U.S. Custom House, Baltimore, MD

U.S. Custom House, Baltimore, Maryland

Building History

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Baltimore flourished as one of the nation's major commercial ports, its economy growing as foreign trade increased. In 1789 the new U.S. Congress established the U.S. Customs Service as the first federal agency and named Baltimore as one of fifty-nine collection districts. The first Baltimore custom house was at the intersection of Gay and Water Streets, across from the present location. Around 1820 the government began to rent a wing of the Merchants' Exchange Building to house the Customs Service. Designed by Maximilian Godefroy and Benjamin Henry Latrobe and constructed in 1816-1820, the Merchant's Exchange Building continued to house the Customs Service through the end of the nineteenth century.

In 1900 the Treasury Department held a design competition for Baltimore's third custom house. It was to be built on the site of the Merchant's Exchange. The winning entry was by the prominent Washington firm of Hornblower and Marshall.

The building's cornerstone was laid on June 13, 1903 in a ceremony attended by several hundred people. On February 7-8, 1904 as construction neared the third floor, a catastrophic fire swept through downtown Baltimore. Over 1,500 buildings were destroyed, and the Custom House suffered major damage. Many of the granite blocks had been split by the heat. These had to be removed and replaced in what proved to be a difficult and costly process. The structure's northwest corner was almost entirely rebuilt. Despite this setback, construction continued, and the building was completed and occupied at the end of 1907.

From the time of its completion, the Custom House was widely praised as a triumph of both design and workmanship. In 1908 the American Architect and Building News declared, "The result achieved by the intelligent cooperation of architect and artist stamps Baltimore's new Custom House as among the most successful public buildings erected in this country." The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Today the Custom House remains an outstanding interpretation of the Beaux-Arts vision and a monument to the dignity of the federal government.


The U.S. Custom House in Baltimore is located two blocks north of the inner harbor, on a gently sloping site bounded by Gay, Lombard, and Water Streets. The six-story building, ninety-two feet high from base to roof balustrade, displays an axial symmetry and imposing presence characteristic of the Beaux-Arts style. The building's architects, Joseph C. Hornblower (1848-1908) and John Rush Marshall (1851-1927), began their careers in the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department. They used Hornblower's training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the experiences of their European tours to apply French academic planning and organizational principles to American civic architecture.

The steel structure and masonry bearing walls are faced with granite quarried near Laurel, Maryland, and Mount Airy, North Carolina. The primary facade fronts Gay Street. A smooth-faced basement level (extending from grade up to a watertable course) rises to a heavily rusticated first floor. The second through fourth stories are articulated by three-story engaged Ionic columns, flanking the recessed window bays. Alternating segmental and triangular pediments carried on consoles top the second-story windows. The smooth columns support a full entablature and roof balustrade, which wrap around the building and conceal the attic story and flat roof.

The Gay Street entrance is approached by marble steps that are flanked by plinths with wrought-iron lamp standards with lamps resembling eighteenth-century ship's stern lanterns. The entrance doors are protected behind wrought-iron grillework.

The west (Commerce Street) side of the building reveals an "E-shaped" plan. The double-story Call Room pavilion forms the middle arm of the "E" and is on axis with the entrance. Rusticated corners flank a five-bay window arcade. The window spandrels are decorated with carvings depicting sea monsters, shells, and other nautical ornamentation that reflect the Custom House's proximity to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. A balustraded parapet shields the copper-clad roof of the pavilion.

The main lobby has a marble floor with an inlaid brass compass design. The walls are paneled with variegated marble. The lobby is flanked by elevators and stairhalls, with marble stairs and ornamental iron and brass railings. A narrow corridor connects the lobby to the historic Call Room where customs revenues were paid.

The Call Room is the Custom House's most impressive, and historically significant, space. The walls have paired Ionic pilasters supporting an entablature with a paneled frieze. The paneled cove rises to the central ceiling panel, measuring 63 feet by 30 feet, and adorned with a mural entitled "Entering the Harbour." It depicts a fleet of ten sailing vessels: ships including a whaler, barks, a barkentine, a brig, and a schooner entering the harbor. The panels of the cove and frieze, five lunettes on the east wall, and the borders of the ceiling panel depict the evolution of navigation. They portray over 125 vessels, from ancient Egyptian ships to the R.M.S. Mauritania of 1907, accompanied by J.P. Morgan's yacht, the Corsair. All of the murals were painted by Francis (Frank) Davis Millet, a prominent American muralist of the period. Millet died just a few years after these murals were completed, perishing along with over 1,500 others in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

After four years of renovation and modernization work, the Custom House formally reopened in 1997.

Significant Events

1789: The U.S. Customs Service is established, and Baltimore is named as one of 59 collection districts.

1816-1820: The Merchant's Exchange Building, designed by Maximilian Godefroy and Benjamin H. Latrobe, is constructed; one wing is used for Customs Service.

1900: Hornblower and Marshall are selected as architects for the new Custom House.

1903: The cornerstone of the present-day Custom House is laid on the former site of the Exchange Building.

1904: A devastating fire ravages a seventy-block area of Baltimore, damaging the unfinished Custom House.

1907: Construction is completed.

1972: The building is designated one of America's twelve Historic Custom Houses.

1974: The Custom House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1997: The Custom House is formally reopened after a four-year renovation project.

Building Facts

Architects: Hornblower and Marshall

Construction Dates: 1903-1907

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 40 South Gay Street, two blocks north of Harbor Place

Architectural Style: Beaux-Arts

Primary Materials: Granite from Laurel, MD, and Mount Airy, NC

Prominent Features: Call Room with ceiling Mural The Evolution of Navigation by Francis David Millet

The Custom House is a symmetrical E-shaped building, six stories in height, including a basement and an attic. The primary facade/entrance is on Gay Street, the east elevation, and is 252 feet wide. The north elevation on Water Steet and the south elevation on Lombard Street both run 147 feet in width. On its street frontages it presents a solid mass, rising 92 feet from base to balustrade, with a relatively shallow indentation from the second through fourth floors where the windows are set back between the engaged columns. From the west, or rear, however, the articulation of the plan is clear. There, the Call Room, a grand pavilion which forms the middle arm of the "E," is almost completely separated from the rest of the building by very deep re-entrant areaways.

Following traditional Beaux Arts principles, the plan of the Custom House is axial and symmetrical. The main entry is placed at the center of the Gay Street frontage, initiating the major east-west axis of the building. Along this axis are organized the main lobby, with its flanking elevators and stair halls, and the Call Room. Perpendicular to this axis is a north-south corridor, which occurs on all floors, running parallel to Gay Street. Secondary east-west axes are developed by the north and south wings of the building.

A lobby on each floor corresponds to the first floor lobby. A pair of elevators opens onto each of these lobbies. The open well of the stair connecting the second, third, and fourth floor lobbies forms a continuous grand atrium from the first floor lobby to a laylight in the fourth floor ceiling. Lighting above the laylight simulates natural daylighting since the skylights above have been roofed over.

The basic structure of this building is a combination of load-bearing masonry and steel frame, all resting on spread footings. A large part of the floor area is devoted to circulation and spatial effects. The building's greatest asset is not efficiency but elegance.

The exterior of the building is faced with a close-grained granite; that for the base and cornice came from a quarry near Laurel, MD, and that for the three middle stories from Mount Airy, NC. The massive stones of the base are cut smooth and laid with close joints from grade up to a water-table course at the first floor level. Between this water-table and the string course under the plinths of the engaged columns, the stone is heavily rusticated. Above the base, Ionic engaged columns three stories high support an architrave, frieze, cornice, and balustrade of good classical proportions. The basement windows are undecorated but protected by iron grilles. The first floor windows have architraves which are interrupted by alternating courses of the heavy rustication of the upper part of the base.

The U.S. Custom House in Baltimore is the result of a competition sponsored by the Secretary of the Treasury to commission non-government architects for the design of large government buildings. The Tarsney Act, passed in 1893 by Congress, allowed such participation, and the Custom House was the fifth building to take advantage of it. From the group of eleven firms invited to participate, a jury of practicing architects selected the Washington firm of Hornblower and Marshall. Their winning design was for a building in the classical style of the Beaux Arts, the style favored for so many public buildings at the beginning of the twentieth century. Hornblower and Marshall could not afford the elaborate sculpture so popular among Beaux Arts designers, since appropriation for the building mandated a fixed cost limit of $1,500,000. However, the planning and massing of the building are characteristically Beaux Arts. The facades are articulated in typical classical fashion (base, columns, entablature), and the plan reflects the tradition of carefully developed axial symmetry. In short, the building is an excellent interpretation of a style which was seen as being eminently suited for large public structures.

The cornerstone was laid on June 13, 1903, and work had proceeded almost to the third floor when Baltimore suffered its disastrous fire of 1904. The Custom House sustained a good deal of damage. However, eventually construction continued and the building was finally finished and occupied at the end of 1907.

The Call Room, which is the grand pavilion in the center of the building, contains the painting by Francis David Millet, "History of Navigation," once described as the finest work of art in America.

Description Architect
1903 1907 Original Construction Hornblower and Marshall
1904 Repair of fire damage during construction
1916 New roof membrane over existing tile roof
1920 Corridor partition added - 4th floor north end
1935 South elevator cab replaced
1935 North elevator added per plan
1936 New freight elevator
1938 Removal of vaults
1940 Closing of atrium and stair wells
1941 Partition at south corridor - 1st floor
1949 New nickel-copper roof over Call Room
1955 Water St. revolving door replaced with aluminum
1960 Built-up roof over insulation board
1976 Call Room painting restoration Hoelzer, Hiram H.
1976 Wall-to-wall carpeting in Call Room
Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13