What Would Hammurabi Do?

In the outrage of many comments over the closure of the main entrance to the Supreme Court building, an architectural paradox has been neglected.

The doors are sculptural treasures, but they are concealed when open. As the official curator's statement, published before the decision, reads:

To view the doors in unison...visitors must arrive during non-business hours because each weekday morning when the main entrance to the Supreme Court opens these sculpted doors are rolled into pockets in the wall and recede from view.

Cass Gilbert, the Court's architect, was no stranger to paradoxes. Like many other prominent Americans of the interwar years he revered Mussolini -- surely no champion of an independent judiciary. Even the marble friezes of the courtroom, researched and carved by the great sculptor and engraver Adolph Weinman, raise some questions. Few would argue with the presence of Hammurabi, Moses, Solon, or Confucius. But Draco? As the Supreme Court's curator notes: "His code included many strict penalties and death sentences, often for what seemed to be minor offenses." Score one for the Duce.

But this is probably quibbling. The Supreme Court was the superb swan song of Beaux-Arts monuments in America, the last showplace of a now-obscure symbolic language. It didn't hurt that the Court building took shape during the Depression, when the finest artisans and materials were available at bargain rates. Taking a virtual tour of the Court, now available through C-SPAN (some videos load slowly), is a legal and artistic education in itself.

If the Justices are concerned about security -- and there is a controversial depiction of the Prophet Muhammad among the great lawgivers -- wouldn't it be better to leave the doors closed but visible rather than turn an entrance into an exit?

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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