The Building They Shaped – The Hatfield Courthouse at Twenty

By Doug Pahl

Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us.”  Twenty years ago, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Proctor Hug stood in the gleaming green lobby of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse and reminded us of Churchill’s wisdom.  It was November 13, 1997, and an unprecedented group of dignitaries gathered to celebrate and dedicate Portland’s first new courthouse since 1933.

Entrance hall, Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse. Photo courtesy of Bora Architects and Kohn Pederson Fox.

Judges, court staff, administration officials, designers, and artists, all led by Judge Malcolm F. Marsh, had indeed shaped an impressive building with great care, intention, and respect.  As the Hatfield Courthouse completes its teen years, it is timely to reflect on what inspired it, why its planners shaped it the way they did, and how it shapes those who seek justice and those who work diligently to dispense it.

Skybridge or Tunnel?

Portland’s Federal (future Gus J. Solomon) U.S. Courthouse in 1933. National Archives, RG 121-BS, Box 73, Portland Folder

Initially, let us remember what could have been—in fact, what almost was.  In the late 1980s, the aging Gus J. Solomon U.S. Courthouse required extensive refurbishing, and even then, the structure was inadequate on its own to accommodate the court’s projected space requirements.  By 1990, the court had committed to the so-called annex option, under which it would have stayed put in the Solomon Courthouse, supplemented by a new 12-story annex constructed across the street on a partial lot near the University Club.  A sky-bridge or a pedestrian tunnel would have connected the annex to the Solomon Courthouse.

Although now just an historical could-have-been, the annex option was more than a passing thought.  In 1989 and 1990, Congress appropriated funds for the annex project, including $4.1 million for site acquisition, $4.71 million for design and $33.32 million for construction.

Reversing course at that advanced stage took nerve and wasn’t without risk.  But by late fall 1990, an abrupt but thoughtful change of course was necessary.  It occurred thanks to the foresight of our judges, led by Chief Judge Owen M. Panner, Judge James A. Redden, and Judge Marsh.  It was clear the proposed annex property would not accommodate the court’s minimum space requirements under newly-announced federal courthouse design requirements.  Judge Redden was selected to travel to Washington, D.C. to break the news personally to the annex project’s primary sponsor, Senator Mark O. Hatfield.  To Judge Redden’s relief, Senator Hatfield didn’t flinch: “Let’s do it right the first time, even if it means starting from square one.”

Senator Hatfield staff member Matthew Garrett and Chief Judge Michael Hogan listen to Judge Malcolm Marsh’s update for Senator Hatfield on the building’s progress. Photo courtesy of Judge Marsh.

The Chosen Block

Context view of the Hamilton Hotel block. Photo by John Stamets, Courtesy of Library of Congress HABS OR-159-1

Hamilton Hotel Block, March 1993. Photo by John Stamets, Courtesy of Library of Congress HABS OR-159-4

From that moment, the project advanced deliberately and methodically toward the courthouse we know today.  The court selected the new location, the full block at Third Avenue and Main Street, then the site of the dilapidated Hamilton Hotel.  Construction began in June 1994 and was completed in September 1997.  The court and staff spent countless hours working with architects from Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates of New York, and BOORA Architects (now Bora Architects) of Portland, including critiquing a full size courtroom prototype.

By all accounts, the final product is a masterful combination of design, function, and art.  As the dedication ceremony approached, the Oregonian observed, “The high-rise courthouse is what architects call a ‘new typology’ of building, meaning its form and function have no historical precedents.… [The Hatfield Courthouse] provides an elegant diagram of modern justice—part theater, part machine. With the choreography of a hospital surgery room, the key actors—the defendant, the judge, the jury and the public—move through this building on separate paths, assembling only for the performance of the trial.”

Beaming with Pride

Courtroom in the Hatfield Courthouse. Photo courtesy of Bora Architects and Kohn Pederson Fox.

In the days before and after the November 13, 1997 dedication ceremony, a great move occurred.  Because court functions needed to continue without interruption, the four-block move from the Solomon Courthouse into the new 560,000 square-foot structure occurred with almost military focus over a weekend and even through the dead of night.  By Monday morning, November 17, the phones rang, the computers lit up, security systems functioned, and all public areas were accessible.  Some referred to it as a “logistical nightmare,” but thanks to meticulous planning, the transition was seamless.

The court and staff, local attorneys, city, state, and federal officials from all branches, and many others gathered in the courthouse lobby for the long-awaited dedication.  As Chief Judge Michael R. Hogan and Judge Marsh introduced the building to the Oregon community, the entire court beamed with pride.  Speaker after speaker heaped accolades on those who worked so hard to make the structure possible.  The Hatfield Courthouse is indeed masterful: from its sweeping views to its whimsical artwork; from its inspiring quotations to the comfort and functionality it affords to all who visit.  As Judge Marsh noted, the courthouse was carefully designed to not only function well, but to ease the tensions of litigants and counsel alike.  He says today that the front façade and lobby were intended to evoke openness and welcome—recognizing most visitors are not present by choice—and the lobbies outside courtrooms were designed to provide breathing space to avoid fistfights. He laughs now at the suggestion that the turret is really a secret hot tub for judges, saying he started that rumor.

Exterior view of the Mark O Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, looking to the northeast. Photo courtesy of Bora Architects and Kohn Pederson Fox.

Many speakers directly addressed the future generations who would enter this courthouse in search of justice.  Senator Hatfield concluded his remarks with the following quote from Judge Learned Hand: The rule of law “should be in the spirit of Him who, some 2000 years ago, taught mankind a lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten: that there may be a land where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”  Hatfield continued, “A more fitting aim for this building and its contents and its people, I could not imagine.”

Looking south in February 2016, Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse in February 2016. Photo courtesy of M.O. Stevens.

That challenging conclusion marked the opening of a courthouse now reaching the end of its second decade.  Not just a prominent feature in the Portland skyline, the courthouse is also now woven into the fabric of Oregon’s rich legal tapestry.  With both dignity and function, in thousands of high- and low-profile cases, the Hatfield Courthouse has welcomed and served those seeking justice.  It has hosted solemn ceremonies, including judicial investitures and portrait unveilings, and joyous celebrations, including weddings and those taking the Oath of Allegiance to become citizens of the United States. It has also inspired similar architecture in Seattle and Minneapolis.

Those who work under its curved roof continue to be shaped by this magnificent structure as we all strive to learn the ancient lesson imparted by Senator Hatfield—to provide a forum and process where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

Thanks to Carra Sahler and Judge Malcolm F. Marsh for their assistance with this article. You can find articles on the history of the sitethe opening events, and art in the courthouse.