U.S. Custom House, Chicago, IL

1.4 Historical Architectural Description

General Exterior

The Customs House was built as a seven-story rectangular structure with a basement and a penthouse. The building stretched 175’ along Harrison Street and 124’ along Canal Street. The east and west elevations were five bays wide and the north and south elevations were seven bays wide. All elevations were very similar and the minimal ornamentation on the building appeared in the form of carved stone or cast aluminum spandrels.

All elevations were clad with black granite on the basement level (if exposed) and the base of the first level. Light gray limestone covered the remaining upper portion of the first level and all stories above. A penthouse located on the roof was clad in the same stone as the upper floors of the building. The end bays on all elevations projected slightly from the rest of the facade and the first level is slightly pronounced from the rest of building. The tops of the end bays each had three bands of carved, wavy, horizontal stripes stretching across the bay and a carved stone eagle centered on the bay. Across the rest of the top of the parapet wall runs a band of three wavy horizontal stripes broken up by rectangles containing two stars, stacked vertically, which were located on center line of each vertical stone band.

The north and south elevations each had fifteen windows per floor between the end bays and the east and west elevations each had nine windows per floor between end bays. The end bays had two windows on each floor located directly below the eagle. Original steel windows were one-over-one double hung. Cast aluminum spandrels were located below the windows on the third through sixth floor on the inner bays and the third through seventh floor on the end bays. The bands of spandrels and windows broken by vertical bands of stone created an obvious vertical emphasis.

Historic Individual Elevations

The east elevation faced Canal Street and contained the primary entrance to the building. The entry was located on the first level and the basement level was below grade and therefore not shown on this elevation. The north end of this elevation displayed the building’s cornerstone within the black granite base. This base continued around the door to create an ornamental door surround. Originally, United States Appraiser’s Stores was inscribed in the two stone panels above the door; this was later replaced with stone which displayed the words United States Customs House. Above the doors, and below the black granite was a large ornamental white metal grill (no longer extant). To each side of the doors was a black granite pilaster with three wavy lines broken up by vertical rectangular boxes at the top and carved vertical lines below. Beyond the pilasters, the stone tapered and returned to the base height. One large lamp was located on either side of the doors, the white metal lantern sat atop a black granite base and pedestal. Other elements unique to this elevation were two flag poles located on the roof, one centered behind each eagle on the upper parapet wall.

The west elevation had a truck loading platform at the basement level. The basement level had face brick above the platform and a canopy located over the dock. Seven sliding wood doors were located on the platform. One rolling steel shutter door was located on the south end bay.

The south elevation had one rolling steel shutter door in each bay on the basement level. These doors provided access to an interior truck court and platform. The interior platform had two rolling wood doors per bay.

The penthouse was five bays wide on the north and south elevations and one bay wide on the east and west. Most of the penthouse was only one story; the center bay had a tower which rose two stories above the rest of the penthouse. The north elevation had two ladders which lead to the roof of the one story portion of the penthouse on the north side of the penthouse. The penthouse had four windows on both the north and south one story portion of the elevation. The tower had two windows on the north and two on the first level of the south elevation and two windows on each elevation on the second and third levels. The east and west ends of the one story portion of the penthouse were blind.

Historic Floor Plan and Interior Finishes

With the exception of the seventh floor, all floors in the custom house were organized the same way. The east side of the building contained all offices, locker rooms, toilet rooms, and passenger elevators, which are grouped around each floor’s elevator lobby. The western portion of the building contained warehouse space and freight elevators. The building had a total of six elevators, three of which were freight elevators, two were public passenger elevators, and one was a private passenger elevator. The two passenger elevators were accessed from the elevator lobby on each floor and the private passenger elevator and the freight elevators were accessed from the warehouse areas. The building had two stairwells, both of which were located next to a set of elevators. Stair No. 1 was located on the east side of the building between the public passenger elevators to the east and the private passenger elevator to the west. Stair No. 2 was located on the west side of the building next to the freight elevators.

A trucking court was located on the south side of the basement. Trucks entered the court through one of seven rolling metal doors. A truck loading platform was located on the exterior of the west wall and sliding wooden doors on the platform provided access into the basement. A train platform was located along the east side of the building below Canal Street. The basement floor had a receiving office that was located in the center of the floor and an incinerator room located to the north of stair No 1. The only other rooms were the toilet and locker rooms, located to the east of the elevator lobby. The remaining space was used as a large shipping and receiving room. The elevator lobby, shipping and receiving room, receiving office, and trucking court and platforms all had cement finish flooring with a cement base and plaster walls. The ceiling of the trucking court was cork insulation. Rolling and sliding steel doors were finished with “oil paint”, and the remaining doors, frames and trim had an “enamel finish”. “Cold water paint” was used on the walls and ceilings, except where plastered.

The entrance to the first floor was located off Canal Street. Four steps in the lower vestibule led up to the main entry vestibule area which provided access to the elevator lobby. The elevator lobby provided access to two passenger elevators, stair No. 1, and two corridors. These corridors provided access to offices, storage rooms, toilet rooms, locker rooms, and the warehouse area. All offices and rooms were grouped on the east side around the elevator lobby. The remainder of the floor was warehouse space. The private passenger elevator was accessed from the warehouse space. The elevator lobby had “St. Genevieve Golden Vein” marble walls and white metal elevator doors with etched panels. The center panel of each door had an eagle at the top and vertical lines below. These doors are currently displayed in the basement of the customs house. The floor of the lobby was terrazzo with inlaid white metal strips and the ceiling was plaster with a plaster cornice. This elevator lobby was more ornate than lobbies on the floors that were mainly warehouse space and therefore accessed less by the public. The entrance vestibules had terrazzo flooring, marble wainscot and base, and plaster walls, cornice, and ceiling. The stairs had precast terrazzo treads and risers, and the doors, frames and trim had a white metal finish. All offices on the first floor had “mastic tile” flooring, metal base and picture mould, plaster walls and ceilings, and natural finish for wood or grained finish for frames, and trim.

The second through fifth floors had basically the same floor plan. Each floor had two examiner’s offices and one clerk’s office located on the east wall of the building which connected to the elevator lobby. The elevators and toilet rooms were located across the lobby from the offices. The remainder of the floor was warehouse space.

The sixth floor differed slightly from the second through fifth floors because it had a greater number of offices grouped on the east side of the building. In addition to the examiner’s and clerk’s offices there were also appraisers’ offices, an invoice bureau, an office for the stenographers and switchboard, and larger toilet rooms. However, like the other floors, the remainder of the space was warehouse area.

The elevator lobbies on the second through sixth floors had terrazzo flooring, metal base and picture mold, plaster walls and ceiling, natural finish for wood doors, grained finish for metal doors, and grained finish for frames and trim.

The seventh floor differed from the rest of the floors because it had a greater amount of offices than the rest of the floors. Other than the first floor, it was the floor most accessed by the public. The elevator lobby on the seventh floor was very similar to the one on the first floor with terrazzo flooring, “St. Genevieve Golden Vein” marble walls and base, and white metals doors with etched panels like those on the first floor. As on the other floors, offices bordered the east and north walls of the floor, however, unlike other floors, the clerk and examiner’s offices were pushed to the south end of the east wall. This floor also housed two laboratories in the northwest corner of the building, a conference room, which was adjacent to the elevator lobby, a clerk and court records room, a courtroom, located in the northeast corner, the judge’s chamber, a chemist’s store room, a court files and samples room, a chemist and clerk’s office, a dark room, a first aid room, and a storage area. The remainder of the floor was warehouse space for jewelry, clocks, optical and church goods. Some portions of the seventh floor had skylights, all of which were located to the north of the penthouse. Two skylights were located above the storage room and one skylight was located above both the court files and samples room and the attorney’s samples room. The most significant space on this floor was the courtroom. The finishes in the courtroom included a “cork” tile floor, “walnut” wall paneling, plaster walls, cornice, and ceiling. The courtroom also had casement windows and a natural finish on doors, frames, trim, and walls.

The penthouse occupied roughly ¼ of the roof and contained a central work room and all the elevator machine rooms. Both stair No.1 and stair No. 2 provided access to the penthouse. A large, two-story tank room was located above the center of the penthouse roof.

The corridors of the first through seventh floors had terrazzo flooring, plaster walls and ceilings, natural finish wood doors, grained finish metal doors, grained finish metal doors and frames and trim. In addition to these elements, the first floor corridors had a metal base, the sixth floor corridors had a metal base and picture mould, and the seventh floor had marble wainscoting and base and a plaster cornice.

Stair No. 1, which was the primary staircase, had a cement finish floor with a cement base in the basement. Above the basement, it had terrazzo flooring, a metal base, plaster walls, ceiling and stair soffit, precast terrazzo treads and platforms, a grained finish for doors, frames and trim, and an “oil” paint finish for ornamental works. Stair No. 2 had cement finish flooring, a cement base, plaster walls, ceiling and stair soffits, cement treads and platforms with anti-slip nosing, an “enamel” finish for doors and frames, and an “oil” paint finish for ornamental metal work.

Finishes in the offices varied by the type and use of the office. The offices of the examiners, clerks, chief clerk, assistant appraiser, stenographer, switchboard, invoice bureau, reappraisal and sample rooms all had mastic tile flooring, a metal base and picture mould, and plaster walls and ceilings. Wood doors had a natural finish and other frames, trim, etc had a grained finish. These finishes were also used on the seventh floor in the office of the jeweler, the first aid room, the court files room, and the attorney’s samples room.

The appraiser’s room on the sixth floor and the assistant attorney general, the conference room, the clerk and court records room, and the judge’s chamber and hall on the seventh floor had wood parquetry flooring, a metal base and picture mould, plaster walls and ceilings, a natural finish for wood doors, and a grained finish frames and trim. The chemist’s store room, chemist and clerk office, the laboratories, the dark room, the polariscope room, and the adjacent storage area on the seventh floor had “acid resistant mastic” flooring, a “mastic” base with cove, a metal picture mould, plaster walls and ceilings, natural finish for wood doors, and a grained finish for frames, trim, etc.

All men’s, women’s, and appraiser’s toilet rooms and any other office employee’s toilet rooms from the second to fifth floors had terrazzo flooring and a base with a cove, plaster walls and ceilings, a natural finish for wood doors, and a grained finish for frames. The employee’s and laborer’s toilets and locker rooms had cement finish flooring and a base with cove, plaster walls and ceilings, and an enamel finish for doors, frames, and trim.

All warehouse spaces had cement flooring, a cement base on tile walls, plaster on tile walls, an enamel finish for doors, frames and trim, and cold water paint for walls and ceiling except where plastered. All mechanical rooms had cement finish flooring, an oil paint finish for doors, frames, and other exposed metal work. The elevator penthouses had an acoustical treatment for the walls and ceiling, and cement floor paint for floors and base. The house tank and sprinkler tank rooms had membrane waterproofing. The pump room and transformer vault had waterproofing for floors and walls and cement paint for floors, walls and ceilings.


The architects for the project were Burnham Brothers Inc., and Nimmons, Carr and Wright. Overseeing the project was James A. Wetmore, the Acting Supervising Architect for the Treasury Department. His name and those of the architects are inscribed on the Custom House’s cornerstone. However, the main government liaison to the architects for this project was Ferry K. Heath, the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.

Burnham Brothers Inc.
Burnham Brothers Inc. was created by the sons of famous Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham. Daniel Burnham, Jr. and Hubert Burnham began their architectural careers in their father’s firm and continued in the firm until their father passed away in 1912. The brothers continued on in the firms of Graham, Burnham and Co, followed by D.H. Burnham and Co, Burnham Brothers Inc, and Burnham & Hammond. The Burnham Brothers played a major role in the planning of the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago 1933. Daniel, Jr. was the secretary and director of works and Hubert served as a member of the Architectural Commission. In addition to their work for the exposition, they also designed many other Chicago buildings, such as the Carbide and Carbon Building and both were elected fellows of the AIA.

Nimmons, Carr, and Wright
The firm of Nimmons, Carr, and Wright was created by partners George C. Nimmons, George W. Carr, and Clark C. Wright in 1933. This Chicago firm specialized in commercial and industrial buildings. After Nimmon’s death in 1947, the firm continued as Carr and Wright, Inc. Architects-Engineers.

George Croll Nimmons, the senior partner of Nimmons, Carr, and Wright, studied architecture in Europe and upon completing his education worked as a draftsman in the firm of Burnham and Root for 10 years. In 1897, he formed the partnership of Nimmons and Fellows which primarily designed large commercial and industrial buildings. It was during this time he started designing for Sears, Roebuck & Company, which became a long term client he kept throughout his entire architectural career. He practiced alone from 1910 to 1917 under the name George C. Nimmons & Co., then from 1917 to 1933 as the principal of Nimmons & Company. He was the senior partner of Nimmons, Carr, and Wright from 1933 until his retirement in 1945. This firm also continued to design stores and warehouses for Nimmons’ long time client, Sears, Roebuck & Company. During and after his time with Nimmons and Fellows, he wrote many articles about the buildings he designed for Sear Roebuck and industrial buildings in general, his series of articles on “Modern Industrial Plants” appeared in Architectural Record from 1918-1919.

George Wallace Carr studied design and engineering at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Armour Institute of Technology. After studying abroad for 3 years, he joined the firm of Pond & Pond in 1899. He joined the firm of George C. Nimmons & Co in 1914 and later became a partner in Nimmons, Carr, & Wright.

Clark Chittenden Wright went to college in Wisconsin at Beloit College and studied architecture and engineering at the Art Institute and the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago. He started working as a draftsman for George C. Nimmons & Co. in 1915 and in 1933 became a partner in the firm of Nimmons, Carr and Wright. He continued to work there until his death in 1948. During his time at the firm, he was in charge of structural work on many large buildings in Chicago and other cities.

United States Treasury Department
The United States Treasury Department was the agency responsible for the construction of federal buildings from the mid nineteenth century until the Federal Works Agency was created in 1939. The Treasury Department established the Office of the Supervising Architect in 1864 to oversee the design and construction of federal buildings.

James Alphonso Wetmore held the title of Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, but was not an architect. He started his career as court reporter and later worked as a cattle buyer in Holland and Scotland. He began his career in Washington, D.C. two years later in 1885 as a stenographer in the Treasury Department. On May 17, 1895, Wetmore became Appointment Clerk of the Treasury Dept, which was a temporary position and in 1915 became Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, which again was supposed to be a temporary position. He retired from that position almost 20 years later in 1934 and during that time his name was etched in over 2,000 Federal cornerstones. Because he was never trained as an architect, he decided to keep the title of “Acting” Supervising Architect throughout all his years as head of the department. He did, however, have at least 1,700 architects employed in his department during certain points of his leadership.

Ferry K. Heath was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and selected the architects for the Customs House project. He was also mentioned in the in the business journal of the Burnham Bros. as their government contact.

Architects for the addition were Louis A. Simon, the Supervising Architect for the Public Buildings Administration and W.G. Noll, Chief of Architecture for the Public Buildings Administration. The addition was a project done under the Federal Works Agency. The contractors for the 1939 addition of the top four floors were Coagh & Goss who were selected out of a total of 12 Chicago firms.

Current Function

The Customs House is currently being used by the government as an office building for many different government agencies. In addition to offices, the building contains a daycare, and a fitness center, a cafeteria, and a shooting range.

2.1 Integrity and Significance

An assessment of the historic integrity of exterior and interior spaces and elements at the Customs House was conducted as part of this report. The assessment was conducted by comparing original design drawings and later remodeling/restoration drawings with the existing conditions in order to identify each space’s level of contribution to the original design as well as its historic integrity. This comparison was somewhat limited by the fact that we have not located any historic photographs. Based on the building assessment, the Customs House was divided into three different preservation zones based on the relative historic and architectural significance and integrity within each area of the building.

The following assessment of historic significance and integrity focuses upon the interior of the Customs House. Most portions of the building’s exterior are of primary significance and are classified in the Restoration Zone. The discussion of contributing interior elements/spaces in the Customs House is organized by level of historic integrity and broken down into the three preservation zones. The interior spaces and/or elements will be categorized as being either in the Restoration, Rehabilitation or Renovation Zone. The definitions of the three preservation zones used in this assessment are outlined in the GSA’s Guidelines for Zoning Historic Buildings and are as follows:

• RESTORATION ZONE: These areas exhibit unique or distinctive qualities, such as original materials or elements, representative examples of skilled craftsmanship, or the work of a notable architect or builder. They may also be of significance due to associations with persons or events of preeminent importance.
• REHABILITATION ZONE: These may be spaces or areas exhibiting distinguishing qualities, original materials and/or elements, but less ornate than restoration zones in overall treatment.
• RENOVATION ZONE: These are areas whose renovation and modification would not represent a loss of historic character, or intrusion to an otherwise historically significant structure.
The following zones have been identified:

Zone 1: Restoration Zone
1A Exterior – Building Facades
1B Interior – First Floor Entry Vestibule
1C Interior – First Floor Elevator Lobby Stair to Second Floor
1D Interior – Courtroom

Zone 2: Rehabilitation Zone:
2A Exterior – Penthouse Facades
2B Interior – Incinerator Oven/ Room
2C Interior – Lower Basement Stair to Train Platform
2D Interior – Stair No. 1 & Stair No. 2
2E Interior – Penthouse Mechanical Rooms
2F Interior – Penthouse Shooting Range

Zone 3: Renovation Zone
3A Interior – First Floor Security Checkpoint and Elevator Lobby
3B Interior – Typical Corridor (2nd -11th floors)
3C Interior – Typical Elevator Lobby (2nd – 11th floors)
3D Interior – Basement Level Entry Vestibule and Lobby
3E Interior – Passenger Elevator Cabs
3F Interior – 2nd Floor Cafeteria/ Vending Machine Room and Seating Room
3G Interior – Typical Office (2nd – 11th floors)
3H Interior – Laboratories
3I Interior – Toilet and Locker Rooms
3J Interior – Loading Dock
3K Interior – Typical Freight Elevator Lobby (1st – 11th floor)
3L Interior – Mechanical Rooms
3M Interior – Electrical Rooms and Chase

The analysis of the above Restoration and Rehabilitation spaces will be subdivided by element (i.e. flooring, walls, etc.) and further subdivided into “description”, “condition”, and “recommendations”. The descriptions will be based on a cursory survey of the spaces and will therefore provide only an overview of the conditions. A determination will be made as to an element’s level of contribution to the overall architectural aesthetic. The criteria for identifying the Zones has been established by the GSA and is outlined in Attachment 3: Guidelines for Zoning Historic Buildings. In general, elements in primary public spaces that directly contribute to the architectural character and retain their original configuration and materials will be deemed significant. Elements/spaces in semi-public or private spaces that are original and moderately architecturally significant to the building will be considered moderately significant. Spaces not fitting into the above two categories will be classified in the Renovation Zone. It should be noted that there are some historic elements within the Renovation Zone that should be retained in place. Although the conditions will only be generally described, there may be some that are specifically called out and warrant more attention. The recommendations are likewise general in nature and only intended to provide guidance for future repair or maintenance.

Description Architect
1932 1933 Original Construction Burnham Brothers Inc.
1932 1933 Orginal Construction Nimmons, Carr & Wright
1939 1939 Addition of 4 stories Louis Simon & W.G. Noll
Last Reviewed: 2021-09-21