Historic Detroit

Theodore J. Levin U.S. Courthouse

If you’re going to get thrown in the slammer, you might as well have the book thrown at you in a place of style.

The Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse is an Art Deco-Art Moderne rectangular building that stands between Fort Street and Lafayette Boulevard and Shelby Street and Washington Boulevard. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places with the rest of the city’s Financial District in December 2009.

Out with the old

As Detroit grew rapidly through the 1920s, it was decided a new, larger building was needed to replace the castle-like Federal Building in Detroit. The old building housed the city’s post office, federal courthouse and Customs offices and, despite its beauty and opulence, was simply too small for a burgeoning metropolis.

On April 22, 1930, the federal budget bureau recommended that Detroit get a new federal building and customs house at a price of nearly $5 million (about $63.9 million today). Robert O. Derrick and Branson V. Gamber (best known for designing the Henry Ford Museum) were selected as the architects of the new building.

Among the more opulent rooms in the old Federal Building was the so-called Million-Dollar Courtroom. Federal Judge Arthur J. Tuttle arranged to have his courtroom dismantled piece by piece and replaced exactly as it was in the 1897 building.

“When workmen were about to demolish the historic court room, occupied in the old building by Judge Tuttle, he appealed to William J. Rush, of the Treasury Department. Both agreed that the old court room was far too valuable, with its marble and mahogany, to be destroyed or sold piecemeal,” the Free Press wrote in September 1933. “So it was painstakingly taken apart, the various sections photographed, lettered, numbered and stored in over 150 barrels in the temporary Postoffice quarters. Blueprints of the old room and its decorations and friezes were drawn up and are being used in the reassembling. …

“Judge Tuttle’s court room has been said by architects to be one of the most beautiful examples of marble and freize (sic) construction in the country.”

The old Federal Building was torn down at the end of 1931. For nearly three years, as the new courthouse was being built, the federal employees took up temporary quarters in rented buildings, including the Recreation Building across Lafayette Boulevard.

‘Another outstanding epoch’

On Oct. 12, 1932, about 1,500 people braved chilly temperatures as the 4.5-ton black American granite cornerstone was swung into place. The ceremony followed a parade from the Statler Hotel, where city, state and federal officials –- from Gov. Wilber M. Brucker to Mayor Frank Murphy to congressmen to customs officials -– took part. A squadron of airplanes of the First Pursuit Group zoomed overhead. There were bands marching down Washington Boulevard to Shelby Street and Lafayette Boulevard.

“Today’s ceremony marks another outstanding epoch in the progress of our city,” Rep. Clarence J. McLeod, a Republican and Detroit native, said at the ceremony. “This imposing structure assures us of ample and spacious accommodation for the federal government’s branches in Detroit for years to come.”

A copper box was sealed in the cornerstone containing a copy of the Detroit Free Press, photographs of all the federal officials of the Detroit district, a parchment giving the activities of the federal grand jury and a history and photograph of the old Federal Building.

The price tag wound up being about $3.25 million. It was scheduled to open in November 1933, but labor troubles, changes in plans from those designated in the blueprints and delays in shipments of materials pushed back the opening until April 23, 1934. When it opened it was known as the Detroit Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse, though the Postal Service and Customs House eventually moved out.

Justice: Blind and beautiful

As a federal building, few expenses were spared in constructing the 24-courtroom courthouse. On the first floor, a gorgeous, original barreled ceiling looms overhead. Its hallways are filled with marble floors, and its elevators feature an Art Deco flavor. The exterior of the building is decidedly more modest, but it does feature several bas reliefs by prominent Detroit sculptor Corrado Joseph Parducci depicting various federal government agencies and justice. The center of the building is open, allowing for the maximum amount of natural sunlight to fill its hallways.

The courthouse was renamed on May 1, 1995, in honor of Theodore J. Levin, a U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Michigan from 1946 until his death in 1970. He served as the court’s chief judge from 1959 to 1967. Two of his nephews are longtime members of Congress: former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and U.S. Rep. Sander Levin.

Today, the building serves as the U.S. District Court. Among the most recent high-profile cases tried within its walls was that of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man accused of blowing up an airliner over Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009. The court’s chief district judge, the Honorable Gerald E. Rosen, holds court in the Million-Dollar Courtroom from the Levin courthouse’s predecessor.

More on this building of Detroit is coming soon.