Endothelial cells in vivo form the interface between the vascular and interstitial compartments and are strategically located to mediate vascular permeability and hemostasis. One mechanism endothelial cells use to maintain a nonthrombogenic surface is to polarize basement membrane constituents to the basolateral cell surface. In the present study, we began characterization of the mechanisms used by endothelial cells in the assembly of a subcellular fibronectin matrix. Immunofluorescence microscopy was used to localize extracellular matrix fibronectin in endothelial cell cultures. In contrast to preconfluent and newly confluent cultures, post-confluent cultures assembled a fibronectin matrix that was restricted to the basolateral cell surface. To determine if endothelial cells polarize fibronectin secretion, Millicell culture inserts were used to distinguish proteins secreted from apical and basal surfaces. Preconfluent and newly confluent cultures secreted fibronectin equally into apical and basal media. In contrast, post-confluent endothelial cells secreted fibronectin preferentially into the basal chamber. The degree to which fibronectin secretion was polarized varied with time in culture and with the ability of the monolayers to act as a barrier to the movement of 125I- fibronectin from the apical to basal chamber. In addition, high affinity binding sites for exogenous 125I-fibronectin were found to be present on the basolateral, but not apical, surface of post-confluent endothelial monolayers. These results indicate that subendothelial matrix assembly correlates with polarized fibronectin secretion, culture confluence, and expression of high affinity binding sites for fibronectin on the basolateral cell surface.