Design and Initial Occupants
Designed by Boston city architect George A. Clough (1843-1916), the courthouse was completed in 1894 at a cost of approximately $3.8 million. Clough's reliance on classical elements such as arches, columns, pediments (triangular forms), and cornices (ornamental moldings) typifies this period of American architecture. 

The original occupants of the building (the Supreme Judicial Court, the Social Law Library, the Suffolk County Superior Court, the Boston Municipal Court, and the Suffolk County Probate and Family Court) required more space by the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1909, two additional stories were added to the structure. The addition, also designed by Clough, took the form of a high sloped roof, known as a mansard roof. 

In 1939, the Supreme Judicial Court and the Social Law Library moved into the "New" Suffolk County Courthouse next door, an Art Deco tower designed by the architectural firm of Desmond & Lord. In 2005, upon completion of a massive restoration and renovation effort led by the architectural firm of Childs, Bertman, Tseckares, Inc., the Supreme Judicial Court and the Social Law Library, joined by the Appeals Court, returned to the "Old" Suffolk County Courthouse.

On May 14, 2002, Acting Governor Jane Swift signed An Act Designating the Old Suffolk County Courthouse as the John Adams Courthouse in honor of John Adams, author of the Massachusetts Constitution, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, and second President of the United States. At a ceremony celebrating the designation, then Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall remarked:

"John Adams was the ingenious architect of our Constitution. He believed passionately that all people were born with certain rights that no government could take away. Driven by this vision of freedom, he devised an entirely new structure of government, one that had never been tried before. His draft of the Massachusetts Constitution proposed a balanced government, where the judicial branch existed independently but co-equally with the Executive and the Legislature. The notion that judges would decide cases based on the rule of law rather than the demands of the powerful was radical for its time. Yet the idea of an independent judiciary has become one of the great cornerstones of human freedom."