Owen B. Pickett U.S. Custom House, Norfolk, VA

Exterior: Owen B. Pickett U.S. Custom House, Norfolk, Virginia

Building History

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.

Located near the waterfront in downtown Norfolk, the Owen B. Pickett U.S. Custom House is a testimony to the importance of commerce and trade in the city. The activities of the Norfolk Customs Service, one of the inaugural Customs offices in the nation, were initially located in various rented quarters until an official U.S. Custom House was completed in 1819.

As early as 1850 plans were developed to replace the first U.S. Custom House with a larger building that could also be used to accommodate the main U.S. Post Office. The history of Norfolk's present U.S. Custom House began when the U.S. Congress authorized funds for the construction of the building in 1850. A prominent site in downtown Norfolk at Main and Granby Streets was purchased in 1852 for $13,500. Supervising Architect of the Treasury Ammi Burnham Young (1798-1874) produced a design based on precepts of classical Roman architecture. Historians of the period anticipated that when completed, the U.S. Custom House "was to be one of the most imposing and showy buildings in the city." Construction began in 1853 with John H. Sale serving as construction superintendent for the U.S. Treasury Department. The Post Office moved into its new quarters in 1857, though the building was only partially finished. The cost of the building upon completion in 1858 was reported to have reached $204,000, almost twice the original estimate.

With the exception of a brief period of Confederate occupation (April 1861 to May 1862), this building has housed the U.S. Customs Service for over 135 years. The impressive Roman Temple form and the continued presence of the Customs Service in this building are constant reminders of the city's long and vital history in the pursuit of world trade.

In 1970 the U.S. Custom House in Norfolk was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


The Owen B. Pickett U.S. Custom House is one of the last examples of a federal building using the Roman temple form. Monumental in scale, the rectangular block stands three stories in height. It is constructed of granite from Blue Hill, Maine, rusticated at the ground floor with smooth ashlar on the upper two floors.

The primary facade of the building displays the high-style characteristics of Roman architecture with sweeping steps leading to the pedimented portico. The two-story portico, capped by an enclosed pediment with modillions, is composed of six full-height, fluted granite columns, each capped by cast-iron capitals designed in the Corinthian order. Centered under the projecting portico is a pair of entrance doors flanked by elongated windows embellished with granite surrounds. Single-leaf entry doors at the corners of the ground floor were originally designed as separate male and female entrances to the Post Office lobby. Window openings, placed between the strong vertical forms of the Corinthian pilasters, pierce the symmetrically fenestrated side elevations of the building. The openings are embellished with molded granite surrounds, pedimented lintels, flat arches, and bracketed sills. The building is richly adorned by a classically inspired cast-iron entablature with frieze, modillions, and molded cornice.

Cast-iron columns, girders, and beams form the interior structural system of the U.S. Custom House. Brick arches support the spaces between the girders. Square columns are integrated with wood stud partitions and finished with plaster. Cast-iron-detailed capitals are ornamented with a simplified leaf motif derived from the Corinthian order modified to incorporate the Virginia tobacco leaf as a prominent feature. A ten-foot-wide corridor with original ceramic tile flooring begins at the main entrance and runs the entire length of the building, terminating at the main stair at the south end. The cast-iron circular stair with ornamental open risers has a wrought-iron balustrade and mahogany handrail.

On October 22, 1858, The Southern Argus reported that the nearly completed U.S. Custom House was designed with "large, airy [rooms], admirably planned and furnished with a view to good taste and convenience; indeed the arrangements are all in accordance with a superior plan, and the workmanship is faithfully executed." Offices flank the main corridors of both the first and second floors. Original features extant throughout the Custom House include marble tile flooring in the corridors, plaster walls, vaulted ceilings, fireplaces, and wood flooring in the offices.

Since the completion of the U.S. Custom House in 1858, various alterations have been made. Between 1901 and 1912, Supervising Architect James Knox Taylor (1857-1929) oversaw alterations including the installation of new double-hung wood sash windows. A single-story addition at the rear of the building, constructed in 1935 under the direction of Supervising Architect James A. Wetmore (1863-1940), continues the original design in style, scale, and finish. The rusticated limestone masonry of the addition continues the coursing and rhythm of the original building, although the interiors are more modest in detailing.

In 1996 a $3,000,000 renovation project was launched. The award-winning project restored a significant Norfolk landmark while providing employees with a modern working environment. The building reopened in 2000 and continues to house the U.S. Customs Service.

Significant Events

1850: The U.S. Congress authorizes funds for the construction of anew U.S. Custom House in Norfolk.

1852: The site is purchased and construction begins under the direction of Supervising Architect Ammi B. Young.

1858: Construction of the U.S. Custom House is completed.

1861-1862: The U.S. Custom House is occupied by the Confederate States of America.

1901-1912: Alterations are made under the direction of James Knox Taylor,Supervising Architect of the Treasury.

1935: An addition to the rear of the building is designed under the administration of Supervising Architect James A. Wetmore.

1970: The U.S. Custom House is listed in National Register of Historic Places.

1996-1999: The building undergoes rehabilitation and restoration.

2001: The building receives a Norfolk Design Award and is renamed in honor of U.S. Representative Owen B. Pickett of Virginia.

Building Facts

Architect: Ammi B. Young, Supervising Architect of the Treasury

Construction Dates: 1852-1858

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 101 East Main Street

Architectural Style: Classical Revival

Primary Materials: Gray granite

Prominent Features: Portico interior columns with tobacco leaf motif capitals

The United States Custom House is a rectangular shaped three-story building based on a modular grid with cast iron columns or pilasters at grid intersections. The primary facade/north elevation is on Main Street at the foot of Granby Street. The south elevation faces Waterside Drive which borders the Elizabeth River. The building is 64'-6" wide at the north and south elevations at 132'-10" in length at the east and west elevations.

Monumental granite stairs lead to the main entrance at the first floor level. At ground level there are two entrances, one at each corner of the north facade. These entrances were designated as male and female access to the Post Office Lobby at this level in 1858. Today, only the entrance at the left, originally designated for male use, is accessible.

Following the tradition of Classical Roman architecture, the main entrance facade is adorned by a triangular shaped pediment, richly adorned with a cast iron cornice above a frieze and architrave resting on fluted granite columns of the Corinthian Order. The columns border a portico with a plaster coffered ceiling. The exterior is entirely of granite, rusticated at the ground floor with a smooth ashlar texture at the upper two floors. Windows and doors, placed between pilasters in a symmetrical rhythm, are embellished by granite surrounds. A single story addition was added to the south elevation at the rear in 1935. This addition continues the original design in style, size, and finish materials.

Cast iron columns, girders and beams form the interior structural system. The spaces between girders and beams are filled with brick arches. Cast iron columns are spaced symmetrically throughout the building. Round columns were free-standing in the original design, while square columns were integrated with wood stud partitions finished with plaster. Cast iron detailed capitals were designed in simplified leaf motifs, derived from Corinthian and Egyptian sources but with the Virginia tobacco leaf as an inspiration. A ten foot wide corridor with 1858 ceramic tile finish flooring begins at the main entrance and travels the entire length of the building terminating at the interior main staircase at the south facade. This staircase is a formal circular staircase constructed of cast iron with ornamental open risers. The railing is wrought iron with mahogany grips. The main corridors are at both the first and second floor levels and are flanked by office space on both sides. Throughout years of renovation projects the original lobby at the ground floor entrance had been partitioned into office space. However, the latest rehabilitation restored the ground floor lobby and most of the original marble tile flooring, marble wainscot at the walls and plaster finished vaulted ceiling remain intact.

Two fireplaces remain in the building. One 1858 era fireplace with wood mantel and surround remains in room 101, the District Director's Officer. This space has been designated for this use since the dedication of the building in 1858. The second fireplace with marble mantel and surround is located in room 213A. This is not the original finish material but these elements have gained historic value in their own right. The plaster finished ceilings and walls are trimmed with plaster crown molding throughout all interior spaces. One 1935 era plaster medallion remains on the ceiling in room 207.

The building is approximately 59 feet high and rests on an entirely paved site. The site was originally landscaped with plantings accented with brick and stone pavings. Today its use is maximized for vehicular parking.

The United States Custom House located on Main Street at the foot of Granby Street in Norfolk, Virginia is a three story building of masonry construction and cast iron frame supported on wood piles driven into the earth. The structure serves as tenancy to the U.S. Customs Department.

The building was designed by Ammi B. Young in 1852 who was Supervising Architect for the U.S. Treasury Department at that time. Customhouse construction began in 1853 and was finally completed in 1858 with the exception of some minor site work which was finished the following year.

According to the Historic Structure Report (March 16, 1989) prepared by Sidhu Associates of Timonium, Maryland, the "United States Customhouse in Norfolk, Virginia is a significant building, not only to Norfolk, but to the nation". Despite over a century of changes to both the interior and exterior elements of this structure, the Customhouse firmly communicates is original form and intended civic role. It was built to serve as the "United States Custom House, and remains today the United States Customhouse".

The building's design was inspired by the Roman Classic Revival Style. The Main Street facade displays the full characteristics of a Roman temple with its broad, granite steps, leading up to a portico that is embellished with six tall, fluted, granite columns, each capped by cast iron capitals designed in the Corinthian order. It reflects an architectural style and fashion that was even then beginning to fade from popularity. It may well be the last "Roman Temple" built in this country prior to the Chicago World Fair of 1893 which renewed interest in the Classical style of architecture. The Custom House reminds the citizens of Norfolk, a rapidly changing city, of its long and vital history in the pursuit of world trade.

Except for a brief period during the Civil War when the Custom House saw occupation by the Confederate States of America (April 1861 to May 1862), this building has housed the Customs Service for some one hundred and thirty years; and, this tenant's records are testimony to the history of commerce and trade at Norfolk, Virginia.

The United States Customhouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 17, 1970.

Description Architect
1852 1858 Original Construction Ammi B. Young
1901 Replace Windows on Second Floor
1902 Install radiators, ren. grd floor toilet, electric
1912 Electrical Wiring Upgraded, added attic stairs
1916 Courtroom added(2nd fl), skylight added, relocate
1922 Toilet added(2nd fl & grd fl), Roof repair
1933 PO relocated into grd. fl. removed grd. fl toilet
1935 One Story addition built on south side
1947 Minor partition alterations
1949 Elevator added
1956 Interior Plaster work exterior stonework repointed
1956 Electrical Wiring upgraded
1961 Front stairs repointed spiral stair added to e.twr
1980 Ground floor toilets renovated
1988 Exterior stonework cleaned
1990 Dual Fuel oil/gas boiler installed, asbestos remov
1999 2001 Exterior and interior rehabilitation, including system upgrades
1999 2001 Restrooms and elevator upgraded for ADA compliance
1999 2001 Ground floor lobby and second floor corridor restored
1999 2001 Woodwork, plaster details and painted finishes restored
1999 2001 Roof, flashing and drainage of main structure restored
Last Reviewed: 2019-02-21