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.