Blake Pontchartrain: History of the John Minor Wisdom Court of Appeal Building | Blake Pontchartrain | Weekly Gambit

Hi Blake,

I walk past the John Minor Wisdom Court of Appeal building on Camp Street every day. Just below the roofline, several names and years are inscribed. What can you tell me about them?

Dear reader,

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals building at 600 Camp St. opened in 1915. Designed by New York architectural firm Hale and Rogers, it took six years to construct.

The names inscribed in the cornice are those of all the Chief Justices of the United States from 1789 to 1910, and the years of their service: John Jay, John Rutledge, Oliver Ellsworth, John Marshall, Roger Brooke Taney, Salmon Portland Chase, Morrison R. Waite and Melville Weston Fuller. Had the building been completed a few years later, the name of a Louisiana native would have been added: Edward Douglass White, who became Chief Justice in 1910.

According to a General Services Administration history, the U.S. Postal Service originally occupied the first floor of the building. This explains why the names of the US Postmasters General are also inscribed on the building. At the time, the United States District Court and Court of Appeals were located on the second floor, while other federal offices occupied the third.

The post office and courts had vacated the building in 1963. It remained unoccupied until 1965, when it served as an alternate location for McDonogh 35 High School after Hurricane Betsy.

The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was renovated in 1971 and once again became a courthouse, for the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 1994, the building was named in honor of Judge John Minor Wisdom. The New Orleans native known for his landmark civil rights rulings served on the court from 1957 until his death in 1999.

The courthouse also features four notable female statues atop each of its four corners. Known as the “Ladies”, they depict history, agriculture, industry and the arts. Each statue is 12 feet tall and weighs a ton. They were created by the Piccirilli brothers, the same artists who created the statue of President Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial.

Degas created nearly two dozen works during his five months here.

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