You are here
General Douglas MacArthur Memorial (Norfolk City Hall and Courthouse)
What Les Invalides is to Paris, the General Douglas MacArthur Memorial is to Norfolk: a domed building designed for one purpose that was converted at a later date into a memorial and tomb for a military hero. Les Invalides (1678–1708) was designed by Jules-Hardouin Mansart as a military hospital chapel, and Napoleon's tomb is sunk into the floor directly beneath the majestic dome. In a similar fashion, the tomb of General Douglas MacArthur is recessed into the floor beneath the more modestly scaled dome of what was once Norfolk City Hall and Courthouse. Save for Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War general and U.S. president, no American military leader is so conspicuously enshrined for public viewing.
Even without the MacArthur connection, the Old City Hall, as it is still sometimes called, would be considered Norfolk's most important public building, and its design history is the most obscure. The decision to erect a new city hall to replace the postcolonial town hall was made in 1845, the year Norfolk was chartered as a city. The following year, the city council awarded the commission to William R. Singleton, a local architect with St. Louis connections. There must have been some dissatisfaction with the council's choice, however, since in 1847 Walter H. Taylor, a prominent local citizen, privately commissioned Thomas U. Walter
As is typical of the American Greek Revival, the design freely combines Greek and Roman classical elements, and, as is typical of Walter's work, less expensive materials imitate more expensive ones. The two-story building is Tshaped with an entrance portico on the west facade. The portico, reached by a monumental staircase, is supported by six Tuscan columns with stucco-covered brick shafts and granite bases and capitals. Flanking the portico, the pilasters and intermediary panels of the end bays are faced in granite for maximum display; however, the segment of the west wall sheltered by the portico and the side and rear walls of the building are more economically finished. Pilasters and intermediary panels are constructed of brick and covered in stucco coursed to resemble ashlar in a manner similar to that employed at the Norfolk Academy. An entablature, partly constructed of granite, encircles the building, and the north and south gables are treated as pediments. The design culminates in a ribbed dome on a high drum ringed by Tuscan columns. Inside were once offices for the mayor and the city council and rooms for the U.S. District Court and the Circuit Court. Because of its marshy location at the head of what was once Back Creek and is now City Hall Avenue, Old City Hall was equipped with a 45,000-gallon cistern in its basement. Moreover, inverted arches of brick reinforce the granite basement walls on the north and east sides. The building ceased to house city offices in 1918, but it remained in use as a courthouse until 1960.
Long outmoded in a city that prided itself on its modernity, Old City Hall survived the rampant postwar demolition only through a fortuitous series of events. Early schemes for the new Civic Center involved razing the building. A significant public outcry eventually resulted in the choice of a less controversial and less expensive site several blocks to the southeast. As the new Civic Center took shape, finding a new use for the building became more urgent. The solution proved to be as ingenious as it was controversial: a memorial to General Douglas MacArthur, the brilliant but contentious army commander. Mary Hardy MacArthur, the general's mother, had been a native of the city, and in 1951 a memorial to her was dedicated with great fanfare in the presence of the general.
If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.
SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.