Federal Building and U.S. Custom House, Denver, CO
The Federal Building and U.S. Custom House is part of a complex of four federal buildings located in close proximity to each other in downtown Denver: The Byron G. Rogers Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, the Byron White U.S. Courthouse, and the Alfred A. Arraj U.S. Courthouse.
The federal government acquired the site, which was previously home to the East Denver High School, in three parcels between 1928 and 1930 for just under $300,000. The building replaced Denver's overcrowded 1892 custom house, located at another location in the city.
Designs for the original portion of the building, completed in 1931, came from the Office of the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury, which at that time was led by James A. Wetmore. Both this building and the nearby Byron White U.S. Courthouse are clad in the same Colorado Yule marble used in the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. Indiana limestone was originally planned for cladding the building, and would have been less expensive. However, members of Congress from Colorado success-fully argued for use of local materials. The building was completed in May 1931 at a total cost of $1,260,000.
A 1937 addition nearly doubled the size of the building. Denver architects Temple H. Buell and G. Meredith Musick designed the addition. The cladding material was once again controversial. In this case, Colorado Yule marble was substituted for Georgia marble after local officials successfully argued that the materials of the original building and addition should match, and that the revenue from the marble purchase should benefit Colorado.
Though it housed various federal agencies, the building's primary occupant was the U.S. Customs Service. Its revenues averaged $500,000 per year, and eventually climbed to $1,400,000 in 1957. In need of more space, the Customs Service moved to the former Stapleton Airport in 1957. The major building tenant is now the bankruptcy court. The building has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.
During the 1960s and 1970s, protesters often used the U.S. Courthouse plaza across the street. In 1975, a bomb exploded in a first floor men's room of the building, but there was no significant structural damage. A group calling themselves the Continental Revolutionary Army took credit for the bombing.
The five-story Federal Building and U.S. Custom House is a skillfully executed example of Second Renaissance Revival architecture. The arched first floor window and door openings, detailed cornices, emphasis on the horizontal elements, and stately overall appearance of the building are all characteristic of this architectural style. It has a steel frame on poured concrete footings and a flat composite roof. The base is clad in granite, as are the stairs leading to the entry doors. The remainder of the Nineteenth, Stout, and California street elevations of the building are clad in smooth-rubbed, coarse cut Colorado Yule marble with terra-cotta ornamentation. The fifth floor, which is recessed eight feet, is clad in brick, as are the courtyard-facing elevations of the building.
Marble quoins (cornerstones) highlight the transition from marble to brick facade. Terracotta is used for a belt course above the first floor, cornices, and spandrels between the windows of the second and third, and third and fourth stories. Decorative terracotta swags are located above the ornamental grillwork that flanks the main entry door. The symmetrical plan is E-shaped with a semi-enclosed courtyard at the north end. The windows are spaced evenly and are designed to create a balanced overall look for the building. The tops of the first floor windows and the main entry doorway are arched. Spandrels that separate the second, third, and fourth story windows feature eagles and shields, emphasizing the federal use of the building. The primary entrance is on Nineteenth Street at the midpoint of the south elevation, and a penthouse is located above this central point that rises twenty feet above the parapet coping (decorative capping at the top of the wall).
The centered main entry is the focal point of the exterior. In 1972, the original bronze entry doors were removed and replaced with aluminum doors. A terracotta eagle tops a semicircular fanlight above the doorway. Tuscan columns flanking the entrance support an entablature inscribed with the name of the building and capped by a decorative cartouche.
In the lobby, polished Colorado Yule marble surrounds the doors leading from the vestibule and clads the lower portion of the walls on either side of those doors. It also surrounds the elevators and extends for several feet on either side of the elevators, covering the lower portion of the walls. Only one of the light fixtures, which have oval etched-glass domes suspended within brass frameworks and hanging from the ceiling via brass chains, is original; the others were replicated. The bronze and leaded glass doors between the vestibule and the lobby were recently restored. Glass panes allow light to flood the lobby and the bronze surrounds and details reinforce the stately appearance of the building. There are staircases with marble treads at each end of the corridors leading off of the lobby. The layout of each floor of the building is identical, with offices lining each corridor. The wainscoting and baseboards are all marble, as are the bathroom partitions in the 1931 portion of the building.
The 1937 addition resulted in extensions to each side of the building that nearly doubled the area and made the central courtyard less visible from the street. Additional penthouses were added at the California and Stout Street ends of the building to house the upper portions of the elevator shafts. The corridors and lobby areas are largely intact, though the offices were modified.
1931: Original building constructed
1937: Construction of addition
1975: Bomb explodes on first floor
1979: Building listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Location: 721 Nineteenth Street
Architects: James A. Wetmore; Temple H. Buell with G. Meredith Musick
Construction Dates: 1930-1931; 1937
Architectural Style: Second Renaissance Revival
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Primary Materials: Granite, marble, and brick
Prominent Features: Classical marble and terracotta facade; Bronze-framed double entry doors; Marble wainscoting, oak doors and trim
The Federal Building and U.S. Custom House in Denver is a symmetrical U-shaped building which is semi- enclosed at the east end to form a courtyard for deliveries and parking. The building is six stories in height, including the basement. The primary facade/entrance, the west elevation, is on 19th Street and is 228 feet in length. The south elevation on California Street and the north elevation on Stout Street are both 310 feet in length. The fifth story is recessed eight feet from the street exterior perimeter and has 3 36' x 17'-4" penthouses. One is centered on the front wing and one at the back of each of the two side wings.
The building rises from a granite block base on concrete spread footings to a height of 76 feet. The first four floors are of smooth rubbed, course cut Colorado Yule Marble while the fifth floor, penthouse and courtyard facades are tan colored brick laid in the English bond style. The main entablature and other banding courses and exterior decorative features are fabricated of terra cotta and include cornices, banding, panels and decorative reliefs, with color added in the spandrels between the second, third, and fourth story window openings and in the soffit. Various metals are used throughout the building. The main entry doors and frames are bronze, as is the arched grillework above. The original bronze entry doors and bronze surrounds are still in use, though the doors have been refurbished. The handrails on the main steps in the lobby are polished brass while all the side entrances have wrought iron balustrades. Wrought iron also occurs in the bracketed lamps and fanlight grillework at the side entrances and the grillework at the windows flanking the main entry.
Window fenestration is composed of rectangular 4 over 4 double-sashed wood windows at the basement, semicircular arched, 14 over 8 double-sashed wood windows on the first floor and 3 sash steel casement windows with a fixed center panel on the second, third and fourth stories aligned with the windows below. The fifth story windows are single pane double sashed wood windows. Some of the basement windows have been replaced but the rest of the windows are original. Some sashes have been replaced on the second, third and fourth floor windows.
Following traditional Italian Renaissance Revival principles, the building is axial and symmetrical. The main entrance is centered on the 19th Street facade, and is the midpoint of the major north-south axis. At this midpoint is the main lobby which contains the main elevators, stairs and public restrooms. At either end of this axis are symmetrical stair towers. Minor east-west axes are found at either end of the major axis and form the U-shape of the building. The upper floors are identical to the first floor, with a U-shaped corridor and offices flanking it on either side. Other than the main entrance and elevator lobbies, no monumental interior public spaces were incorporated into the design of the original building. Colorado Yule Marble is found on the interior of the building through the use of wainscoting, floor borders and baseboards. Marble is also used on all stair treads in the four main stair towers and as toilet partitions and wainscoting in the bathrooms of the 1931 section of the building. The bathrooms in the 1937 addition have white opaque glass tile wainscoting and toilet partitions instead of marble.
Original materials in the corridors and lobbies are still intact. There is extensive use of oak on both the doors and trim, which was stained a unique green/brown finish. The original rose brass hardware also exists in many instances. The original quarry tile floor exists in most areas in the corridors and lobbies; however, the original cobalt blue finish has completely worn off, leaving a mottled bluegrey and terra cotta colored floor.
Beyond the corridors, in the office areas, very little original material exists except for exterior windows and some wood baseboards, most of which have been painted throughout the building.
Through the years, very few major design modifications have occurred. The largest modification was in 1967 when air conditioning was installed in the building, consequently lowering the ceilings to approximately 8'-0" in most areas. Two large brick intake stacks were also added to the courtyard facades of the side wings. Then in 1972, the original bronze entry doors were removed and replaced with aluminum doors. The wood side entrance doors were also replaced with metal clad doors. The original bronze entry doors have now been refurbished and reinstalled.
In 1988, the fifth floor was completely remodeled – six courtrooms were constructed with adjacent judges’ chambers, the roof was raised to accommodate higher ceilings and two of the corridors were relocated to an exterior wall. All three penthouses were added onto in order to accommodate the air conditioning requirements of the courtrooms. The penthouses were nearly doubled in size to house these new units and the addition is sympathetic to the original style, rhythm, and material.
In 1992, the basement was remodeled and a section of it was converted to a daycare center.
In 2004, the public entry and lobby were redesigned as part of the First Impressions project that created a more efficient, less intrusive security space. The project converted a mechanical space and vault to a space that contains the necessary security equipment. The floor structure was lowered, so the security space is at the same level as the main public lobby. Prior to this project, all of the security equipment was located in the lobby. The project also included restoration of all the finishes in the elevator lobby and the construction of a new security desk. The security station was designed to be compatible with the historic character of the lobby, while at the same time appearing modern so it is clearly not historic. The floor was retiled using marble floor tiles.
The Federal Building and U.S. Custom House is located on the original site of East Denver High School, which the federal government purchased from the City and Country of Denver School District #1 for a total of $296,500. It was constructed to replace the original Custom House, built in 1892, which was no longer large enough to hold the 27 federal departments and 700 employees working in Denver in 1930. The building was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by the Office of the Supervising Architect, with James A. Wetmore acting as the Supervisory Architect of the United States Treasury. Characteristics of the Italian Renaissance style include arched window and door openings, typically on the first floor, detailed cornices, emphasis on horizontal elements, and symmetry. A controversy ensued during design and construction concerning the material to be used on the facades of the building. Indiana limestone was specified, but local and state officials, including U.S. Senator Lawrence C. Phipps, Representative W.R. Eaton and the Denver chamber of Commerce, pressured the Treasury Department to use local materials. The resulting material was Colorado Yule Marble, which was used on the Lincoln Memorial and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The quarry, the largest known deposit of clear white marble in the world, was closed during World War II but reopened for operation in the 1990s. The N.P. Severin Company of Chicago oversaw the construction of the building which was completed in May 1931.
The building was almost immediately outgrown, so in 1937 an addition was constructed that added 156’ to the ends of the U-shaped building and nearly doubled the size of the building. The addition was a Public Works Administration project designed by two Denver architects, Temple H. Buell and G. Meredith Musick. Buell was an architect and prominent real estate developer and Musick was an architect who designed a number of important buildings in Denver including the Republic Building and the Shirley-Savoy Hotel/Lincoln Building. Controversy over the material to use on the facades occurred again, over the planned use of Georgia Marble which was cheaper than Colorado Yule Marble. This choice was protested by many prominent figures, including Governor Ed Johnson and Denver Mayor B.F. Stapleton, who argued that the Georgia Marble would not match the Colorado Yule Marble on the original building and its use would put many Coloradans out of work. As a result, the U.S. Treasury decided to use Colorado Yule Marble for the addition facades.
Though other government agencies also had office space within the building, the original primary use of the building was by the U.S. Customs Service. The duties collected averaged $500,000 per year to a high of $1,400,000 in 1957. Due to the increase in business in the 1950s, the U.S. Customs Service needed more space, so in 1957 it moved to Stapleton Airport. In the 1950s the building was the nation’s second most important civilian teletype center with all messages directed west of Denver transmitted from the fifth story. Output often reached 100,000 words per day.
In 1965, air conditioning was added to the building which caused significant interior remodeling. The ceilings in all the lobbies and corridors were lowered to accommodate the necessary ductwork. Two air-intake stacks were added onto the courtyard side of the wings and run from ground level to above the roof line. In 1972, the original bronze and leaded glass main entrance doors were replaced with solid glass doors, though the bronze surround remained. The original doors have since been refurbished and reinstalled.
In the 1960s and 1970s protests were often held across Stout Street in the U.S. Courthouse plaza. On December 23, 1975, a bomb exploded in the first floor men’s restroom causing severe damage to the interior, but no significant structural damage. A group calling themselves the Continental Revolutionary Army took credit for the bombing which cost $30,000 to repair.
The building with its monumental appearance, contributes to the urban character of downtown Denver. With its symmetry, formal style, and quality of strength it is an excellent example of federal architecture and has given the Central Business District a sense of permanence. The Federal Building and U.S. Custom House is an important part of Denver’s Federal District which is composed of four federal buildings in close proximity to each other. The other three buildings in the district are the Byron G. Rogers Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, the Byron White U.S. Courthouse and the Alfred A. Arraj U.S. Courthouse. Many Denver residents are familiar with the building because it serves as the U.S. Armed Forces induction station.