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200-Year-Old Building Continues to Serve Government Needs

Having recently celebrated its bicentennial year, the Robert C. McEwen U.S. Custom House in Ogdensburg, N.Y., is recognized as the oldest operating federal office building in the nation. But the building actually started out as a simple store and warehouse known to the early settlers around Ogdensburg as the Parish Store and Wharf.

When it was constructed between 1809 and 1810 by German settler David Parish, the area around Ogdensburg was unsettled and remote, with few roads to transport goods. Like many early communities, local waterways served as avenues of commerce, and the St. Lawrence River was a primary route for goods that were brought up the river and warehoused in Ogdensburg for local distribution.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the oldest federal building in the nation should be home to the oldest federal agency. According to local Ogdensburg tradition, the U.S. Customs Service, founded by the First United States Congress in 1789, occupied space in the McEwen building as early as 1811. The U.S. Customs Service, through the assessment and collection of duties and taxes on imported goods, produced revenue for the fledgling country. The wealth of this nation was built through the many buildings that served as U.S. custom houses.

The Customs Service relocated in 1870 but returned to the Parish Store in 1928, where it remains today as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with expanded duties under the Department of Homeland Security.

The U.S. government purchased the building in 1936, giving it official status as a federal office building. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and in 1982 named in honor of Robert C. McEwen, a former U.S. representative from that area of New York.

The 200-year-old building is undergoing a $4.6 million interior upgrade to help ensure that it continues to meet the needs of today’s federal government operations. This project includes interior space improvements; additional security enhancements; accessibility accommodations for the disabled; and upgrades to the building’s mechanical, lighting, and plumbing systems. In addition, a central air-conditioning system is being installed that will replace the window units. The historic aspects of the structure will be maintained.

Finally, the building’s aluminum roof, installed in 1937 and dyed pale green to give the appearance of the building’s original oxidized copper roof, was replaced in 2008 with a new copper roof. This historically accurate feature ensures that the structure’s exterior appearance today remains much the same as when it was constructed 200 years ago.

Read more about the Robert C. McEwen U.S. Custom House