The U.S. Customs Service, established by the First Congress in 1789, is the oldest federal agency. The Customs Service assesses and collects duties and taxes on imported goods, controls carriers of imports and exports, and combats smuggling and revenue fraud.
The monumental Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House sits prominently on Bowling Green at Manhattan’s tip. Bowling Green, the island’s first parade ground and park, was the site of the city’s first Custom House which burned down in 1814. The customs service moved several times, but by 1888 a new, larger home was needed for its activities in the prospering port of New York. The government purchased the Bowling Green site in 1892.
The Tarsney Act of 1893 played an important role in the design of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. It authorized the secretary of the treasury to use private architects, selected through architectural competitions, to design federal buildings. As a process, it manifested the growing demand for greater architectural standards for public buildings and opened the way for added appropriations to maintain those standards. In 1899 Supervising Architect of the Treasury James Knox Taylor (1857-1929) invited twenty firms to vie for the U.S. Custom House commission. Cass Gilbert’s elaborate Beaux Arts design was selected.
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) was trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked at the renowned New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White. In 1887 he set up practice in St. Paul, Minnesota with James Knox Taylor. After moving his office to New York City, Gilbert designed such notable buildings as New York’s Woolworth Building (1913) and Washington, DC’s U.S. Supreme Court (1929-1935). His U.S. Custom House design reflects the planning and aesthetic ideals of the City Beautiful movement, which promoted civic patriotism, urban economics and beauty.
The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976. In 1979 New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission made the exterior and public interior spaces a city landmark. In 1994, the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in the building. The U.S. Bankruptcy Courts and U.S. Department of Transportation offices are also in the building.
The striking Beaux Arts U.S. Custom House is a steel-framed, seven-story structure on the south side of Bowling Green at the foot of Broadway. The building was intentionally designed to face the historically significant Bowling Green rather than the harbor, reversing the usual orientation of a custom house.
The building’s rusticated first story supports three stories of single and paired full-height, engaged Corinthian columns. The fifth story is encompassed within the frieze of the massive entablature. Above the entablature is the sixth story. The seventh story is within the mansard roof.
A grand stair, facing Bowling Green, provides a stately approach to the building. The cavernous entry is set within a barrel vault, enhanced with blue, gold, rose, and green mosaics and Levanto marble columns. Bronze gates secure the paneled bronze doors leading into the Great Hall.
Enclosed pediments with molded brackets cap the windows of the piano nobile. Typical of the Beaux Arts style, the openings on the third and fourth stories are decorated with granite surrounds less detailed than the more prominent lower stories. Small rectangular openings pierce the frieze, providing daylight to the fifth story. Copper cresting outlines the red slate roof and dormer windows.
The most significant decorative features on the exterior are Daniel Chester French’s (1850-1931) monumental sculptures representing international commerce. Four female figures of limestone sit on large entrance pedestals and represent America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. Above the columns on the main facade are twelve marble statues, representing seafaring nations. Above the windows are sculpted heads depicting the “eight races” of mankind.
The interior of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is an exquisite example of Beaux Arts planning combining clarity, symmetry, and ceremonial spaces. The building presents a square plan with a central rotunda and surrounding corridors. The ceremonial, two-story Great Hall on the piano nobile is ornately detailed with marble finishes in a variety of textures and colors quarried in the United States, Switzerland, and Italy. At both ends of the Great Hall are curved staircases finished with decorative plaster, bronze railings, and marble treads and risers.
Other ceremonial spaces include the Collector’s Suite (with oak panels designed by Tiffany Studios), Cashier’s Office, and Naval Officer’s Rooms. Nautical motifs, such as shells, snails, dolphins, tridents, and ships’ wheels and prows decorate these spaces. The three-story oval rotunda measures 135 by 85 feet. The tile and plaster-domed ceiling of the rotunda is one of the masterpieces of Spanish engineer Raphael Guastavino (1842-1908). Between the skylight and the dome’s entablature are murals by New York artist Reginald Marsh (1898-1954) depicting ships entering New York Harbor.
During the last two decades of the twentieth century, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House has under-gone meticulous restoration. Two feasibility studies, creation of the Custom House Institute in 1973, and passage of the Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act of 1976, which encourages the federal government to reuse its historically and architecturally significant buildings, spurred the U.S. General Services Administration to restore the building. In 1979 Congress authorized $26,500,000 for the building’s restoration and rehabilitation. The project began in 1983 and continued until 1994. Work included cleaning the building’s facade and conserving interior murals, decorative paintings, woodwork, metalwork, and marble. Space was adapted for use as Federal courtrooms, ancillary offices, meeting rooms, and an auditorium.
In 1994 following the completion of restoration work led by Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut and Kuhn Architects, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian moved into the building. In 2001 additional repairs were completed and the rotunda was restored.
1899: Cass Gilbert wins design competition for a new U.S. Custom House in New York.
1900-1907: The U.S. Custom House is constructed.
1971: The Customs Service vacates the building and moves to the World Trade Center.
1972: The U.S. Custom House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
1976: The U.S. Custom House is designated a National Historic Landmark.
1978: The U.S. General Services Administration holds a competition for proposals for the restoration and rehabilitation of the building.
1979: The Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York City designates the exterior and all public interiors of the building as a city Landmark.
1994: After a multi-year, award-winning restoration and rehabilitation, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian moves in.
Architect: Cass Gilbert
Construction Dates: 1900-1907
Landmark Status: National Historic Landmark
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
New York City Landmark (exterior and interior)
Location: The Bowling Green
Architectural Style: Beaux Arts
Primary Materials: Granite Exterior Marble interior
Prominent Features: Four Continents sculptures by Daniel Chester French; Rotunda with murals by Reginald Marsh Collector’s Suite with oak paneling by Tiffany Studios
The richly composed US Custom House is a steel-framed, seven-story Beaux Arts style structure with the principal entrance facade facing north across Bowling Green. Two additional floors are located below grade. Above grade the first story provides a rusticated base, above which are three stories contained within the height of a giant order of engaged Corinthian columns. The engaged columns, which are doubled at the outermost bays and beside the two story high entrance, separate the bays. The fifth story is encompassed within the entablature above the columns, the sixth story is within the attic space and the seventh story is within the mansard roof. On the north facade, the main entrance is at the second floor piano nobile level and is reached by a grand staircase. Elaborate bronze entry gates on the north, lead up the grand staircase under the brilliantly colored barrel vault, enhanced with blue, gold, rose and green mosaics and Levanto marble columns, to the panelled bronze doors and into the Main Hall. The windows decrease in height at each successive story and on the second, third and fourth floors are decorated with granite surrounds of decreasing complexity. The wood window sashes have been replaced with the painted metal sashes. Very small rectangular openings pierce the frieze of the entablature providing natural light to the fifth floor, which was used for storage and therefore needed very little natural light. In the mansard roof are copper trimmed dormers of baroque design. Copper cresting outlines the angles of the roof and provides a visual contrast to the red slate on the mansard. Entry to the east and west facades is at grade, and the elevation treatment is similar to that of the north facade. The central portion of the rear or south facade is only three stories tall and provides service entrances, through two passageways into the courtyards. Three new service/loading docks were added in the early 1980’s. Decorative ornament and sculpture are used throughout the building. Nautical motifs and architectural details mingle with symbols of international commerce and with symbols of the United States government. Stylized waves, ships’ prows, ships’ wheels, shells and tridents are mixed with floral designs of swags and garlands. References to international commerce include Daniel Chester French’s limestone monumental sculptures of the Four Continents and the statues of seafaring powers, but also carved heads depicting the “eight races” of mankind on the second story, the native American heads above the east and west entrance door surrounds, and the head of Mercury in each Corinthian capital. Architectural details decorating the exterior include dentils, modillions, urns, medallions, balustrades, moldings, consoles, triglyphs and metopes. Symbolic of the United States Government are the fascia stars and eagles in the entry gates and vestibule mosaics, and the seal of the United States on the north facade. Trapezoidal in shape, the building’s narrowest side is the north facade of seven bays, while the remaining three sides are each thirteen bays long. At the center of the trapezoid is a courtyard in which the rotunda rises three stories in height. Two driveways enter the courtyard from Bridge Street at the first floor level and descend to the basement level, allowing access into the two south courtyards surrounding the rotunda from the street. In elevation, the seven stories of the courtyard are divided in a similar manner to the exterior, but instead of engaged columns supporting an entablature, attic and mansard, there are pilasters supporting arches, and heavy cornices separating the upper stories. A patterned copper frieze covers the wooden spandrels; however, the copper clad wood window sashes were replaced in the early 1980’s with painted metal sashes. The US Custom House interior is a prime example of American Beaux Arts planning, which combined clarity, symmetry and ceremony. Basically laid out like a square with the corridors forming the sides and the rotunda in the middle, the building’s grand staircase from the street leads to the transverse great marble Main Hall on the second floor. This in turn gives access to the elevators, the grand curved staircases at either end of the space, and the office corridors running down the center of the east and west wings which connect to the south wing on the first three floors. On axis in the center, is the pivotal rotunda, the ornate focus of the building, with its exits in the cardinal directions. The interior is divided into public circulation and office spaces. The second floor, is considered the most important, and, therefore, has the highest level of detailing. The main entrance to the US Custom House leads to a grand, two-story-high Main Hall, finished in marbles of a variety of textures and colors, quarried in Switzerland, Italy, Georgia, Maryland, Alaska, and Vermont. At either end of the Main Hall are curved staircases rising through the full seven stories of the building. These two curved staircases are finished with ornate plaster work, decorative bronze railings, and marble treads and risers. The two public staircases in the east and west wings at the south end of the building are more utilitarian in nature as is befitting their hierarchical location in the building. These staircases have marble treads and landings and cast iron stair rails. The staircase at the south entrance to the rotunda has been closed off to accommodate loading docks added in the early 1980’s. Two new fire escape staircases have been added at the north ends of the east and west wings. The public corridors and staircase lobbies include clerestory windows above the doors and are finished with marble, terrazzo and decorative plaster. The primary public spaces include the Rotunda, Collector’s Suite, Cashier’s Office and Naval officer’s rooms which are located at the North end of the building on the second and third floors. The chief feature of the second floor is, however, the Rotunda, which is oval in shape and is one hundred and thirty-five feet long, eighty-five feet wide, and forty-eight feet high. The ceiling of the rotunda is a dome. It is one of the tile-and-plaster, vaulted masterpieces of the Spanish engineer Guastovino. It weighs one hundred and forty tons and contains no steel. In the center of the dome is an oval ceiling sash surround by painted murals with a skylight above. The Collector’s Reception Room is one of the most splendid spaces in New York City, paneled from floor to ceiling in oak with a richly worked ceiling. The room was intended to be used by the Secretary of State of the United States on the occasion of ceremonial visits to New York, but it has rarely been called upon to serve this purpose. The private offices of the Collector and the Naval officer are less ornate but include decorative plaster work and oak paneling. The general offices are fairly similar in nature. Most of the original oak wood doors remain, many of which have a bronze ventilation grille in the lower door panel. Much of the original plaster and ceiling cornices remain, however they have been severely damaged due to the installation of heating and sprinkler pipework. The wood windows have been replaced with metal throughout the building. Footnote: Much of the information for the executive summary was obtained from the Historic Structures Report, Prepared by M. Breuer Assoc. & J.S. Polshek and Partners in 1982.
Contributing Member – Wall Street Historic District (02/20/07 – #07000063)
“Located in the heart of the earliest Colonial settlement at the tip of the island of Manhattan, and facing the settlement’s first parade ground and public park, now Bowling Green, Cass Gilbert’s 1907 United States Custom House is bounded by Bowling Green on the north, State Street on the west, Bridge Street on the south, and Whitehall Street on the east. Its latitude is 40 Degrees 47’10”; longitude 73 degrees 57’19”. It can also be described in terms of its official tax map status as Manhattan block 12, lot 1.” (1)
One of the outstanding examples of the Beaux Arts style, the New York Custom House is one of Cass Gilbert’s finest buildings. Rich in detail and ornament both inside and out, the imposing structure is further enhanced by four great seated figures of the Continents by the important late 19th to early 20th century sculptor, Daniel Chester French.
The Custom House is built at the lowest point of land in Manhattan, facing Bowling Green and on what was once the shore of the Battery. Although the Custom House is only seven stories high,it encloses a volume of space said to be fully a quarter of that of the Empire State building.
In the late nineteenth century, Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) was one of the army of gifted young men working in the offices of McKim, Mead & White, then the leading architectural firm in the country. After ten years in Minnesota where he designed the State Capitol building in St. Paul, Gilbert returned to New York to make his reputation designing the Woolworth Building (1913) in addition to the U.S. Custom House.
The site of Gilbert’s Custom House embraces the site of a much earlier Custom House. In the 1780’s the City of New York, assuming that it would become the capital of the new Nation, undertook to erect at Bowling Green a so-called “Government House,” which would serve as the official residence of the President.
Philadelphia became the capital in 1787 and the New York building became the governor’s residence. By 1799 it was converted into the U.S. Custom House. Destroyed by fire 15 years later, the Custom House function was moved to Federal Hall and later still to 55 Wall Street.
In 1892, the U.S. Treasury sponsored an architectural competition for the design of a new Custom House, one that in size and richness would be emblematic of the greatness of New York in particular and of the United States in general. The United States was on its way to becoming one of the leading commercial nations of the world, and a portion of the wealth that streamed into the Custom House deserved to be spent upon a conspicuous celebration of that fact.
Twenty prominent architects were invited to take part in the competition, which was won by one of the least prominent members of the group, the still comparatively youthful Cass Gilbert (he was in his middle thirties), who was at that time, working in the comparative obscurity of St. Paul. Gilbert envisioned his building as a triumphal monument to trade and to the seas that bring trade to the U.S. shores. In a gesture of courtesy to Bowling Green and Broadway, the building was designed to turn its back upon the harbor, but its symbolic ornament is irrepressibly marine: shells, snails, dolphins, and other sea creatures and sea symbols embellish the walls.
As for trade, on the capital of each of the forty-four columns that encircle the building is carved a head of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce; masks of different races decorate the keystones over the windows and a head of Columbus stares out from above the cavernous main entrance.
On the broad stone sill of the sixth-story cornice stand twelve immense figures in limestone, representing twelve of the most successful commercial nations and city-states in history: Greece, Rome, Phoenicia, Genoa, Venice, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, England, and France. (During the First World War, anti-German feeling caused the figure representing that country to be pruned of any telltale Teutonic symbols; the figure was then proclaimed to represent Belgium, Germany’s first victim in the war.) The central cartouche at the top of the facade is the shield of the United States, supported by two winged figures; one of them holds a sheathed sword, symbolizing a great nation at peace, and the other holds a bundle of reeds, symbolizing the strength of perfect union.
The four enormous white limestone sculptures that rest on pedestals emerging from the ground-floor level of the building are the work of Daniel Chester French, best known for his even more enormous statue of Lincoln, in the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C. The sculptures, known collectively as “The Continents,” represent Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa, and they have been described as ‘unquestionably the finest examples of Beaux Arts sculpture produced by an American artist.’ French worked in close collaboration with Gilbert. They chose to see Asia as a figure backed by crouching masses of oppressed peoples; North American as a figure holding aloft the torch of progress; Europe as a figure resting one arm upon an open volume of laws, standing for accomplishment; and Africa as a robust, naked figure slumbering between a lion and a sphinx. All four figures are female and all are seated.
Interior significant architectural features include: The Tiffany built oak screen in the Collector’s Reception Room. The Reginald Marsh murals in the rotunda. The Guastavino tile dome construction over the rotunda and the Elmer Garnsey murrals in the Entrance Lobby and Collector’s Suite.
“Cass Gilbert stated that the ideal for a public building like the Custom House was that it serve as an inspiration toward patriotism and good citizenship. It should encourage just pride in the state, and (be) an education to oncoming generations to see these things, imponderable elements of life and character, set before the people for their enjoyment and betterment. The education value alone is worth to the state far more than it cost–it supplements the education furnished by the public school for the university (and) is a symbol of the civilization, culture, and ideals of our country.”(2)
The building was vacated in August 1973 when Customs moved to 6 World Trade Center and remained vacant from 1973 through the 1980s.
In 1979, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission gave city landmark status to the exterior and public interior spaces. In recognition of Alexander Hamilton’s many accomplishments and contributions to this country as the first Secretary of the Treasury, Congress passed legislation in October 1990 to redesignate the U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green as the Alexander Hamilton United States Custom House.
A four phase, $60 million Rehabilitation took place between 1981-1993. Windows, which were originally wood clad in copper, were replaced with aluminum windows.
In addition to upgrading all building systems, the roof was repaired, windows replaced, and exterior masonry repointed. Public corridors were restored and public restrooms constructed.
The fine and decorative art restoration included Marsh’s Rotunda murals, Garnsey’s Great Hall murals, and decorative surfaces in the Collector’s Suite. All exterior sculpture was conserved.
Interior space was prepared for tenant occupancy, including offices and courtrooms, judge’s chambers and ancillary spaces for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In addition, a 350-seat auditorium and suite of conference rooms were constructed in the basement.
In 1987, while work in other areas of the building continued, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court was ensconced in its newly renovated space on the fifth and sixth floor.
In 1994, after the completion of the project, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, George Gustav Heye Center moved into the first and second floor spaces. Alterations for Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian completed in the early 1990s included the installation of a water vapor barrier and sheetrock at museum, ducts cut and capped, and chillers installed at roof.
Since then other federal agencies have also established offices in the building and, in 2003, U.S. Customs and Border Protection returned to its roots and re-established a lower Manhattan office in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House.
After the 1990s Rehabilitation, projects have included the restoration of skylights at the roof in the early 2000s; Diker Pavilion at the first floor was constructed and the skylights were covered and repaired in 2006; a replacement facade lighting program was installed in 2007; and a chiller was installed at the roof in 2009. Currently (2009) the ducts at the 3rd through 7th floors are being restored and repairs are being made to the slate roof tiles.
(1). Historic Structure Report, 1982 by Marcel Breuer Associates, James Stewart Polshek and Partners, and Goldman-Sokolow-Copeland.
(2). National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.
|Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, New York, NY Improvement|
|1905||1909||Original Construction||Cass Gilbert|
|1910||General Pneumatic tube system installation cont.|
|1929||New grilles and gates|
|1930||Painting of plaster surfaces|
|1932||New drainage system|
|1933||Copper apron on dome|
|1934||Exterior sidewalk betterments accomplished|
|1935||New space assignment|
|1937||New elevator doors and panels|
|1941||Revolving doors is installed on Bowling Green ent.|
|1977||Sprinklers for rotunda area|
|1977||Fire alarm system|
|1977||New plumbing system|
|1979||Wood floor restoration|
|1980||Replace corridor floors|
|1980||Restore exterior statuary|
|1980||Upgrade toilet facilities|
|1980||Facilities for handicapped|
|1980||Horizontal & vertical fire & smoke isolation|
|1980||Phase 1 replace heating|
|1980||Resurface dome over rotunda area|
|1980||New plumbing system|
|1980||Replace electric service|
|1980||Restore wood block flooring|
|1980||Restore decorative painting|
|1980||Refinish exterior doors|
|1980||A-C 181, 770 SF|
|1980||Pointing and waterproofing|
|1980||Restore bronze hardware|
|1980||Refurbish of art work|
|1980||Install new roof|
|1990||Restoration of art|
|1990||Courtroom and chambers|
Last Reviewed: 2019-02-28