U.S. Custom House, Portland, OR

Building History

Fueled by Portland's economic development during the late nineteenth century, the U.S. Custom House was constructed to accommodate the city’s burgeoning prosperity and status. In 1875, the U.S. Customs Service first established a presence in Portland, moving into the newly constructed U.S. Post Office, Courthouse, and Custom House building (now known as the Pioneer Courthouse). As the city outgrew the space, a new Federal building was planned to house the Customs Service and additional courtrooms. In 1898, construction began on the present U.S. Custom House, reaching completion in 1901.

The building was designed in the office of James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, and constructed under the supervision of locally noted architect Edgar Lazarus. Lazarus is known for his designs for the Vista House at Crown Point and the Agricultural Palace for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition (no longer extant). Together, Taylor and Lazarus brought the new Custom House to fruition in a style inspired by the English Renaissance architecture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with similarities to the mannered style that characterized London architect James Gibbs's public architecture.

In 1938, the east and west wings gained fourth floors to accommodate additional office space. In 1968, when the U.S. Customs Service moved into the Old Post Office Building at 511 NW Broadway, the North Pacific Division of the U.S. Corps of Engineers occupied the building. They continue as the primary tenant today. The building's scale and distinguished design aesthetically enhances its neighborhood and serves as an anchor on the margin of the North Park Blocks, a row of seven blocks originally intended as open space in the late 1800s. In 1970, upon the recommendation of the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission, the City Council designated the U.S. Custom House as a Historic Landmark. In 1973, the U.S. Custom House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


Portland’s U.S. Custom House is a large edifice, encompassing a full block bounded by NW Broadway, Everett and Davis Streets, and Eighth Avenue, near the downtown. The four-story building is symmetrical, H-shaped in plan, featuring pavilions extending to the north and south from the central mass. An elegant one-story granite loggia of five tall, arched openings with rusticated walls and a scrolled parapet encloses the entry courtyard and opens onto Eighth Avenue and the North Park Blocks beyond.

The U.S. Custom House is an exemplary display of the Italian Renaissance Revival style of architecture, exhibiting Baroque and Mannerist features. The building's first-story walls are brick masonry sheathed in light-gray granite, with rusticated joints and quoins at the corners, and are pierced by window and door openings headed with articulated semicircular arches. A continuous granite stringcourse carved with Vitruvian scrolls and a balustrade above divide the first and second floors. The upper stories are composed of Roman brick with terra-cotta detailing and crowned with a dentil cornice molding supported by scrolled consoles. The flanking pavilions are capped with slate-covered pyramidal roofs, prominently featuring two ornamental vent stacks clad in terra-cotta atop a rusticated stone base.

A distinctive feature that evokes the interpretative style of the mid-sixteenth-century Italian Mannerist architecture is the ornamentation of the fenestration. This is most prominent with the second- and third-story windows’ display of the "Gibbs Surround," which is characterized by keystones and spaced blocks surrounding large windows. Here, this motif is composed of terra-cotta displaying bead and reel decoration, elaborately carved quoins, keystones, and Doric moldings. Framing the second- and third-story bays of the north and south pavilions are two-story engaged Corinthian columns, supporting a continuous architrave, which is capped with a dentiled cornice and a parapet of alternating brick panels and open balusters.

Italian Renaissance Revival finishes and details are reflected on the interior spaces of the Custom House. Arched doorways, marble-clad piers, and beams with classical plaster moldings define the three bays of the first-floor entry vestibule, extending into the first- floor lobby where they are articulated with groined vaults and paneled arch soffits. Marble wainscoting continues around the room and extends to the spring line. Each story's lobby is similarly treated, but using ascending classical orders – Doric on the first floor, Ionic on the second, and Corinthian on the third.

A grand cast-iron stairway extends from the center of the first floor to the fourth floor, featuring marble treads, double balusters with spiral and acanthus ornamentation, paneled stringers and soffits, and a molded oak handrail. Originally, windows at the landings opened into a light court, which was covered with solid panels in 1949, leaving the oak framing and trim intact. The existing vestibule and main stair lobbies are well-preserved spaces which remain as the most detailed and significant areas in the building.

Typically, the office spaces include plaster finishes with oak baseboards, chair rails, and picture moldings. Although initial plans in 1897 called for two-story courtrooms in the large spaces at each end of the central wing at the third floor, these were omitted from the design after construction began in 1900. While the courtroom spaces were simplified, their large, central skylights in the paneled ceilings above were retained. The interiors were rehabilitated in 1977, removing obtrusive firewalls that had been installed in the stairwells. In 1992, GSA undertook an extensive exterior preservation project to clean, repair, and restore the historic building to its original condition.

Significant Events

1898-1901: The U.S. Custom House is constructed.

1901: The building is opened.

1937-1939: The north and south pavilions gain a fourth floor.

1968: The U.S. Customs Service moves into the old Post Office Building, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers becomes the primary tenant.

1970: The building is designated as a Portland Historic Landmark.

1973: The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1977: The interiors are rehabilitated.

1992: An extensive GSA exterior preservation project renews masonry work, windows and courtyard entry doors.

Building Facts

Architect: James Knox Taylor and Edgar Lazarus

Construction Dates: 1898-1901; 1937-1939

Landmark Status: Portland Historic Landmark; Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 220 NW Eighth Avenue

Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: Granite, Roman brick, terra-cotta

Prominent Features: Mannerist exterior detailing, featuring "Gibbs Surrounds"; cast-iron staircase

U.S. Custom House, Portland, OR

The United States Custom House occupies a full block site near downtown Portland. Formerly the homestead of Colonel John McCraken, the 200' square block is bound by NW Broadway, Everett and Davis Streets and Eighth Avenue which borders the North Park Blocks. The four story building with full basement, symmetrical on both axes, has a square (181'-0" x 181'-6") H-shaped plan with pavilions extending to the north and south at the cross bar of the "H". The front (west) is on Eighth Avenue and is paved, the other three sides have lawn and plantings. North and south side yards, originally planted in grass, were subsequently paved over for parking. In 1977 the lawn was restored to the north yard. The east setback was paved for delivery vehicles that used the 77' wide loading platform. The main approach extends from the sidewalk along the Park Blocks (west), up a wide granite stairway and through an arched loggia into the large courtyard (77' x 60'). The one story loggia is faced with rusticated granite as are the typical first floor walls between the granite belt courses that define the first and second floor lines. Below the first floor, the granite veneer has flush joints. The granite, "... a light gray biotite granite," came from "Moore's quarry" at Granite Point, Washington, on the Snake River. Centered on the east/west axis at the crossing of the "H" is the central wing and the three arched doorways which are reached by another run of granite stairs. Secondary entries, also in arched granite openings, are located at the center of the north and south wings that flank the courtyard. Beyond the main entry is the one story foyer which leads, through three arched openings, to the central hall and grand stairway. Flanking the central hall through paired fire doors are secondary hallways that serve office areas in the north and south wings. Large rooms (36' x 53') are located at each end of the "H" crossing. These spaces, centered on the north/south axis, project outward from the typical wall plane creating central pavilions at the north and south elevations. In the central hall at the north and south sides of the grand stairway are the public elevators which serve four floors and the basement. Located east of the stairway on the first floor was the "Warehouse" which originally occupied the entire width of the building. The east wall at the "H" crossing had five pairs of paneled oak doors in arched openings that led to the east loading dock. About half of the original "Warehouse" space remains as open office space with the remainder remodeled for enclosed offices. Four pairs of loading dock doors are intact but have been fixed in place with the square panels glazed with clear glass. A freight elevator replaced the south pair of doors in 1950. Except for the one-story foyer area, the basic configuration of the first floor is repeated at the second and third floors. A narrow light court, extending from the second floor to a skylight at the roof, was originally located east of the stairway for the full width of the central hall. In 1949 the skylight was removed and floors were built into the light court space. The center wing extends to a fourth level with a continuation of the main stairway in a smaller, two-run configuration. Floors were extended into the old "courtroom" spaces in 1939. Exterior walls above the second story granite belt course are faced with buff colored roman brick and terra cotta trim in a similar color. At the roof, the north and south pavilions of the central wing are emphasized with slate covered pyramidal roof forms. Other roofs are generally flat. Foundations at both the perimeter walls and the interior consist of spread footings of concrete, two feet thick, set at a cement-gravel level, 17'-23' below grade. Above what are stepped tiers of granite which form the column bases. Typical columns are cast-iron, 16" in diameter with two inch thick walls which are filled and encased with concrete. At the basement floor line, perimeter columns support continuous three foot deep, laced steel girders which in turn support the upper steel columns and masonry walls. From grade to the second floor belt course, exterior walls are brick with rusticated granite veneer. Perimeter walls are solid masonry except at the two-story engaged columns at the courtyard facade and at the north and south pavilions where steel, laced channel columns are located. Roofs are framed in steel with trusses at the pyramidal elements. The interior structure consists of steel, laced channel columns which support steel girders and steel floor beams which are nominally spaced at five foot centers. Spanning between the lower flange of the floor beams are clay tile arches with tie rods which support concrete floors. Interior, non-bearing walls are hollow clay tile. Classical organization and details prevail on both the exterior and interior design with elements from the Italian Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods. As noted above, the first story is sheathed in a light gray granite with rusticated joints. Primary openings are headed with round arches and articulated with voussoirs. Typical first story windows are divided vertically in into three bays with the center bay twice as wide as the side bays. A horizontal mullion is located at the spring line of the arch. Lower windows are wood, double hung sash, one light over one while the upper three windows are fixed. Most of the first story windows and the small, rectangular basement windows are covered with ornamental, wrought iron security grills. At both ends of the north and south wings, the central arched openings are flanked by small, vertically oriented, rectangular windows. The continuous second floor belt course features a Vitruvian scroll carved in the granite. At the west loggia, above the belt course, is a low granite parapet also decorated with classical motifs. Through the loggia, the one story west wall of the courtyard is finished with a granite balustrade. Classical details continue on the upper stories. Roman brick walls feature brick quoins at all outside corners. At the west wall of the courtyard and at the north and south pavilions, two story, Corinthian, engaged columns in terra cotta frame the bays of the second and third stories. Columns support a continuous architrave. At the three story north and south wings the architrave is capped with a dentiled cornice and a parapet with alternating solid brick panels and panels with open balusters that align with the windows below. Above the architrave at the central wing, plain brick walls and rectangular windows enclose the fourth floor. Topping the brick at the window head line is a terra molding in a leaf and tongue pattern. A richly detailed cornice and balustrade complete the fourth level elevations. The cornice features lower moldings with fluting and egg and dart ornamentation, modillions decorated with acanthus leaves that support a plain corona and cymatium. At the soffits , flanking the modillions are rosettes which have been covered with bird screening. The balustrade has brick piers at the column lines and terra cotta pavilions at the outside corners. Each outer face has a central shield with the letters, "US", interlaced in the design. Smaller versions of these pavilions are located at the third story balustrade on the north and south wings. Between the pyramidal roofs are two, ornamental vent stacks that rise eight feet above the roof peaks. Stacks are clad with terra cotta and have a rusticated base, classical pilasters around the vent openings that support an architrave, cornice and hipped roof. Atop each of the pyramidal roofs is an ornamental copper finial that holds a flagpole. Typical windows at the upper stories are wood, cross windows with fixed one-light sash in the transoms and lower, double-hung, single light sash. Terra cotta window trim displays a variety of Renaissance motifs. Of particular interest is the Gibbs Surround which is used on most second and third story windows except at the north and south window pavilions and at the east wall of the courtyard. At typical second floor windows the inner label molding features leaf and tongue together with bead and reel decoration, a sill panel with rosettes and a marble base. Spaced blocks at the rusticated jambs are paneled with anthemion decoration while each of the five Keystone blocks have a different classical motif. The cornice molding at the head is supported at the sides with scrolled consoles. Third floor windows have similar trim but without the cornice molding at the heads. Second floor windows at the central wing also feature the Gibbs Surround, but here, Keystones project into broken pediments at the heads. Third floor windows are paired with a terra cotta collonette in the Composite Order as the dividing mullion. The surround has an egg and dart molding that passes over the flush Keystones at the head. Original fourth floor windows at the west elevation of the courtyard are the typical cross windows which are framed by the third floor architrave at the sill and by fourth floor cornice molding at the head. Flanking these windows are brick walls with a single, recessed marble panel. Similar windows were installed at the site of the original marble panels on the north and south pavilions in 1938 when the fourth floor was extended. INTERIOR FINISH The classical treatment of finishes and details is continued on the interior. Flooring in the vestibules, stair halls, corridors and a few other rooms is terrazzo with marble borders. Typical walls throughout are unadorned plaster. Baseboards at terrazzo floors are plain marble. Most other baseboards are varnished oak with classical moldings. The three bays at the vestibule are defined by the arched doorways, marble clad piers and plastered beams with classical moldings. A "Directory" and "Bulletin" are located at the north and south end walls, each with a projecting base, pilasters, architrave and an arched panel above, all in marble. A marble wainscot continues around the room and extends to the spring line of the arched openings. The three arched bays continue and are extended into the first floor lobby where they are further articulated with groined vaults and paneled arch soffits. Flanking the central bays on the east wall are the elevator openings, framed with plaster jambs, architraves and arched panels above. The plaster jamb details and more elaborate architraves are continued at the second and third floor openings. Extending to the fourth floor is the central, cast iron stairway that features marble treads, cast iron, double balusters with spiral and acanthus decoration, paneled stringers and soffits and a molded oak handrail. Originally, at the back wall (east) of the stairs, windows opened into a light court. After the court was filled in, the glazing was replaced by solid panels leaving the oak framing and trim intact. The lobby bays continue on the upper floors with classical columns, pilasters, and ceiling coffering. Ornamentation is Ionic at the second floor and Corinthian at the third floor. Typical doors and trim are stained and varnished oak. Doors typically have half lights of ribbed glass and clear glass transoms. Door and window casings are moulded and have plain architraves with classical crown mouldings. SEISMIC - See "note" for element #7000-1B for summary and recommendations. ACCESSIBILITY FOR THE IMPAIRED - See "note" for element #7075-1A for summary and recommendations. FIRE/LIFE SAFETY - See "note" for element #7015-3A for summary and recommendations. ENVIRONMENTAL AND PUBLIC HEALTH - See "note" for element #7086-4A for summary and recommendations. PLUMBING - See "note" for element #6049-4A for summary and recommendations. HVAC - See "note" for element #6142-4A for summary and recommendations. ELECTRICAL - See "note" for element #6106-4A for summary and recommendations.

U.S. Custom House, Portland, OR

The historic United States Custom House, completed in 1901, is significant as an excellent and well preserved exemplar of Second Renaissance Revival architecture. It was designed in the office of James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect, U.S. Treasury Department. Local Supervising Architect was Edgar Lazarus of Portland who performed construction supervision and related services. All design and construction drawings were prepared in the office of James Knox Taylor. The four story, full block structure is a unique Oregon example of a Revival Era interpretation of the English Renaissance, particularly the 18th century work of prominent London architect James Gibbs. While studying in Rome, Gibbs became enamored with the Mannerist and Early Baroque designs of mid-16th century Italian architects. Upon his return to England, Gibbs introduced many of these Mannerist elements into his buildings. He borrowed heavily from architects such as Vignola and Palladio and was particularly fond of a window frame treatment seen in the palazzos of both Italian designers. This frame detail came to be known in Britain, and later America, as the "Gibbs Surround" which is characterized by keystones and spaced blocks at the jambs that intersect the underlying casing. Prominent in the exterior design of the Custom House is the use of the Gibbs Surround in a variety of modes. In addition, the Custom House displays a rich blend of Mannerist and Baroque features, symmetrical organization; a first story of granite with round arch openings; upper stories of beige roman brick and terra cotta detail including a pair of ornate chimneys; balustrades; bracketed cornices; two-story engaged Corinthian columns; and several window designs featuring the Gibbs Surround, broken pediments and classical cornice moldings supported by scroll consoles.

The Renaissance palazzo theme is also continued on the interior where each lobby in the three main stories is treated in ascending classical order: Doric at the first floor, Ionic at the second, and Corinthian on the third floor.

The U.S. Custom House also achieves significance as the symbol of the U.S. Customs Service and the important role played by the Service in the economic development of the region. The first U.S. Custom House in the Oregon territory was established in Astoria in 1849 a year after the area had become a part of the United States. A year later the Custom Service came to Portland. Harvey W. Scott, editor of the Oregonian, was appointed Portland's first collector of Customs in 1870 with offices in the Flanders Building on Front Avenue. In 1875 the Customs Service moved into the new "U.S. Post Office, Court House and Custom House," Portland's first permanent Federal Building, now known as the Pioneer Courthouse. As the city grew the Customs Service needed more space, and in 1891 the present site was acquired for a new Custom House. At that time, the site would have been three blocks south of the proposed railroad terminal. However, for a variety of reasons, Union Station was relocated farther east but still close to the new Custom House site. In 1901, the Customs Service began operations in its new building where it continued until 1968 when it moved to the old Post Office Building (currently the 511 Federal Building). Since 1968 the North Pacific Division, U.S. Corps of Engineers has occupied nearly all of the space in the building.

The original 1897 plans called for two-story high courtrooms in the large spaces at each end of the central wing at the third floor. After construction had begun but prior to the summer of 1900 it was decided to delete the courtrooms and use the spaces for other purposes. (Interior Finish Drawing No.134, date 7/12/1900 clearly indicates that these spaces would not be used as courtrooms.) According to the contemporary accounts, Federal District Court Judge Charles B. Bellinger, was not pleased with the Custom House location in the "seamy part of town" and he persuaded the government to consider adding courtrooms to the Pioneer Courthouse. Detailing of the two rooms in the 1900 plans was greatly simplified from the designs seen in the 1897 drawings, but some of the earlier elements remain, including the large central skylights in the paneled ceilings.

Description Architect
1897 1901 Original Construction James Knox Taylor, Supervising Arch
1897 1901 Original construction; foundation, superstructure Bentley Construction, Milwaukie,Wis
1904 Boilers changed from coal to oil firing
1925 Time Ball Signal Device dismantled
1934 Tile roof @ Wings covered with composition roofing U.S. Treasury Dept.
1935 New parking on Everett St; Ext cleaning/sandblast U.S. Treasury Dept
1937 1939 4th Fl offices added; Rev north elev.,lights,plmbg Simon/Melick; U.S. Treasury Dept
1949 Lightwell infill 2nd, 3rd Fl; Fluorescent lighting
1950 Rev south and new freight elevators GSA
1956 South facing window sills replaced with concrete
1960 Parking on South;Add'l Basemt Toilets;Roof Flashng GSA
1964 Basement Computer Room GSA
1968 Life safety; alarms, fire doors, lobby enclosures GSA
1976 Interior, Exterior Rehab; life safey improvements Allen McMath Hawkins/ SOM Architect
1989 1990 New Flat Roofing, Flashings, Repairs, Air Handlers GSA, Design and Construction
1989 1990 New Flat Roofing,Flashings,Repairs;Air Handlers D M Thompson, Inc; West Linn, OR
1991 Fire Protection Sprinklers; 1st Floor Bill Bowers Construction
1991 Fire Protection Sprinklers; 1st Floor GSA, Design and Construction
1992 Masonry cleaning/rehab;Window/Door repair;Painting St. Thomas
1992 Masonry cleaning/rehab;Window/Door repair;painting GSA, Design & Construction