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Reading 4: The Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House in Louisville, Kentucky
In 1926, Congress passed the Public Buildings Act, which set the stage for a huge increase in the federal building program. Under the act, Congress appropriated $165,000,000 for public buildings in 85 cities across the country.1 One of these cities--Louisville, Kentucky--received funds for a new post office and federal building to replace an existing federal building from 1858. The 1920s was a prosperous decade for the city. Louisville was the largest city in Kentucky at the time and played an important role in the regional manufacturing and shipping industries. Located on the Kentucky-Indiana border along the falls of the Ohio River, the city was a major shipping port. Population growth, a boom in new manufacturing industries, and major new construction in the downtown area reflected the city’s prosperity. The need for a new federal building was another important indication of Louisville’s prominence.
By November 1929, a site along Broadway between Sixth and Seventh Streets had been secured. This area had recently become the commercial center of the city as building activity moved further away from the river. Dozens of houses and small stores had to be demolished to make way for the massive new structure. Construction took place from 1931 to 1932 under Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury James A. Wetmore. The Post Office, Court House and Custom House was officially dedicated in January 1933. By the time of its completion, however, the Depression had all but ended the city’s rapid growth. The structure was one of only two building projects in Louisville during the early 1930s. The completion of the $3 million federal building signified Louisville’s perseverance in a time of economic hardship.
Wetmore designed Louisville’s new federal building in the Neoclassical or Classical Revival style, still the most common style for federal architecture in the 1930s. The five-story structure spanned an entire city block and featured a limestone facade over modern materials such as concrete and steel columns and beams. The wide main lobby spanned the length of the building and included brass and glass postal boxes and windows as well as free-standing brass tables to serve post office patrons. As the primary public space, the lobby was ornately finished with marble floors, baseboards, and walls. Main rooms on the second floor included a law library and two courtrooms for hearing cases of the U.S. District Court for the District of Western Kentucky.
Between 1935 and 1937, Kentucky-born artist Frank Weathers Long painted 10 murals for the lobby walls depicting regional themes of commerce, agriculture, and sport. The murals were among the first commissioned by the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP)—a Depression-era relief program designed to give work to unemployed painters and sculptors while providing federal buildings nationwide with artwork. The four largest murals, titled Stock Farming, Agriculture, Ohio River Traffic, and Coal Mining, measure approximately 23 feet in length by 3 feet in height. Smaller murals depict horse racing scenes and postal delivery. In 1936, the Public Works Administration (PWA) funded the addition of a sixth floor to provide more space for offices and courtrooms. This massive project involved removing the 2.5 million-pound roof and using 600 jacks to raise it 11 feet.
In the 1950s, the building underwent interior renovations to update some features and to repair damage from a fire in the attic. In 1986, the Postal Service moved out, and GSA undertook a $22 million, four-year renovation project to modernize the building and restore the public lobby and second floor courtrooms to their 1932 appearance. The name of the building was changed to the Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House in 1986 to honor Congressman Marion Gene Snyder, a prominent figure in Kentucky politics. As a result of the renovation, the building received numerous awards, including the 1999-2000 International Award for Government Building of the Year, Historic Building Category, from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). The building, considered one of Louisville’s best examples of the Neoclassical style, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Housing the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Western Kentucky as well as several other federal agencies, the Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House continues to play a vital role in the community today while serving as a proud link to Louisville’s past.
Questions for Reading 4
1. How did the Public Buildings Act impact Louisville?
2. How would you describe Louisville in the 1920s? Why did this change in the 1930s?
3. Why would the construction of the federal building have been seen as a symbol of hope during this period?
4. Describe the murals. How were they commissioned? How do they reflect Kentucky’s heritage?
5. Why did GSA modernize the building? What types of changes do you think might have been necessary to make a 1930s building suitable for modern use?
Reading 4 was adapted from Philip Thomason, “United States Post Office, Court House and Custom House” (Jefferson County, Kentucky) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1999; U.S. General Services Administration, Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House [Brochure] (GSA, n.d.); and U.S. General Services Administration, An American Classic: Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House [Video Recording].