State Capitol’s Historic Supreme Court Chamber

Description, Architecture, and Decoration

Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol
Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol

When the Michigan State Capitol was dedicated on January 1, 1879, the elegant chamber on the third floor designated for the use of the Michigan Supreme Court was widely recognized as one of the most impressive and important spaces in the building. On April 5, 1878—even before the capitol was completed—an admiring reporter writing in the Lansing Republican noted that “with the exception of the governor’s reception room, (it is) the richest in architecture and finish of any room in the building.”

Architect Elijah E. Myers paid particular attention to the chamber’s design. Severely limited by the building’s modest budget, he was unable to use the kinds of lavish materials typical of Gilded Age capitols and courthouses. Nowhere else in the capitol is there a better example of the way Myers substituted skill and artisanry to make up for this restriction. For example, although the chamber is one of the larger rooms in the building, the capitol itself is relatively small, and every trick of the architect’s trade had to be used to make the room look larger and grander than it actually is. Since Myers could not enlarge the room horizontally, he went up: the ceiling is thirty feet high, almost eight feet taller than surrounding rooms (Myers borrowed the space from the floor above). But most impressive is how Myers achieved a sense of opulence and richness through the use of humble materials masterfully applied.

Inexpensive plaster stands in almost everywhere for expensive stone and wood. The pilasters that draw the eye upward to the richly bracketed ceiling cornices are plaster, as are the cornices themselves—not stone as many believe. Rather than expensive wall coverings, walls were decorated by simply texturing wet plaster, creating graceful swirling designs, and then applying plaster flowers—in this case, poinsettias. The elaborate plasterwork in the Supreme Court Chamber is considered some of the finest in the building. Such techniques were affordable because the plasterers who built the capitol, although highly-skilled craftsmen, were often recent immigrants who worked for very little during an age of cheap “alien labor,” as it was then called.

The same thing was true of another kind of artisan, the decorative, or architectural, painter, whose skills raised the decoration of the chamber to a truly extraordinary level. In late 1885, decorative painters began what was called the “final embellishment” of the capitol: they began to transform over nine acres of the building’s interior surfaces by painting them by hand. They painted humble cast iron and pine to resemble expensive marble and walnut, while simple plaster walls and ceilings were decorated with elaborate and beautiful designs. Every technique—striping, glazing, gilding, graining, marbling, stenciling, free-hand—was used, and no two rooms were painted alike. When they were done, four years later, they had created a masterpiece. Today, the fully restored Michigan State Capitol is considered the finest example of this kind of art in the nation. The building’s designation as a national treasure—a National Historic Landmark (one of only fourteen state capitols to achieve this designation)—is due in large part to its unparalleled decorative paint.

In the chamber, textured plaster walls were painted and then glazed to provide luster and to draw out details of the design. Pilasters were also painted and glazed, serving to draw the eye upward to the painted ceiling which is–with its elegant painted cartouche over the judge’s bench featuring law books, a gavel and scales–one of the most beautiful in the building. It is also one of the rarest. Over the years, most original painted surfaces in the capitol, including the ceilings, were covered over—painted out by layer upon layer of plain paint or wallpaper. All record of their designs and colors was lost. Here and there, however, a rare original surface survived. One of these was the ceiling of the Supreme Court Chamber.

During the restoration of the capitol (1989-1992), every effort was made to save this original surface. There were a number of challenges. Because the capitol was originally gas-lit, the ceiling was covered with a film of dirty soot. Cleaning proved difficult because the artists had used tempera paints on the ceilings rather than oil-based paints like those used on the walls. Tempera paints are water-soluble: any effort to clean them ran the risk of removing delicate painted designs along with dirt. In addition, a large section of the ceiling plaster had pulled completely away from the lathe and was sagging dangerously, threatening collapse. Eventually, the restoration team invented a way to glue the ceiling back into place and to clean it without disturbing its fragile paint, but it required the attention of an innovative, dedicated, fine arts conservator who lay on his back atop scaffolding and meticulously cleaned the ceiling inch-by-inch with cotton swabs.

Although frugality was the rule in constructing the capitol, quality was never compromised, and in a few special areas–such as this chamber–extra funds were expended to lend additional distinction and dignity. The furnishings here are a case in point. The head of the chamber is dominated by a raised eighteen-foot-long judges’ bench, backed by an eighteen-foot-high classically ornamented and carved screen and bookcase. Both were custom designed by architect Myers and constructed of black walnut by the Feige Brothers of East Saginaw, one of Michigan’s leading furniture manufacturers. Real walnut was also used for the chamber’s woodwork, including wainscot, doors and windows. In most of the rest of the capitol, woodwork is Michigan pine, hand-grained to simply look like walnut. Despite the fact that wood graining involves hand-applying seven layers of paint, drawing each line of grain with a brush until the appearance of real walnut is complete, the low wages commanded by decorative painters in the 1880s meant that large savings were realized by using this approach. It is a mark of the importance of the Supreme Court Chamber that real walnut was used instead of grained pine.

Lighting was provided by two chandeliers, among the most impressive in the building. They were originally gas-lit like the rest of the fixtures in the capitol. The chandeliers currently in the chamber are reproductions: the originals were discarded and replaced by modern fixtures years ago. Fortunately, excellent photographs of the chamber taken in 1879 allowed restorers to create these authentic replicas. The same photographs were used to create a copy of the original carpet.

The capitol’s architectural style has been variously called Classical Revival or Neoclassical, and the Supreme Court Chamber is rich in examples of motifs drawn from classical Greece and Rome. But ancient Egypt can be found here, too. Inspired by the archaeological discoveries of the 1800s, Egyptian Revival became popular during the Victorian era, so that incongruous lotus blossoms decorate the chandeliers and the capitals of the pilasters lining the chamber.

The rooms to the north of the chamber on the east end of the corridor, originally designated “Private” and “Consultation” rooms, were intended for the use of the “Supreme Judges.” A lovely etched glass panel, featuring the blindfolded figure of Justice with her scale and sword, allows light to pass from these rooms into the dim corridor. The state Attorney General occupied the offices across the corridor from the chamber.


Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol Chambers, 1879
Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol Chambers, 1879

When the capitol opened its doors in 1879, there were only four chairs behind the bench at the head of the Supreme Court Chamber, since, at that time, only four members served on the Michigan Supreme Court. Sitting at the bench in 1879 was chief justice James Valentine Campbell and Justices Thomas M. Cooley, Benjamin F. Graves, and Isaac Marston.

The capitol was dedicated in an impressive ceremony in the House of Representatives Chamber on January 1, 1879. Over 1,200 people crowded the chamber to watch as Chief Justice Campbell, the first chief justice to serve in the capitol, performed his first official act in the new building: swearing into office Charles M. Croswell, the first governor to be inaugurated there. Lieutenant Governor Alonzo Sessions was also sworn in. Then, on January 8, 1879, Chief Justice Campbell presided over the very first session ever held in the Supreme Court’s handsome new home on the third floor of the Michigan State Capitol.

In 1887, a fifth justice was added to the court and another chair was placed behind the judges’ bench. Then, in 1903, the number of justices increased to eight. Since there was not enough room to accommodate them all, the bench was extended at either end. It was one of the first alterations ever made to the chamber. Otherwise, the chamber remained largely intact, with chaise longues lining the walls and rows of desks facing the bench. Portraits of former chief justices hung on the walls—eventually almost fifty would crowd the chamber and spill onto the walls of nearby corridors. Over the years, other changes took place: original chandeliers were replaced, walls repainted, light standards added to the bench. Judge Howard Wiest, who served in the Supreme Court from 1921 through 1945, donated a tall oak clock which still ticks away in the chamber. But change was coming to the capitol.

Because the capitol had been built so small, crowding had quickly become an issue. By the early 1920s, departments were scrambling for space. Even after opening the nearby State Office Building (now the Cass Building) in 1922 and moving as many offices and departments into it as possible (including the State Library), the capitol remained overcrowded. By then, the Supreme Court had long outgrown its original offices. When the State Library moved out, the space it vacated in the west wing was designated as the Law Library and the library’s upper reaches were floored over to create additional office space for judges. The Supreme Court Chamber, however, remained virtually untouched during these shufflings. And, when the Constitution of 1963 reduced the number of justices to seven, the eighth chair was simply removed from the bench.

But the biggest changes in the capitol were yet to come. To provide much-needed office space for an expanding state government, a complex of state office buildings was constructed over a number of years to the west of the capitol. Gradually, departments and offices began moving out of the capitol and into the new Capitol Complex. Crowding in the capitol remained an issue, however, because any vacated space was quickly pressed into a new use.

Prior to 1963, legislators lacked personal offices. Their only “offices” were their desks on the floor of the legislative chambers. The Constitution of 1963, however, had made the legislature a full-time body and the times demanded that each member have a private office. Now room had to be found for them. In 1969, the most intensive remodeling ever undertaken in the capitol began as 50,000 square feet of new office space was created by subdividing rooms vertically, inserting extra floors in once-lofty rooms to double their floor space. As more departments moved into the Capitol Complex, the capitol itself was increasingly converted to legislative use. Eventually, only the legislature, the governor, and the lieutenant governor would maintain offices there.

The last body to leave the capitol was the Supreme Court. In April 1969, the legislature announced a plan to move the Court and the Law Library to a home in the newly-constructed “Seven Story Office Building” (later called the Law Building and then, finally, the G. Mennen Williams Building) in the Capitol Complex. The old Law Library was gutted back to the walls to make room for dozens of cubicles to serve as legislative offices. Judges’ offices were overfloored and stripped of historical furnishings. But, again, the Supreme Court Chamber itself was spared major alterations, a tribute to its “venerable” history, as one senator put it. “Some day this Capitol will become a museum,” said Senator Alvin DeGrow. “I have been amazed at the remodeling that has been going on here. I guess that is necessary to provide us the space. But I would hope that we preserve parts of the building in their original shape. The Supreme Court chamber is one of these.” Rather than subdividing it for office space, the chamber was preserved nearly intact and adapted for use as a Senate committee and hearing room.

On January 16, 1970, the Supreme Court held its last session in the capitol. The Court had met in its historic chamber for 91 years, longer than in any other location. During that time, sixty judges heard almost 38,000 cases and 10,000 oral arguments. On March 3, 1970, Chief Justice Thomas E. Brennan, the last chief justice to preside in the capitol, spoke at a special closing ceremony in the chamber. Chief Justice Brennan remarked that the occasion was a “time that fairly begs to be given over to nostalgia, filled with memories of other faces and other days.” The president of the State Bar of Michigan, A.D. Ruegsegger, commented that “this room partakes of a spirit not unlike that of a church . . . it has been, in fact, a temple of justice.” At the close of the ceremony, the court crier, Phillip A. Sprague, declared, “The Supreme Court is adjourned without day in this courtroom.”

On April 28, 1988, another ceremony was held in the old Supreme Court Chamber. Chief Justice Dorothy Comstock Riley presided over a special session of the Court as Senate Majority Leader John Engler (later governor of Michigan) accepted a bronze marker from Wallace D. Riley, president of the newly-formed Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society. The marker, among the first official acts of the Society, was mounted on the wall outside the chamber. Its wording recounts the history and significance of the room: “This is the courtroom of sixty justices who served on the Michigan Supreme Court from 1879 to 1970. At the dedication ceremonies of the Capitol building, this courtroom was widely acclaimed as, architecturally, one of the finest in the United States. It remains today an historical symbol of the State of Michigan’s ‘One Court of Justice.’”

Among the reminiscences offered that day were comments by former Chief Justice Thomas Brennan, who had presided over the chamber’s closing session in 1970. He recalled some of the justices who had served there over the years, including Justice Eugene Black, who hummed the “Saints Go Marching In” as justices filed into the room. Another was Justice John Voelker, who served in the chamber from 1957 through 1959. Writing under the pseudonym of Robert Traver, Justice Voelker was the famous author of Anatomy of a Murder. After retiring from the Court to pursue writing full time, he published Laughing Whitefish in 1965. The novel used the old Supreme Court Chamber as a setting, describing the room “on the third floor of the old domed capitol building in Lansing” as looking “more like the inside of an eccentric old church than a courtroom.” “Huge dusty portraits of bearded bygone judges—seeming mostly rows of staring cataleptic eyes peering out from great thickets of whiskers and billowing yards of black silk robing—lined the walls like the forbidding images of obscure and vanished saints,” he wrote. The chamber had made an impression on the justice, despite his relatively short tenure.

Today the old Supreme Court Chamber is once more one of the most elegant rooms in the capitol—and one of the busiest. During the restoration of the capitol (1989-1992), great effort was made to return the chamber as authentically as possible to its original appearance. Besides restoring the decorative paint, plaster, lighting and carpeting, the judges’ bench was finally returned to its original dimensions. Even the chairs at the back of the chamber, intended for public use, are almost exact replicas of the originals once found there. There is one major difference, however: the replicas are fifty per cent larger than their originals. This was made necessary because people are much taller today than they were 125 years ago. And, although most of the chamber’s portrait collection followed the Supreme Court when it left the capitol, a fine portrait of the capitol’s first chief justice, James V. Campbell, hangs on one wall. Painted by Lewis Ives, one of Michigan’s finest portrait artists, it is a duplicate of the one Ives painted for the Supreme Court. Campbell seems to gaze approvingly over the old chamber in which he once presided.

The chamber is not a museum, however: it continues to serve as a public meeting and hearing room for the Senate Appropriations Committee. Careful changes have been made which allow the chamber to retain it original appearance without compromising function. A semicircular bank of desks, inspired by the originals once in use there, has been introduced in the center of the room for the use of committee members. A raised floor, concealed under the carpet, provides space for utilities such as computer and electrical cabling and for fiber optics. Television lighting has been mounted as unobtrusively as possible on the walls and cameras concealed in walnut consoles, all to allow committee proceedings to be broadcast over cable television and computers. In 1992, recognizing the challenge and success of the restoration, the National Trust for Historic Preservation presented the Michigan State Capitol with its highest Honor Award, the most prestigious such award in the nation. The old Supreme Court Chamber had won back all the beauty which had once brought it fame. At the same time, it is now prepared to serve the people of Michigan for at least another one hundred years.