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Design Doctrine: 1980s--Juliette Gordon Low Federal Building and Ernest Hollings Judicial Center

By Elizabeth Milnarik

“The belief that good design is optional, or in some way separate from the question of the provision of office space itself does not bear scrutiny, and in fact invites the least efficient use of public money.” —Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles”

Two decades after Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles” were written, they had faded a bit in their force, and the 1980s were marked by an unevenness in architectural quality at the GSA. This inconsistency is epitomized by the federal complexes constructed in two distinctively historic Southern cities: the Juliette Gordon Low Federal Building in Savannah, Ga., and the Ernest Hollings Judicial Center in Charleston, S.C.

Sited on historic Telfair Square, a few blocks from the Savannah River, Savannah’s three-story high, three-building Low Federal Complex is well-scaled for its neighborhood. The buildings, however, are clad in white square tiles above gray concrete rustication, with flat-profile fixed windows and gray stringcourses at the parapet—materials not sympathetic to the largely brick character of the district. At the main entrances along Telfair Square, double-height tile-clad pilasters support a curving entablature, perhaps an Art Deco (or Postmodern) reinterpretation of Savannah’s traditional Neo-Classical public buildings. Designed by Stevens & Wilkinson, the project was marred by contract difficulties and budget changes, and the result has been criticized by Savannah’s citizens. Nicknamed the “bathroom buildings,” plans have been proposed to replace them since at least 1998, when the buildings were 15 years old.

In contrast to the Savannah complex, Charleston’s Hollings Judicial Center is a modern, sympathetic addition to the city’s 1896 U.S. Post Office and Courthouse—a granite Second Renaissance Revival gem. Set to the rear of the historic structure, a deep landscaped courtyard with a historic iron fountain leads from the street to the main façade of the Hollings annex. Designed by Goff Associates and completed in 1990, the building’s granite cladding links it with the courthouse, but above the rusticated water table the panel joints and planarity reveal its modern character. Rounded muntins (strips of wood) playfully reference the arches along the ground floor of the courthouse, and the façade is a deftly detailed Postmodern addition that stands on its own as an exemplary work of architecture.

In the 1980s, there was a sense that a reinvigorated spirit and revisions to the GSA design procurement process could help realign the agency with Moynihan’s vision and the concerns of the current day. Thus, in 1994 the GSA inaugurated its Design Excellence Program, which builds on Moynihan’s principles to upgrade federal architecture.

Back to Design Doctrine: Five GSA Case Studies >


Juliette Gordon Low Federal Building, Savannah, Ga. Image courtesy of George Jumara, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


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Back to AIArchitect July 27, 2012

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