The courthouse is one of the last buildings constructed in the Judiciary Square and Municipal Center complex, an important civic enclave since the 1820s. It constitutes an almost entirely unaltered example of early 1950s Stripped Classicism, a non-representational abstraction of the classical style that permeated institutional (especially government) architecture after the Second World War. President Harry S. Truman laid the cornerstone on June 27, 1950, and the building opened in November of 1952. It was listed by the National Register of Historic Places and is a contributing property to the Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site. It was renamed in 1997 in honor of E. Barrett Prettyman, the former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The courthouse was built on Reservation 10, a site bounded by
Constitution Avenue, Third Street, C Street and John Marshall Place. The
building faces south across Constitution Avenue towards the Mall, and
was erected on the northwest quadrant of its site. This placement
accommodated driveways along the south and west facades, and along with
the subsequent plazas and landscaping, provided a buffer between the
colonnades of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse and the
verdant Mall, onto which it opened before I.M Pei's 1970 addition to the
With construction starting in 1949, the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal
Courthouse was the last addition to a neighborhood of important civic
and municipal structures. Known as the Municipal Center, this
neighborhood's history of civic activity dates to the 1820 completion of
George Hadfield's Old City Hall. In 1932, a formal plan for a Municipal
Center, bounded by Constitution Avenue and G Street between 3rd and 6th
streets, was designed. By 1934, municipal, police, and juvenile courts
had been built on the site; however, the current site of the E. Barrett
Prettyman Federal Courthouse was left vacant due to budgetary concerns.
The site was used as a parking lot until 1949 when construction on the
E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse commenced on the south eastern
corner of the Municipal Center site.