Ask McGehee

What is the history of the recently vacated federal courthouse on St. Joseph Street?

The now-vacant John Archibald Campbell Courthouse as seen in 1935.

Q. What is the history of the recently vacated federal courthouse on St. Joseph Street?

What is officially known as the John Archibald Campbell Courthouse was completed in two phases between 1935 and 1940.  Local architects John J. Carey and Paul F. Dowling designed it with a classic art deco aesthetic. Carey had a long career in local ecclesiastic design, including the layout of St. Mary’s Church, which was completed in 1928.

The facade of the building features white Alabama limestone with bronze panels cast with images of American eagles atop the official U.S. shield, along with the symbolic scales of justice and the lamp of knowledge. Topping the base of each flagpole is the seal of the U.S. Department of Justice. Granite steps lead to the entrance beneath cast-iron lanterns.

The five-story building included 146,000 square feet of space inside. Terrazzo floors bordered in marble joined walnut and mahogany woodwork and elaborate brass metalwork to form a memorable interior.  The two-story courtroom was one of the first in the nation to feature air-conditioning.

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A Congressman Gets His Way

As construction began on the building, Judge Robert Tait Ervin retired and President Franklin Roosevelt took the opportunity to remove a growing thorn in his side. Monroe County native John McDuffie had served as the congressman from Alabama’s first district since 1918. His displeasure with Roosevelt’s appointments of Hugo Black and Felix Frankfurter to the U.S. Supreme Court was summed up in his statement that “the New Deal has turned into a misdeal.”

Roosevelt determined that the popular congressman’s departure from Washington could prove a benefit, so he offered him the federal judgeship in Mobile. McDuffie’s wife, Cornelia, had been gravely ill and he may well have thought a return to Alabama would do her good, so he accepted.

As a provision, though, he told the president that he was very fond of his congressional office space in Washington and would take the position as long as his office in the new courthouse in Mobile was identical.  Thus, the building was completed with a handsomely paneled office duplicating the one within the Cannon Building in Washington, D.C.

John McDuffie took his oath on March 2, 1935, as his wife lay critically ill. She died just three days later. He would occupy that bench until his death in 1950.

Although the building originally included the offices of Mobile’s Customs House, they were eventually moved and later combined with those in New Orleans. Over the years, a growing caseload led to the 80-year-old structure being declared inadequate.

In September of 2018, a new $117 million state-of-the-art federal courthouse opened just to the north of the 1935 version. A multimillion-dollar restoration will soon be underway to convert the former courthouse into federal bankruptcy court space, as well as probation offices, appeals offices and, ironically, congressional office space.

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