The John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse is a federal courthouse located on the historic Boston shoreline. It houses the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts as well as art exhibits. It was built as a new wave of judicial reform was being implemented and the building reflects that change towards public trust and accommodation. There are three main reasons this courthouse is different from most across the country: its two-sided architecture, its attention to public access and art, and its remembrance of those who created it.


  • The all glass wall facing the Boston harbor.
    The all glass wall facing the Boston harbor.
  • One of the many stops by the Boston Harborwalk project.
    One of the many stops by the Boston Harborwalk project.
  • One of the many inscriptions on the outside of the building.
    One of the many inscriptions on the outside of the building.
  • One of the many inscriptions on the outside of the building.
    One of the many inscriptions on the outside of the building.
  • A painting of John Joseph Moakley.
    A painting of John Joseph Moakley.

The Name and Architecture

The John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse is named for an influential figure in the greater Boston area and the federal government. Mr. Moakley spent most of his career in public service. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy, represented Boston in city council, in the U.S. House of Representatives, and in the U.S. Senate (5). He was described by staffers as a “common joe,” who fought for the meat and potatoes of voters’ issues (4). Congress chose to honor Mr. Moakley by naming the new federal courthouse after him. President Bush invited Moakley to a White House reception to celebrate the commemoration, however, Moakley died a few months after the invitation at the age of 74 in May 2001 (5).

Moakley’s friends briefed the designers and builders to create a building that would echo his character. In the end, the construction team created a building with a personality that matched Moakley’s. They used brownstone on one half of the building to show Moakley’s roots. He was born in Boston when it rapidly grew into a large manufacturing city and companies were using brick buildings to house their operations (3). On the other side of the building is an architecturally modern all-glass wall. The wall faces the ocean side allowing panoramic views of the Boston Harbor to be seen from within the building. The glass part of the building is a reference to a new form of justice sweeping the country, which included more accessibility, defendant’s rights, and public trust (3). It also represents Moakley’s consciousness of the always-changing future in Boston (3). Many federal courthouses employ either historical or a modern design, but the Moakley courthouse is a rare example of a building that combines both (3).

Grand Inscriptions and Registry of Builders

Inscriptions are in an important aspect of this federal courthouse similar too many government buildings in democracies dating back to Athens (6). One important inscription is on the wall in the jury waiting room consists of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' characterization of the American Constitution:

it is an experiment, as all life is an experiment… While that experiment is part of our system, I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death” (6).

Holmes' words, like thirty others in and around the building, lead visitors to think about the role of justice in democratic societies. Other quotations are taken from American Presidents, important figures in the legal community, State Constitutions, the U.S. Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence.

While all those quotes were placed to generate a conversation around justice and democracy, there are also inscriptions of individual names. Specifically, there is a wall dedicated to the designers and builders of the courthouse. This list, or registry of builders, was created to honor those who worked hard to advance “the interest of man on earth” (6). The more than 2,500 names carved into the wall represent everyone, from those who drew the concept to those who placed the brick (3). This building commemorates many more people than just the one man after whom the it is named.

Incorporation of Boston Art and Harbors

Two other aspects of the Moakley courthouse make this building unique compared to other federal buildings and those in Boston. It incorporates public art and the historic Boston Harborwalk.

In the realm of art, the courthouse contains a permeant art theme throughout the building called the Boston Panels, which were created by Ellsworth Kelly (1). They are large portrait or landscape paintings that have the entire canvas painted a single colorful color. There are two on each floor and many in the spiral going up to the ceiling in the center of the building.

There is also a rotating public gallery throughout the building where Boston area artists can display their work. Subjects of the paintings have to deal with judicial, maritime, and Boston history to be placed in the building. Although there is a security check, the building is open to the public and therefore anyone can access these Boston related works of art.

The other unique aspect is the Boston Harborwalk which is an initiative taken up by the City to preserve the history of Boston’s harbors (1). The courthouse sits on the edge of the Boston Main Channel and the Fort Point Channel giving it a close seat to the history of the Harbor. In conjunction with the harbor initiative, the courthouse preserved the original harbor docks and placed placards with passages of the harbor’s busy history along the two-tenths mile of coast on which it is placed.

Different from the Rest

Influential government officials and powerful decision-makers that can change the future work inside the courthouse, yet, the building itself has made large steps to preserve and honor Boston’s role the country's already established history. This is the courthouse that heard the charges against celebrities involved in the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal. It is also the courthouse that respects those who give their life’s work to the public interest. The John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse is unique for its architecture, its commemoration, and its celebration of Boston.

  1. Moakley Courthouse Exhibits, moakleycourthouse. Accessed November 11th 2019. http://www.moakleycourthouse.com/exhibits.html.
  2. Boston History, United States District Court Boston. Accessed November 11th 2019. http://www.mad.uscourts.gov/boston/boston-history.htm.
  3. John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, Boston, Massachusetts, GSA (General Services Administration). Accessed November 11th 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXrkDmPWt9Q.
  4. John Joseph Moakley Life and Career, C-SPAN. March 8th 2001. Accessed November 11th 2019. https://www.c-span.org/video/?163072-1/life-career-joseph-moakley.
  5. Stout, David. Joe Moakley, Congressman From South Boston, Dies at 74, New York Times. May 29th 2001. Accessed November 25th 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/29/us/joe-moakley-congressman-from-south-boston-dies-at-74.html.
  6. Woodlock, Douglas P.. The Art and Craft of Justice, January 1st 2002. Accessed November 25th 2019. http://www.mad.uscourts.gov/utils/documents/Inscriptions.brochure.2E.pdf.
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Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives