The U.S. Custom House in New Orleans is one of the oldest and most important federal buildings in the southern United States and one of the major works of architecture commissioned by the federal government in the nineteenth century. This monumental granite building was begun in 1848 and built over a period of 33 years. The grand Marble Hall in the center of the building is one of the finest Greek Revival interiors in the United States.
Located a few blocks from the Mississippi River, the great waterway that enabled New Orleans to become an important port city, the U.S. Custom House was planned in the 1840s in response to increasing trade through the Mississippi Valley. The building was also designed to accommodate other Federal offices, most notably the main post office and federal courts.
In 1847, the Treasury Department chose the design of Alexander Thompson Wood, and construction began in 1848. After Wood was replaced as architect in 1850, a succession of eight architects followed, each modifying the original design concept.
The partially completed building was first occupied in 1856 when the U.S. Customs Service moved into the first floor. The post office followed in November 1860, and the building served as the city's main post office through the remainder of the nineteenth century. Although construction was suspended during the Civil War, the building was occupied briefly by Confederate forces and then by the Union Army after New Orleans was occupied in 1862. It was also used to house captured Confederate soldiers, reportedly up to 2,000 men at one time.
Construction resumed in 1871, with the upper floor and roof plan and sections substantially revised under the direction of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, Alfred B. Mullett, the designer of the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, and many other federal buildings nationwide. Construction of the U.S. Custom House was completed in 1881.
In 1916, the building underwent major interior renovations following the move of the post office and courts to a new facility on Lafayette Square. Interior offices were subdivided and corridors reconfigured. Over the years, mechanical and electrical systems and suspended ceilings were added.
The impressive exterior of the U.S. Custom House retains its original design, which includes modified Greek and Egyptian Revival elements. The immense four-story building occupies the full trapezoidal downtown city block bounded by Canal, North Peters, Iberville, and Decatur Streets. Due to the shape of the lot, the corner of the building at Canal and North Peters Streets is rounded. The majority of the building is constructed of brick sheathed in gray granite from Quincy, Massachusetts; however, the entablature material is cast iron.
Each of the four facades is similar in design. In the center of each facade is a projecting pavilion consisting of four round, fluted, modified Egyptian, engaged columns. The first floor of the structure is faced with rusticated granite stonework. The cast-iron entablature contains widely spaced triglyphs (three vertical bands) in the frieze and dentils (small square blocks) in the cornice, and supports a triangular pediment above the central portico on each facade. Near both ends of each facade is a slightly projecting bay composed of four modified Egyptian pilasters supporting the entablature.
On the first story of the exterior of the U.S. Custom House are a series of blind (vacant) niches, six on each facade. The original architect intended these niches to hold heroic statues of famous Americans. When the plans for the exterior were later simplified, the idea of installing statuary was abandoned.
The floor plan of the U.S. Custom House is arranged around an impressive Greek Revival room known as the Marble Hall, one of the first such rooms in the country. This room is ornamented with Corinthian columns that depict the heads of the mythological god Mercury, guardian of boundaries, commerce, and roads, and the goddess Luna, whose crescent moon-shaped brow symbolizes the city's location at the crescent bend of the Mississippi River. The columns support a full classical entablature with an ornamented cornice and floral cresting. A deep cove above the cornice supports a sophisticated geometrically composed skylight. Over the entrance at the North Peters Street end of the hall are sculptures depicting founder of New Orleans, Sier de Bienville; General Andrew Jackson; and the pelican, the traditional symbol of Louisiana.
In 1916, the building underwent major renovations following the move of the post office and courts to a new facility on Lafayette Square. Recent GSA restoration efforts have successfully recaptured the historic appearance of the building, exposing original components, such as vaulted ceilings, and replicating missing or deteriorated interior elements and finishes, such as the skylight over the stairs.
In 1974, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark.
1845: Congress appropriates $500 for the preparation of plans for a new U.S. Custom House and Construction begins.
1861: The start of the Civil War suspends construction of the U.S. Custom House and a temporary roof is put on the building.
1861-1865: During the war, the unfinished building is used to manufacture gun carriages for the Confederacy, as a Union headquarters, and as a Federal prison.
1871-1889: Under Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department Alfred B. Mullett, construction of the U.S. Custom House is completed.
1915-1916: The entire building is renovated.
1974: The U.S. Custom House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
1975-1976: Congress authorizes $6,732,000 for a major renovation, as a contribution to the country's Bicentennial.
1993: A GSA rehabilitation and vacant space recapture project restores rooms and other interior elements to their pre-1916 condition.
Architect: Alexander T. Wood, principal
Construction Dates: 1848-1881
Landmark Status: National Historic Landmark
Location: 423 Canal Street
Architectural Style: Modified Greek/Egyptian Revival
Primary Materials: Gray Massachusetts granite over a steel frame, with a cast-iron entablature
Prominent Feature: Marble Hall
The four-story U.S. Custom House occupies the full trapezoidal downtown city block bounded by Canal, North Peters, Iberville and Decatur Streets. The entire exterior of the building, with the exception the cornice, is constructed of gray granite from Quincy, Massachusetts. The cornice is cast iron of a more elaborate style and character than the originally intended granite cornice. Each of the four facades is similar in design, though of a different length due to the dimensions of the site. In the center of each facade is a projecting portico consisting of four round fluted Egyptianesque engaged columns set on a high base that forms the ground story of the building. The deeply recessed entrance in the center of this projected base is flanked by two empty niches. The cast iron entablature contains widely spaced triglyphs in the frieze and dentils in the cornice, and supports a triangular pediment above the central portico on each facade. The entablature and cornice continue around the entire building. Near both ends of each facade is a slightly projected bay composed of four Egyptianesque pilasters supporting the entablature and cornice.
Triple windows extend through the three upper stories between the two center pilasters of these projected elements, with semicircular head windows in niche-like jambs between the more closely spaced side pilasters. These end bays also have triple windows flanked by niches. The second and third floor windows are combined into singular vertical elements with recessed granite spandrel panels at the third floor level. The fourth floor windows are smaller and are, in effect, attic windows. On the ground floor facades there are five large carriage entrances with ornamental cast iron gates. These gated entrances to the east carriageway from Canal Street and to the south and north cross carriageways from North Peters Street are located in the center of the wall between the central portico and the projecting end bays. The gates at the north carriageway, added during the 1993 project, are a less ornamental abstraction of the original gates. The gated entrance to the east carriageway from Iberville Street is located within the east projecting end bay. The gated entrance to the west carriageway from Iberville is located off-center toward the east, centered under a second floor window, between the central portico and the west projecting end bay.
The corner of the building at Canal and North Peters Streets is a rounded acute angle while the corner at North Peters and Iberville is an obtuse angle; the other two corners are orthogonal. The stonework of the first floor is horizontally rusticated. Some of the lintels over the larger openings are monoliths of enormous size. The stones of the upper story walls have tight flush joints with the courses diminishing in size toward the top of the wall. The massive and impressive exterior of the building is essentially unchanged since its completion. However, wood windows and doors in the exterior openings have been modified, and most are not original. In addition, the visible height of the building has been reduced by several feet, in part because the U.S. Custom House has settled over two feet but also because the original ground level of the surrounding streets has been raised. In spite of the overall settlement, which has been carefully monitored, there is minimal evidence of structural deterioration resulting from differential settlement.
The interior is planned around the large central customs business room known as the "Marble Hall," with Corinthian columns supporting a full classical entablature with denticulated cornice and anthemion cresting. A deep cove above and behind this cornice supports a fine, sky lighted ceiling. Over the entrance at the North Peters Street end of the hall are triple sculptured bas relief panels depicting Bienville, Andrew Jackson and the pelican symbol of Louisiana. The "Marble Hall" is approached from the ground floor Canal Street entrance by a double flight of stairs that leads up to a monumental two story foyer with six freestanding cast iron columns. While impressive, this lobby has been subject to several modifications throughout the building's history. The lobby is connected to broad corridors that surround the Marble Hall on the second and third floors and extend through to the exterior of the building in some places. Parts of the corridor system have been modified over the building's history, with some areas enclosed to provide additional office or mechanical space.
Several unusual interior conditions are indications of the struggle associated with the building's construction. The first is the abandonment of the basic stair circulation system depicted on the 1857 (and earlier) plans. Inside the entrance doorway at the center portico of each of the building's four facades, there was to be a monumental stair leading to the second floor. However, the stairs facing North Peters Street and Decatur Street do not exist. Traces of the missing stair intended to face the river are evident in the alignment and orientation of the great Marble Hall with its centerline, and the change from masonry groined vault to shallow masonry barrel vault ceiling structure at the first floor center room at North Peters Street. The unbuilt Decatur Street stair is marked by a pair of unique granite columns on the second floor, standing mute and otherwise inexplicable.
A second unusual condition results from the modification of the building's structural system above the third floor. The first two floors are primarily enclosed by means of a system of groined vaults in solid brick masonry, a technique dating back to Roman times. The third floor ceiling is a composite of iron beams with double brick masonry barrel vaults between, evidence of the growing use of ferrous metals for structure in the mid-nineteenth century.
Finally, the roof system merits note. Instead of the generous fourth floor spaces indicated on the 1857 sectional drawings with a dome atop the center of the building, a wooden roof deck supported by large timber and cast steel trusses exists. The roof pitches downward from the perimeter of the building to the attic walls of the Marble Hall. This configuration, arrived at during the 1880s as a means of reducing the volume and weight of the building to minimize the continuing settlement, has produced a unique spatial condition in the fourth floor or attic.
Another significant aspect of the building is related to light and ventilation. Because of the building's great size, this was an extremely important consideration at the time of its construction. Partially for ventilation and primarily to provide access for the storage of goods, a network of carriageways extended into the building at the first floor. This was connected to a system of open stairs and hoistways that went all the way up through the building, with ventilating skylights at the top. The sole remaining stair of the four such original stairs is the southeast stair renovated under the 1989 project; the east carriageway and associated cross carriageways were renovated under the 1993 project. There are other important skylights in the building, most prominently those above the glass ceiling of the Marble Hall. The skylight at the top of the stairs, above the main lobby has just been reintroduced in its original configuration. There are a series of skylight assemblies above openings through the corridors that ring the Marble Hall. Unfortunately, these and the lights above the Marble Hall were replaced during the 1978 renovation with inappropriate and potentially unsafe acrylic domes. Other unusual features related to ventilation are the interior double hung windows on the third floor between the corridors, the perimeter offices and the Marble Hall.
The U.S. Custom House on Canal Street in New Orleans is one of the most important buildings in the southern United States. It is also one of the major works of architecture commissioned by the federal government in the nineteenth century. The U.S. Custom House is located at the upper end of the Vieux Carre on a site that at the time of construction was the first block from the riverfront. Together with the U.S. Mint building which was constructed in the 1830s near the river at the lower end of the French Quarter, the U. S. Custom House manifested the powerful presence of the government of the United States in New Orleans and at the lower end of the Mississippi River valley.
The current U.S. Custom House was planned in the 1840s when a large increase in trade through the Mississippi River valley was transforming New Orleans into a major port city, meriting a substantial custom house. Inspection and actual storage of goods by the U.S. Customs Service required much more space than the previous custom house provided. The building was also designed to accommodate other federal offices, most notably the main post office and the federal courts.
The story of the U.S. Custom House's architects is complicated and interwoven with the story of the building's construction over a thirty-three year period. In 1845, Congress authorized five hundred dollars for plans for a new custom house. Several prominent New Orleans architects, including James Gallier, Sr. and James Dakin, submitted proposals. In 1847, the Treasury Department chose the design of Alexander Thompson Wood. Excerpts from a published letter from Treasury Secretary Walker explain the reasoning: "Walker stated that the government `wants a plain and substantial building, avoiding all unnecessary expense and ornament, simple and unostentatious...avoiding everything merely calculated for display.'" (Scully, "James Dakin," p. 172.) Wood's exterior view of the U.S. Custom House was first published in a New Orleans newspaper in 1848, depicting a somewhat cruder though recognizable version of the building that exists today. The most notable difference is that no pediments are shown above the central portico of each elevation.
Construction commenced with the cypress grillage foundation work, and the cornerstone was laid on February 22, 1849 with Henry Clay attending the ceremony. The work did not continue without conflict however, and the interior of the building gives evidence of great change during the course of construction. This is not surprising considering the history: Wood was suspended as architect in 1850 and replaced by James Dakin. After proposing some controversial changes that were rejected, Dakin resigned a year and a half later. He was replaced by Lewis Reynolds, with Wood returning to the project as a consultant. When Reynolds left after a year of controversy with Wood, he was replaced temporarily by Thomas K. Wharton. Then in 1853, Major P.G.T. Beauregard was named Superintendent of Construction; Wharton stayed on as his assistant. Although Wood died in 1854, a substantial set of drawings dated 1857 exists that credits the design to "A.T. Wood, Architect" on the plan, section, and elevation sheets. However, Wood's name is absent from the title page which credits Treasury Department designer A.B. Young, architect of the U.S. Custom House in Boston, as supervising architect and A.H. Bowman as engineer. These drawings also list Beauregard as superintendent, and other extant drawings from the same period are signed with Beauregard's approval.
The partially-completed building was first occupied in 1856 when the U. S. Customs Service moved into the first floor. The post office moved into the U.S. Custom House in November 1860, and the building served as the city's main post office through the remainder of the nineteenth century.
Standing as a major symbol of the federal government, the unfinished building played a significant role during the Civil War. In 1861, the exterior masonry walls were complete up to their full height, while the interior masonry was still incomplete. Although construction was suspended, the building was occupied briefly by Confederate forces and then by the Federal Army after New Orleans was captured in 1862. The notorious Union General Benjamin Butler established his headquarters on the second floor in the offices that face Canal Street. The building was also used to house captured Confederate soldiers, reportedly up to two thousand men at one time.
Construction resumed in 1871, with the upper floor and roof plan and sections substantially revised under the supervision of the Treasury Department architect Alfred B. Mullett, well known as the designer of federal buildings including the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. A more elaborate cast iron cornice was erected in lieu of the rather severe granite cornice indicated on the design drawings. Construction of the U.S. Custom House was completed in 1881.
The first major modification to the building occurred in 1916 under the supervision of architects from the Treasury Department following the move of the post office and courts to the new U. S. Post Office and Courthouse on Lafayette Square. The strong masonry exterior of the U.S. Custom House was unaffected; however, the multi-light window sashes were replaced on the lower three floors, and the exterior doors were modified. The generous spaces of the interior offices, corridors and stairs were compromised by subdivision into smaller offices and the intrusion of mechanical and electrical systems and suspended ceilings. Worse yet, a gigantic reinforced concrete storage vault was built within the great vaulted first floor space of the former post office. The black and white marble tiling in the lobby and second floor circulation spaces was replaced with a nondescript terrazzo flooring. Inappropriate "consoles" were installed at some beams in the second and third floor corridors. A freestanding granite stair in the northeast quadrant was dismantled, and one half of the major Iberville Street stair was removed to create offices in the stair hall.
Elevators, electrical systems and mechanical equipment were added to the building through this century; suspended ceilings began to hide the exposed vaulted spaces and plaster ceiling detail. The generously proportioned volumes of space, the building's most remarkable aspect, were increasingly diminished by generic dropped ceilings. A major renovation in 1978 reclaimed some of the primary circulation spaces of the building, but created difficulties for future restoration with casual systems placement and the introduction of ever more generic architectural treatment. The trend to reverse the compromised condition of the building has increased with the recent fire safety and space recapture projects. In the Fire Safety Improvements Project the removed half of the Iberville Street stair was replaced and its volume restored, and the granite southeast stair was renovated. A new steel stair was constructed in the southwest quadrant that replaces the egress capacity of the granite stair lost from the northeast quadrant. In the Modernization and Vacant Space Recapture Project, the original volumetric conditions have been restored to the rooms on either side of the Canal Street entrance, the rooms along the river side of the first floor, and the east carriageway system. Furthermore, the skylight above the upper landing of the monumental stair, lost when elevators were first installed, has been reintroduced.
Finally, in terms of significance, one interior space is worthy of special note. In the center of the building on the second floor is an immense room ninety-five by one hundred twenty-five feet by fifty-four feet in height. Known as the Marble Hall, the description from Stanley C. Arthur's 1940 book, "A History of the U. S. Custom House at New Orleans", is compelling, and still remarkably valid more than fifty years after it was written: "...extending through two stories [it] was termed 60 years ago `the finest business room in the world,' and here it is today that the collection of customs duties are made on the commerce that flows through the Port of New Orleans. In point of area and height or in interior decoration, the Marble Hall is not surpassed by any public building in the United States."