Exterior:  U.S. Custom House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Building History

The U.S. Customs Service was established by the first U.S. Congress in 1789, making it the oldest federal agency in the country. The functions of the Customs Service are to assess and collect duties and taxes on imported goods, to control carriers of imports and exports, and to combat smuggling and revenue fraud.

The U.S. Custom House in Philadelphia is a product of the great federal building projects of the Depression era. Begun in December 1932, it opened on November 10, 1934, at a final cost of more than $3,500,000. Distinguished by richness of materials, by the quality of its design, and by a decorative program by a major local artist, the U.S. Custom House is a fitting architectural monument to Philadelphia's status as one of the nation's largest ports.

The growth of Philadelphia as a prosperous center of industry at the turn of the twentieth century resulted in a greatly increased number of ships entering and leaving the port. As the U.S. Customs Service expanded to fulfill its duties, it outgrew its home since 1845 in the renowned Second Bank of the United States building, which was designed by William Strickland and completed in 1824.

The new U.S. Custom House documents the social and economic history of the early 1930s, vividly illustrating the federal government's role in combating unemployment through large-scale building projects that employed local craftspeople, suppliers, and manufacturers while providing workers with a fair wage. In an effort to stimulate the economy following the stock market crash of 1929, Congress passed a bill appropriating funds for the U.S. Custom House in Philadelphia. The building's construction helped spur the local economy by directly employing more than 4,000 workers for two years. Construction of the U.S. Custom House was the initial component of an early urban redevelopment plan that ultimately spread to include the creation of Independence National Historical Park and the revitalization of Society Hill.

Architecture

The final major work by Ritter & Shay, one of the most prominent architectural firms in Philadelphia, the new building respected its historic eighteenth-century neighborhood through the use of classical details on the broad, low base. However, it also reflected its own time with a bold, setback Art Deco tower with sheer surfaces and a tapered silhouette.

The U.S. Custom House occupies an entire city block in the heart of Philadelphia's Historic District between Second, Chestnut, American, and Sansom Streets. It rises 17 stories from its base to its lantern. The 264-foot-square, three-story base is clad in limestone with decorative aluminum details and steel casement windows. The classically inspired base is highly responsive to the surrounding Georgian and Federal architecture. Semicircular metal bas-relief panels depicting American industry, commerce, and trade are set beneath the arched door openings of the main entrance.

Set back from the base's perimeter, the tower rises in a cruciform plan, and is built of red brick with limestone trim and double-hung wood windows. The building culminates nearly 300 feet above the ground in an octagonal lantern (based on the ancient Lantern at the Greek Island of Rhodes) of white high-relief terra cotta with decorative side grilles and handsome limestone eagles. A 30-space garage was part of the original basement design.

The interior was the result of an extraordinary collaboration among Brandywine School artist George Harding, architect Howell Lewis Shay, and Philadelphia Museum of Art director Fiske Kimball (who recommended Harding). Harding's significant mural program consists of a series of 31 separate panels in the vestibule, elevator lobby, and rotunda area. The selection of ornamental motifs, based entirely on nautical vignettes and images of commerce, underscore the building's function. Ships, planes, conch shells, seahorses, and reclining Neptunes in George Harding's murals are all representative of the building's function next to one of the world's largest freshwater ports.

The first floor follows a strong axial plan that focuses on a three-story rotunda with an elaborate plasterwork ceiling and adjacent light wells. A coffered plaster dome, supported by eight fluted serpentine marble columns, caps the striking three-story rotunda. Each coffer essentially consists of a large gold shell, and the frieze has eight panels showing the winds as depicted in Greek mythology. On either side of the main north-south corridor are spectacular circular stairs that rise under small secondary domes and provide access to offices on the second and third stories.

Although it appears to be in the center of the building, the rotunda is located in the front portion of the U.S. Custom House and cleverly disguises the loading docks, which comprise nearly half of the first floor.

The U.S. General Services Administration completed an extensive restoration of the U.S. Custom House in the early 1990s. The three-year project included conservation of original surface finishes, upgrading mechanical and lighting systems, and ensuring access for the disabled. The building is once again fully occupied, and annual energy costs have been reduced 60 percent.

Significant Events

1789: July 4, Philadelphia's U.S. Customs Service established at Second and Walnut Streets.

1845: The U.S. Customs Service moves into the Second Bank of the United States.

1932: The Economy Act reduces the building's budget, necessitating the substitution of limestone for the originally proposed marble trim.

1934: The U.S. Customs Service moves into current building at Second and Chestnut Streets.

1991-1993: The U.S. General Services Administration undertakes a major restoration and renovation of the structure.

2011: The U.S. Custom House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places

Building Facts

Architect: Ritter and Shay

Construction Dates: 1932-1934

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 200 Chestnut Street

Architectural Style: Art Deco

Primary Materials: Limestone and brick with steel windows and aluminum ornamentation

Prominent Feature: Rotunda, lobby, and Ceremonial Courtroom

The Custom House is located on the narrow streets of Olde City, Philadelphia at the intersection of 2nd and Chestnut streets. Accordingly, site features are limited. The building rises seventeen stories from its base to its lantern. The first three floors form a square base and feature a classical ornamental vocabulary. These floors are constructed of primarily of limestone with a granite plinth. Red brick finishes the 2nd and 3rd floor window surrounds and 3rd floor parapet panels. Windows are single glazed painted steel casements. Aluminum decorative metalwork is used at the entrances.

A fourteen story richly sculpted office tower of cruciform plan sits on the limestone base and tapers to an octagonal lantern. The primary building material switches to brick on the tower, with limestone trim and wood windows. Starting at the 13th floor terra cotta is used in lieu of limestone and brick.

Most of the sub-basement and basement are utilitarian spaces consisting primarily of service, mechanical, and storage areas. The basement, which is reached either by elevator or by stairs, features a rotunda and elevator lobby ornamented by terrazzo floors, ornamental aluminum grilles and simple plaster detailing including projecting pilasters and an entablature. A curved open stair leads from the rotunda to the first floor. The sub-basement does not feature decorative elements, but retains original elements such as steel window sash with wire glass.

The first floor is plotted along a strong axial plan that focuses on the 3-story rotunda with an elaborate plasterwork ceiling and two adjacent light wells. The rotunda, which is entered through a vestibule area, leads into office areas and the elevator lobby. Through the elevator lobby is the main corridor which serves as the east-west axis and divides the building in half. The public spaces are limited to the northern half. To the south of this corridor is the delivery and receiving area.

The principal public spaces include the vestibule, rotunda, elevator lobby, and main corridor. These areas feature travertine walls, serpentine fluted columns, and terrazzo floors highlighted with serpentine borders. A mural cycle designed by George Harding and executed under the auspices of the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department embellishes the building's principal public spaces and features allegorical images relating to the character of the US Custom Service. Ornamental metalwork exists on doors, stairway rails and balusters, and on the elevator cab doors.

The second and third floors continue the plan and themes of the first floor with a diminishing level of architectural detail. The public spaces are limited to the rotunda, the gallery, the elevator lobby, the main corridor, and the courtroom on the third floor. These spaces feature travertine walls, serpentine fluted columns, and terrazzo floors highlighted with serpentine borders. On the second floor, the Harding mural cycle embellishes the gallery ceiling. Ornamental metalwork is used on the stair balustrades, on doors and on the elevator cab doors.

The fourth through eleventh floors of the Custom House are utilitarian in plan, consisting of an inner core of stairwells, elevator shafts and public lobbies. This core is flanked by four radiating arms of largely open office space, partitioned as needed by the tenants.

The public spaces on these floors include the elevator lobbies and the corridors to the office spaces. These spaces are simply finished with terrazzo floors highlighted with serpentine borders, travertine walls in the elevator lobbies, and travertine wainscoting with plaster above in the corridors. The back areas and office spaces, with their limited architectural detail, hold little of historic interest except for exterior wood windows.

The twelfth floor, set back from the floor below, is square in plan, consisting of an inner core of stairwells, elevator shafts and a public lobby. This core is surrounded by small office spaces. The finishes are consistent with those of floors four through eleven.

The thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth floors are somewhat octagonal in plan, consisting of an inner core of stairwells and one elevator shaft on the thirteenth and fourteenth floors with small adjoining public lobbies. Directly off of this core are small office spaces. The elevator lobby on the thirteenth floor is simply finished with terrazzo floors highlighted with serpentine borders and travertine wainscoting with plaster above. The lobbies on the fourteenth and fifteenth floors are finished with terrazzo floors and plaster walls.

The fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth floors are small maintenance spaces that are octagonal in plan and contain a stairwell and mechanical equipment.

The Depression era brought together the nation's leading architects, artists and workmen to produce some of America's finest civic architecture. In Philadelphia the most imposing of the great federal building projects was the Custom House. Begun in December 1932, it opened on November 10, 1934, having cost over $3,500,000. Distinguished by richness of materials, by the quality of its design and by a decorative program by a major local artist, the Custom House is a fitting architectural monument to Philadelphia's status as the world's largest freshwater port, and after New York, the nation's busiest.

The seven years of planning, building and finishing the Philadelphia Custom House span much of the Depression. More than an architectural monument, it is also a document of the social and economic history of the period. It illustrates the role of the Federal Government, both in the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, in countering unemployment through large scale building programs - not only by funding the building, but by using local craftsmen, patronizing local suppliers and manufacturers and by ensuring that workers received a fair wage.

The final major work by Ritter & Shay, Philadelphia's most prominent designers of Art Deco skyscrapers, the Custom House is one of the architects' unquestioned masterpieces. It shows the sensitive mixing of traditional and novel architectural forms, the progressive modern construction and the inventive planning typical of their best work. Accustomed by years of commercial practice to making attractive, eye-catching buildings that stood out in their urban context, Ritter & Shay respected the character and history of the Custom House site to an extent rare in federal architecture. By using classical detail to articulate a broad low base, they respected their site in an historic eighteenth century neighborhood. Above the base of the building their design functioned as a modern tall building, the fourteen story setback tower composition reflecting its time with its tapered Art Deco silhouette.

The decorative program of the rotunda and lobby is one of the very finest pieces of government-sponsored art in the region - an extraordinary collaboration between artist George Harding, architect Howell Lewis Shay and the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fiske Kimball. The selection of ornamental motifs, based entirely on nautical vignettes and images of commerce, underscore the building's function. Ships and planes dominate George Harding's murals in the rotunda while the walls evoke an undersea world of carved conch shells, seahorses, and reclining Neptunes. Where federal buildings often repeated a conventional scheme with minor variations, the form of the Custom House stands out for its boldness and originality. Most striking of all is the building's tapered tower, the apex of which housed a powerful beacon light. By far the tallest building in the waterfront area, the Custom House continues to reveal its design inspiration by night: a symbolic lighthouse keeping watch over the port of Philadelphia.

The Custom House is adjacent to but not in the three following surrounding historic districts: Independence National Park; Old City; and Society Hill. The building is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also possibly eligible for listing as a National Historic Landmark. A National Historic Landmark theme study of Custom Houses nationwide, including this building, is currently being completed.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1932 1934 Original Construction Ritter and Shay