court
(Author’s note: The Souvenir of the New Court House, 1900; Histories of the Bench & Bar of Baltimore City by the Honorable James F. Schneider; Portraits and Artwork in the Baltimore City Circuit Court, prepared by Christopher J. Kintzel; the chapter on the “History of the Mitchell Courthouse” by Michael S. Greene contained in the booklet Celebrating a Century of Service are sources for the material contained in this article.)One way to view architecture is from a phenomenological perspective --- that buildings are the reflection of the public’s institutional will. A courthouse stands as a symbol of the place in which American society holds the Rule of Law. Baltimore, in the late 19th century, wanted to build a courthouse which would reflect the commercial growth and prosperity of its citizens.
For those of you not familiar with Baltimore, ”Baltimore Towne” was founded in 1729 on the shores of the Patapsco River and, by 1840, was the third largest city in the United States. Maryland’s General Assembly, in 1876, passed an act providing for the issuance of $750,000 in bonds for the construction of a new courthouse. An advisory building commission was formed and the General Assembly passed an act authorizing the mayor and city council of Baltimore to issue up to six million dollars of stock, part of which was to be used for the purchase of ground and the building of the courthouse.
A local architectural firm, Wyatt & Nolting, was selected from among 79 anonymously submitted designs. Baltimore’s old courthouse was razed in 1895, and building began for a new, larger courthouse.
The new courthouse was completed at a cost of $2.5 million, and opened in January 1900. On March 8, 1985, it was rededicated in honor of Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., a Baltimorean who had been a nationally respected civil rights leader. It has been known as the Mitchell Courthouse ever since.
The Mitchell Courthouse is a classically styled building which exemplifies the Renaissance Revival or Beaux Arts style architecture that uses details from Grecian architecture — fluted columns, few windows and open roofs. It was three stories with an open courtyard in the center. With the exception of the basement, which was made from granite from a nearby county, the entire exterior was constructed of locally mined white marble. The east facade has a heavy basement entrance with lions over each doorway, ornate bronze doors and a corridor which is open to the air, known as a loggia. One of the most striking features of the building is the eight monolithic columns that are part of the loggia. Each Ionic column weighs 35 tons and measures more than 31 feet in height.The building contains a miniature version of the coffered dome over the main reading room of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. The dome is supported by walls and 16 columns of Sienna marble from the Vatican’s quarry near Rome. Although the quarry was nearly exhausted at the time, Pope Leo XIII agreed to the use of the Sienna marble in this building at the request of Baltimore’s Cardinal Gibbons.
During the first half of the century, there were many piecemeal changes and alterations; however, in 1946, a new master plan was proposed to meet the challenges for housing an expanding court system. The original building did not have the capacity for the increased level of work that was being done in the courthouse as Baltimore continued to expand its position as the commercial and legal center of the state. The most significant aspect of these plans was the proposal to increase the floor space of the building some 50,000 feet by adding a third and fifth floor and installing usable spaces into the atrium.
This dramatic remodeling was completed in the early 1950s and included the installation of passenger elevators, central north-south corridors, and a freight elevator. Floor areas were in-filled to complete hallways on the third and fifth floors and the center atrium was eliminated. Lastly, in 1984, the domed courtroom was restored.
In addition to being a wonderful example of the architecture of the early 19th century, the Mitchell Courthouse contains some of the finest art of the period. There are eight stained glass skylights and six mural panels designed by John LaFarge, a famous 19th century artist, four additional painted murals designed by Edwin Blashfield and Charles Yardley Turner, and 87 portraits of prominent Baltimore judges and attorneys.
John LaFarge’s fame had been established when he completed his first work ---- a mural painting in Boston’s Trinity Church. LaFarge’s stained glass skylights depict eight female figures representing different virtues. The depictions over the north staircase of the second floor lobby on the east side of the building represent Justice, Mercy, Truth, and Religion. The depictions over the south staircase represent Logic, Peace, Courage, and Literature. In the 1920s, the skylights were damaged and then covered. This was remedied in 1984 when the Rambusch Studio in New York reconstructed and restored the stained glass domes. Then, while installing an air conditioning system for the domed courtroom in 1991, in a freak accident, the skylights were damaged again. For its protection, some parts of the skylight had been covered with tarps; but during the night it rained heavily and the weight of the rain caused “Truth” and “Logic” to collapse. They have now been restored.
La Farge, who initially intended to study law but was inspired to turn to art after a visit to Paris in 1856, also was known for his mural decorations. La Farge’s painted murals in the west lobby depict some of the great lawgivers of antiquity: Moses (c. 13 BC), Lycurgus (c. 800 BC), Confucius (551-479 BC), Justinian (527-565 AD) , Numa Pompilius with his wife the Empress of Rome, Theodora (715-673 BC), and Mohammed (570-632 AD).
Mural painting was experiencing a revival in the early 1900s, with many architects designing large private homes and public buildings whose decoration included murals with laudatory themes of the work ethic and associated virtues that were credited for the era’s prosperity. The four other murals in the Mitchell Courthouse depict pivotal scenes in Maryland and United States History.
Edwin Howland Blashfield, another mural artist of national prominence, whose murals are in the dome of the Main Reading Room of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress and the Iowa State Capitol Building, gained notoriety when his mural “The Art of Metal Working” was shown at the Chicago World’s Fair Exposition in 1893. In 1903, he began work on an allegorical painting “General George Washington Surrendering His Commission at Annapolis, Maryland on December 23, 1783.” Covering the wall behind the judge’s bench in a fourth floor courtroom, George Washington is depicted laying his commission at the feet of Columbia, who is seated on a throne, with sword in hand and wearing a liberty cap. Opposite Washington is a female figure representing Maryland. Behind Maryland, the Goddess of War sheaths her sword, Resistence to Opposition breaks her rod, Prosperity bears a horn of plenty, while Commerce steadies a piece of armour. Seated near the throne is the figure of History. In the left panel are officers and troops presenting arms. In the right panel is a magistrate, and officers of the French and Revolutionary armies.
In Blashfield’s book Mural Painting in America, published in 1913, he noted that mural painting, unlike easel painting, went beyond aesthetic focus to teach lessons about patriotism, morality and historical roots. This perspective is captured in his second mural “Religious Toleration,” also in a fourth floor courtroom. As an important predecessor to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, in April 1649, the Calvert family, who founded Maryland partly as a refuge for English Catholics, sought enactment of a law to protect Catholic settlers and those of other religions who did not conform to the dominant Anglicanism of Great Britain and her colonies. This mural depicts a figure, Cecil Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore, surrounded by colonists, including a Catholic priest and Protestant pastor holding an edict of toleration. In the center, a winged boy holds the scales level to symbolize equality. The goddesses of Wisdom, Justice and Mercy stand on the far side with a shield, dated 1649.
The more famous Turner mural, located on the west wall of the east lobby on the second floor, is “The Burning of the Peggy Stewart,” unveiled in 1904. The Peggy Stewart was a Maryland cargo vessel burned on October 19, 1774, in Annapolis, as punishment for contravening the boycott on tea imports which had been imposed by the colonies in retaliation for the British treatment of the people of Boston following the Boston Tea Party. This event is known as the “Annapolis Tea Party.” The burning of the Peggy Stewart was a seminal event in the Colonies’ history prior to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. In the center panel is Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Dr. Warfield, leaders of the patriots who burned the ship. In the left panel, wearing a white shirt, is the owner of the ship that imported the tea, Anthony Stewart; and the right panel portrays a group of citizens, in period dress, near Mr. Stewart’s home.
The Mitchell Courthouse also houses many distinguished paintings of historical figures, including portraits of Justice Roger Brooke Taney, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Simon E. Sobeloff, Isidor Rayner, Clarence M. Mitchell, Jr., William Pinkey Whyte, and Juanita Jackson Mitchell. Justice Marshall, and Mr. and Ms. Mitchell’s portraits were painted by Simmie Knox, a nationally recognized artist who painted President Bill Clinton’s official White House portrait.
The skylights, murals, paintings and architecture displayed in the Mitchell Courthouse are fine examples of the role that art in a public building can play to elevate the dignity of the work performed in the halls of justice.