Galveston U.S. Custom House

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.

The U.S. Custom House symbolized the importance and prosperity of Galveston which was Texas' leading seaport and commercial city during the nineteenth century, and the port where most of the imported commercial goods entered the state. The city's business community was primarily concerned with wholesale commerce, and furnished the trade goods for all of Texas, the Indian Territory, and parts of Louisiana and New Mexico. With rising revenue from customs receipts, the U.S. Congress approved funds in 1855 for a new U.S. Custom House.

Supervising Architect of the Treasury Ammi Burnham Young (1799-1874) produced the original design for the building in 1857. Public officials immediately rejected Young's three-story design on the grounds that it lacked sufficient space. A new scheme by Charles B. Cluskey (1805-1871) and E.W. Moore (1810-1865) was accepted in 1859. Their design was based on Young's concept, but provided additional space for the Custom Service and Post Office.

The U.S. Custom House was begun in 1860 and completed in 1861. The Boston firm of Blaisdell and Emerson built it in 114 days, an unprecedented accomplishment at the time. The extensive use of fireproof cast iron was revolutionary then and likely accounted for the building's survival from the 1885 Galveston fire. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army occupied the building. In 1865 it was the site of the ceremony officially ending the war in Galveston. The U.S. Government resumed occupancy that year after making extensive repairs.

Significant alterations were made in 1917, when the U.S. Custom House became the Federal Courthouse and a courtroom was created on the second floor. Continuing to serve as a courthouse and offices for federal agencies throughout the twentieth century, the U.S. Custom House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. In 1998 the Galveston Historical Foundation signed a cooperative agreement with the U.S. General Services Administration that permitted the Foundation to lease and rehabilitate the building for its headquarters.

Architecture

The U.S. Custom House in Galveston is a simply detailed Classical Revival, two-story, brick building located near the waterfront in Galveston. The most notable features are the projecting double gallery on the west facade and the inset double galleries on the longer, north and south facades. The exterior walls are hard-fired, red-brown bricks with tan bricks used as accents around the corners and doorjambs. The prominent location at the southeast corner of Twentieth and Post Office (Avenue E) Streets emphasizes its importance to Galveston's shipping-based economy.

Nearly all the original decorative elements on the exterior of the building are cast iron including columns, cornices, balustrades, dentils, entablatures, and window architraves. These elements from the specifications and designs of the original architect Ammi B. Young, were made in New York and shipped to Galveston. The first-story galleries have Ionic columns set on a granite base. An entablature extends completely around the building separating the first and second floors. The piano nobile is larger in height, and the galleries contain taller, Corinthian columns and a cast-iron balustrade. A classically inspired balustrade caps the building.

The interior of the building is H-shaped in plan and was originally designed to provide space for the Customs Service and the Post Office. Extant original elements include the elaborate cast-iron, double-return stair leading to the second floor. The stair's ornamental newel posts have an acanthus motif and fluted shafts set on octagonal bases. The cast-iron risers are pierced with a circular fret design.

In 1917 the U.S. Custom House was converted for use as a Federal courthouse and a courtroom was created on the second floor.

The U.S. Custom House survived the Civil War and various disasters including the 1885 Galveston Fire, the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Hurricane Carla in 1967, and a boiler explosion in 1978 that resulted in the closing of the second floor for almost two decades. Although these events required extensive repairs and renovations, the U.S. Custom House's fireproof construction ensured the survival of its most significant stylistic elements.

In 1998 a public-private partnership was established between the U.S. General Services Administration and the Galveston Historical Foundation to allow for the restoration of the building by the Galveston Historical Foundation for use as its headquarters and historic preservation resource center. Assisted by private donations, the careful and sensitive rehabilitation included the removal of 1960s dropped ceilings, the restoration of the second floor, and the removal of the non-original interior wood shutters. The Galveston Historical Foundation formally moved into the wonder-fully refurbished U.S. Custom House in June 1999.

Significant Events

1857-1859: Supervising Architect of the Treasury Ammi B. Young produces the original design for the U.S. Custom House.

1860-1861: U.S Custom House is constructed based on the redesign by local superintendents Charles B. Cluskey and E.W. Moore.

1865: Occupied by the Confederate Army, the building is the site of the ceremony ending the Civil War in Galveston. The U.S. Customs Service resumes occupancy.

1900: The U.S. Custom House is damaged by the Galveston Hurricane.

1917-1918: A courtroom is created on the second floor for use by the Federal Courts.

1967: Following the repair of extensive damages caused by Hurricane Carla, the building is formally rededicated on June 17th.

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

1978: A boiler explosion damages the building and the second floor is closed.

1998-1999: A public-private partnership results in the restoration and use of the building by the Galveston Historical Foundation.

Building Facts

Architects: Original design by Ammi B. Young, Supervising Architect of the Treasury

Revised, executed design by Charles B. Cluskey and E.W. Moore

Construction Dates: 1860-1861

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 502 Twentieth Street

Architectural Style: Classical Revival

Primary Materials: Brick and cast iron

Prominent Features: Two-story galleries

Galveston U.S. Custom House

The building was designed by architect Ammi B. Young, serving as the first supervising architect of the Office of Construction of the Treasury Department. Charles Cluskey, a noted architect from Savannah, Georgia, and E. Moore, once a Commodore of the Navy of the Republic of Texas, served as the contractors for the project. The resulting two-story brick building grafts the symmetry and detailing typical of the late Greek Revival style onto a rectangular plan. The exterior of the building is composed of hard-fired, red-brown bricks with tan bricks scattered throughout. At one point the exterior walls were painted yellow but were returned to their original appearance during a rehabilitation effort.

At the time of construction, the building was considered to be on the cutting edge in the use of iron in building construction. Nearly all of the detailing, including the columns, cornices, balustrades, entablatures, and window architraves were composed of cast iron. Manufactured in New York the detailing was then shipped to Galveston for use in construction. The Ionic columns of the first floor support an entablature, which completely encircles the building. The second story exterior is adorned with Corinthian moldings.

Galveston U.S. Custom House

Texas’ oldest non-military Federal building is located on Galveston Island. Built in 1861, the Galveston Customhouse was completed in record time after only four months and two weeks of on-site construction work. Plans for the erection of a Customhouse, however, had been underway since 1854 when funds were secured through congressional approval for the purchase of a site.

In 1970, the Customhouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Today the building houses the Galveston Historical Foundation, the oldest historic preservation organization in Texas. In June 1999, following six months of meticulous restoration work by the foundation, they became the long-term tenant/stewards of the building. During the restoration process, the foundation worked very closely with GSA and the Texas Historical Commission to ensure that the highest standards were set for the restoration. The outlease with the foundation has allowed this significant historic resource to remain open and accessible to the public.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1861 Original Construction Ammi B. Young