Federal Courthouse

Historical Background

312 N. Spring Street
During the New Deal, roads, airports, schools, and parks were built, dams were erected for both flood control and electric generation, inventories and records were compiled of our nation's cultural resources and innovative efforts were undertaken to conserve and preserve our natural resources. Though the New Deal failed to end the Great Depression that began in 1929--the year Republican President Herbert Hoover took office, its long term impact was profound. An untold number of American lives were saved during World War II when this public investment in energy and transportation made it possible for America to fight wars simultaneously in Europe and in the Pacific. And for nearly 25 years after the war, our nation's unparalleled prosperity was supported by the basic infrastructure built during the New Deal. Even in Los Angeles today, New Deal projects, which range from a small community center in Arroyo Seco Park in Highland Park, to the Federal Courthouse in downtown, still serve our community. The 18-story Federal Courthouse, designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, is our city's most eloquent and elegant reminder of the New Deal. An extensive art program funded by the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture was incorporated into the building's symbolism. Unlike the post office murals commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a relief measure for artists, the Treasury Department commissioned murals and sculpture based on the quality of the design. These works, installed in buildings constructed by the Public Buildings Administration, were financed through a requirement that one percent of construction costs be set aside for embellishment. This enlightened policy, promulgated through an executive order by President Franklin Roosevelt, was the predecessor of the "Percent for Art" policies that have proliferated throughout the nation during the past 20 years.

Most of the artwork at the Federal Courthouse was installed in the interior and can be seen only on weekdays. Archibald Gardner's allegorical statue "Law" and James Lee Hanson's depiction of a bare chested "Young Lincoln" stand inside the Main Street lobby. After being in storage since 1965, Law Viejos Ranchos Espanoles y Mexicanos de la Municipalidad de Los Angeles (The Old Spanish and Mexican Ranches of the City of Los Angeles), a mural by Lucien Labaudt recalling the Spanish landgrants, was rededicated in 1993 inside the Spring Street lobby. Another mural by Lucien Labaudt entitled Aerodynamics and murals by Edward Biberman entitled Los Angeles--Prehistoric and Spanish Colonial and Creative Man remain in storage.

The bronze eagle medallions over the doors of the building's entrances and four terra cotta seals depicting the obverse side of the seal of the United States, all designed by Henry Lion, are the only art work on the building's exterior. After the Section of Painting and Sculpture requested that a seal of the United States be placed on the building, Lion received the commission on the basis of a maquette he made. He then prepared a full size mold in his Los Angeles studio and sent it to a terra cotta company in Washington state, where it was cast in six sections, fired and then glazed. When installed at the courthouse, each piece was attached to the building separately and aligned to make a unified seal. Although installed approximately 50 feet above both the Los Angeles and Main Street entrances, the work, which Lion described as "a more stylized version of the seal," can easily be read.

A bald eagle, the symbol of national sovereignty, dominates the seal. Representing a preference for peace, the eagle faces its right talon holding the olive branch, while it expresses a willingness to wage war by holding 13 arrows in its left talon. Rather than clustered into a six-sided star as in the traditional seal, the 13 stars representing the 13 original states are contained within an encircling ring. Absent from Lion's designs, which were done during an era of Presidential ascendancy, is the traditional motto E plurbis unum and the breastplate. Without the shield and its 13 vertical stripes representing the States and a horizontal panel representing Congress, the seal may be read as a symbol of national unity without the need for restraint from either the legislature or from the States.

Eagle Medallions, 1938, Henry Lion, 2'x 2'x 2"

Seals of the United States, 1938, Henry Lion, 8'h x 8'w x 6"

The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, September 1997.

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