Great Buildings: Inside the federal courthouse

With funding at over $141 million, the federal courthouse is the most expensive government building ever constructed in Buffalo. Its imposing elliptical form maximizes efficiencies while presenting a striking visual for the downtown skyline.

This is probably the most important site in the city, occupying a full block of Delaware Avenue facing Niagara Square.  In an interview early in the construction process, William Pedersen made an analogy between this design and Santa Maria del Fiore, the great landmark in Florence, Italy. That Renaissance icon includes a cathedral with Brunelleschi’s dome, the Baptistery, and Giotto’s bell tower. Those three components create an urban gathering place—such a dialogue became a goal of Pedersen’s design, with the courthouse analagous to the Duomo, the elevator tower akin to the Campanile, and the atrium as a gardenlike pavilion to welcome people to the building. In the perpetual debate of whether classical styles or Modernist designs are more appropriate for civic buildings, this approach respects historic traditions while interpreting them in a modern vocabulary.  

The Niagara Square façade is a glass wall, open to light with activity visible from the street. The balance of the exterior is wrapped in a series of beveled glass panels that suspend on the precast concrete forms. If you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the structure at the right time on a sunny day, the effect can be a fabulous rainbow, or the hue of a gorgeous orange sunset. 


• The building was designed by William Pedersen, principal and founding partner of Kohn Pedersen Fox, which has completed a number of other award-winning courthouses. The project cost in excess of $140 million, including all associated costs.

• The building opened for regular court business on November 28, 2011. A formal dedication will likely take place in spring 2012.

• The structure is structural steel. The ellipse wall is precast concrete. A glass curtain-wall system is used in the south wall and entry pavilion.

• The total size is 284,000 gross square feet. The building has ten floors but is as tall as an eighteen-story building. (The courtroom floors are twice as high as a standard floor.)

• Initial planning for the building began in 1995. The events of September 11, 2001 determined new, more secure standards for federal buildings. New design started in April 2003, and actual construction began in November 2007.

• Western New York’s congressional delegation, led by Senator Charles Schumer, pushed relentlessly for this project. .

• The Western New York District is one of ninety-four in the federal judiciary The Buffalo courthouse services eight counties.

• There is space for ten courtrooms;  six for district judges and four for magistrates.

• There are ten judges’ chambers, a Court of Appeals chamber, a satellite law library, and supporting space for the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Attorney, probation and pretrial services, the federal public defender, and the U.S. General Services Administration.

• A glass veil of beveled glass panels surrounds the entire perimeter of the building. Each panel weighs 400 pounds.

• Halls and waiting areas have terrazzo floors, wood-paneled walls, suspended acoustical baffled with aluminum leaf finishing on the ceilings. Courtrooms have broadloom carpet, wood-paneled walls, elliptical cove ceilings with aluminum leaf finish.

• The building appears to be on track to receive Gold LEEDS (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification through the United States Green Building Council. It would be the first building in the region to receive Gold distinction. Certification should be announced this spring.

• The project was designed under the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Program, one of a number of federal facilities developed through this initiative. The program, established in 1994, is intended to change and improve public architecture in the federal government, enabling the GSA to engage many of the finest architects, engineers, and artists working in America today to design the future landmarks of our nation.

• At the time of this writing, a name for the building was not yet determined. The frontrunner appears to be in honor of Justice Robert H. Jackson, the only United States Supreme Court Justice to have been born and raised in Western New York where he practiced law before moving to Washington, D.C. at the request of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Appointed to the Court in 1941, Jackson is perhaps best known as the architect and chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, which helped bring Nazi war criminals to justice.




Barry A. Muskat is Spree’s architecture critic and  a long-time contributor. He’s a big fan of the new federal courthouse.

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