The Robert C. McEwen U.S. Custom House is the oldest building in Ogdensburg, New York, and the oldest within the General Services Administration's building inventory. Constructed 1809-1810, the building is closely linked to the development of Ogdensburg and shipping along the St. Lawrence River.
Ogdensburg served as a regional distribution center during the early nineteenth century. Goods were brought to upper New York State via the St. Lawrence and warehoused here, making the town a trade hub. The U.S. Custom House building originally served as a store and warehouse. It was known as the Parish Store and Wharf in reference to its first owner, David Parish. Parish, a German financier who immigrated to the United States in 1808, engaged master carpenter Daniel W. Church to oversee construction of the building.
In 1811, Congress established the U.S. Customs District of Oswegatchie (an Iroquois word meaning "at the very outlet"). According to local tradition, the Parish Store housed U.S. Customs Service functions by 1811 and this arrangement continued for almost sixty years. In 1870, Alfred B. Mullet, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury, designed a new building to house the custom house and post office. Located at 431 State Street in downtown Ogdensburg, the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and continues to function as a post office.
The George Hall Corporation, a shipping company, owned the Parish Store from 1880 to 1936. Likely due to needs for additional space, in 1928, the U.S. Customs Service moved back in to leased space in the Parish Store. In 1936, the Hall Corporation sold the building to the U.S. government for $65,000. The building was renamed the U.S. Custom House. Over the years, the building was used for customs offices, patrol assembly, radio, record, and customs files rooms, a dormitory for immigration officers, and detention facilities. The U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marines also maintained offices here. Listed in the National Register in 1974, the building was renamed in honor of the late Robert C. McEwen, a U.S. Congressman, in 1982.
The U. S. Custom House is a fine example of the utilitarian buildings constructed in native limestone in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the Ogdensburg region. Master carpenter Daniel W. Church supervised a group of French Canadian stonemasons who came from Montreal to work on its construction. The original building has excellent proportions (60 feet wide and 120 feet long) giving it a visual sense of lightness. While the original warehouse building began as a simple, unadorned, vernacular building, extensive modifications, undertaken in the 1930s, incorporated Colonial Revival-style elements. These consist of scaled door and window openings with elliptical arches, decorative cornice, dormers, and porch.
The building's core massing and roof remains much the same as when constructed in 1809-1810, save for the addition of shed dormers. At the front (east) facade the U.S. Custom House is a three-story, side-gabled building. As the site slopes to the west, the basement is exposed on other sides. Constructed of native limestone laid as fieldstone, with quoins at each corner, the building¿s load-bearing masonry walls are three feet thick in places. All masonry openings have segmental arches with voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones) of matching limestone.
After purchasing the building in 1936, the federal government modified the exterior and interior to reflect the popular Colonial Revival style of the period. Dormers and cornices supported by modillions (scroll-shaped brackets) were added. Most of the large loading doors were partially filled in with limestone and converted to paired windows. In 1958, a simple, one-story portico, similar to one constructed in 1937 and later removed, was added to the north Water Street side of the building. A small limestone addition was built at the southwest corner. These exterior modifications were done with restraint and sensitivity, leaving the character of the building largely intact, while accommodating its new use.
The building interior dates entirely from 1937, when a complete remodeling was undertaken at a cost of $125,000 to provide offices for the U.S. Customs Service. Vestiges of the 1809-1810 structure remain in transverse load-bearing masonry walls, the closets under the eaves of the third floor, and the original beams.
Distinctive interior features include the vestibule, lobby and information desk, center stairway, cashier's office, and public and private collectors offices. From the main entry on the front facade, a small vestibule opens into the lobby. In the lobby are bulletin cases of glass and wood marked Immigration and Customs, and a wood building directory. A recessed area contains a wood-panel information desk with a hinged gate. In the wall behind the desk, a shallow, elaborately detailed closet was built into one of the original arches in the masonry bearing wall.
The first-floor corridor opens off the lobby and is T-shaped, with painted plaster walls and ceiling. There are original (1937) wood baseboards and chair rail with abstracted triglyph (three vertical band) design. The ceilings of the lobby have a molded plaster cornice; the corridor ceilings have a plain cornice band. At the westernmost end of the east-west corridor is a built-in, paneled wooden service counter. The counter is enclosed with a centered operable window, flanked by two fixed windows. This is the original site of the cashier's office.
1809-1810: David Parish builds a stone store and warehouse on the waterfront
1811-1870: U.S. Customs Service is purported to have occupied the building
1880: George Hall Corporation purchases building
1928: U.S. Customs Service relocates to building
1936: U.S. government purchases and renovates building
1974: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
1982: Renamed the Robert C. McEwen U.S. Custom House
2009: Building celebrates bicentennial
Location: 127 North Water Street
Architect: Master Carpenter Daniel W. Church
Construction Dates: 1809-1810
Architectural Style: Vernacular / Colonial Revival
Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Primary Material: Limestone
Prominent Features: Three-feet-thick limestone bearing walls; Segmental-arched windows and doors; Wood cornice with modillions
The U.S. Custom House is located on the west side of North Water Street and the confluence of the Oswegatchee River and the St. Lawrence Seaway, and occupies approximately 1/6 of its site. It is an unusually fine example of the utilitarian structures built of native limestone in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Ogdensburg region. The original structure has excellent proportions, length to width and height, roof pitch, etc., which give this utilitarian stone building a grace and lightness which belies the massiveness of its structural system. Being surrounded by open park and an expanse of water gives the building a more monumental appearance, and the waterfront location provides wharf space to dock Customs Service boats.
At the front (east) facade the Custom House is a 3-story-high, side gable building. As the site slopes to the west, the basement is exposed. The building is constructed of native limestone laid as fieldstone, with quoins at each corner. The gable roof runs north and south with four shed-roofed dormers on the east and west sides. The dormers are wood frame, and the roof is painted metal. All masonry openings have segmental arches with voussoirs of matching limestone.
The front facade is two and a half stories high and, with the exception of a slightly projecting stone base and simple portico, is in one plane. An original plain, wood box cornice was replaced with the existing modillion cornice in 1937. The fenestration pattern of the front facade reflects the four internal structural bays, each with paired double hung windows. A limestone and granite parapet surrounds the entire perimeter of the roof.
The north (side) facade is about 60 feet wide with the site sloping down to the west, and with basement level windows surrounded by individual concrete area ways with wrought iron railings. The south (side) facade originally was identical to the north facade until 1937, when a one-story addition was made to house the fuel supply and new boiler room. There is a chimney of matching limestone at the west side of the south facade, with a small segmented arched window on either side of the chimney at the second level.
The west (rear) facade repeats the pattern and detailing of the front elevation; the slope of the grade from east downward to the west exposes the entire basement level at this facade. The facade of the addition is one full story in height, with windows and door detailing matching those of the original building at the basement level. The third floor dormers match those of the front facade and align with them directly.
With only minor changes such as partitions and doors, the building interior dates entirely from 1937 when a complete remodeling job was done to make offices for the U.S. Customs Service. Vestiges of the 1809 structure remain in transverse load bearing masonry walls, the closets under the eaves of the third floor, and the original beams are still visible.
The layout of rooms in the basement follows the original bay spacing between the transverse masonry load bearing walls; some however, have been filled in or cut to allow a center corridor which was repeated on the floors above. The finishes are very plain and utilitarian with concrete floors and bases and plaster walls.
The main entry is at the first floor on the east facade, which has a portico covering the single window of the south, the double door entry and the single window to the north. A small entry vestibule opens into the lobby. The lobby floors are linoleum; the walls and ceilings are plaster; all base, trim and moldings are varnished wood. The south end of the first floor is a suite of three offices with red maple floors, plaster walls and ceilings, and painted wood trim. A "T" shaped corridor provides access to the remainder of the first floor. The workroom occupies the entire north bay. Some original partitions and a fireplace at the northwest corner were removed in the 1937 remodeling.
The circulation of the second floor is identical to that of the first, with a long center corridor ending at office suites occupying the north and south ends of the original building. The main stairway is the only access to the second floor with a plan and detail identical to that of the first floor. On each side of the main corridor are offices and storage rooms. All the office finishes are similar and consist of red maple floors, base, trim, and picture. The circulation of the third floor is similar, but not identical, to that of the lower floors. The plan of this floor is much reduced from the floors below because of the roof pitch. At each end of this floor are large, open rooms with double wood panel doors. The finishes of the corridor are identical to those of the second floor corridor, and all the other spaces have finishes identical to the offices of the second floor.
The original structural system of the building was massive masonry load-bearing walls including three transverse masonry walls dividing the building into four bays. The roof structure was hewn wood, rafters, and purlins, with hewn wood posts, beams, and joists supporting the floors. The original roof structure may be observed in eave closets on the third floor, and in the attic. When the 1937 remodeling was done, steel members were used to strengthen the existing structure, and to accomplish new spans where the transverse masonry bearing walls were removed to provide circulation through the building.
The U.S. Custom House was built by Mr. David Parish in 1809 to serve as a store and warehouse; shortly after, in 1811, the building began to be used as a Custom House. Ogdensburg served as a port for a large area which was becoming more settled but as yet had few roads over which to convey goods. In 1880 the George Hall Company bought the Parish Store, and its use as a store and warehouse was continued until 1934. At this time, the United States Treasury Department rented the building from the George Hall Company and subsequently purchased the building in 1936. More recently, the areas of the U.S. Custom Service jurisdiction have been revised and customs operations have been spread out along the River. The Army, Air Force, and Marines currently have offices in the building, but otherwise the use has been generally unchanged since 1936.
The building has historical significance in three different areas. During its use as a store and warehouse it was significant to the development of Ogdensburg itself. The area around Ogdensburg, on and near the St. Lawrence Seaway, was unsettled and remote from the rest of New York and New England. There were few roads and transportation of goods was extremely difficult. When the Parish Store was built, goods were brought up the St. Lawrence River, warehoused in Ogdensburg, and distributed regionally. This made Ogdensburg the focus of the St. Lawrence River shipping trade and contributed significantly to the development of Ogdensburg. Second, the history of the building as Customs District Headquarters from March 12, 1811 to 1870, and from September 16, 1928 to the present is significant. The U.S. Customs Service was established in 1789 by George Washington and the first Congress, and is one of the oldest government agencies. The fact that the U.S. Custom House in Ogdensburg was the district headquarters helped to encourage the further development of regional trade, which was a key to both the development of Ogdensburg, and the preservation of the building through continued use. Finally, the U.S. Custom House is the oldest Federal building still occupied and used by the government in the continental United States, and is of historic significance for this reason.
Located in a park-like setting at the confluence of the Oswegatchie and St. Lawrence Rivers, it is a focal point for northern downtown Ogdensburg and for visitors to the park along the river. While not originally built to be a landmark building, through its long history and various uses it has become one of the city's most familiar landmarks.