US Custom House, Portland, ME

Building History

The U.S. Customs Service was established by the First United States 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.

Located near Portland's waterfront, the U.S. Custom House is a testament to the city's maritime history. It was built to accommodate the city's growing customs business, which, by 1866, was collecting $900,000 annually in customs duties - making Portland one of the most significant seaports in the country. The building is typical of the notable designs completed under the direction of Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury from 1865 to 1874. Constructed between 1867 and 1872, the U.S. Custom House combines elements of the Second Empire and Renaissance Revival styles. The need for the new U.S. Custom House was exacerbated by the Great Fire of July 4, 1866. The fire destroyed the Exchange Building -- which had previously housed the customs office, post office and courts -- as well as 1,800 other buildings in the center of the city.

Although federal funds for the construction of buildings were limited during the post-Civil War period, the importance of maintaining Portland's customs business and rebuilding the city mandated the construction of the new government facility. Plans for designing the new U.S. Custom House were completed in 1866. Mullett was commissioned to design the new building, as well as a new post office and courthouse (no longer extant). Construction took five years to complete amid delays in obtaining granite for the upper stories.

The U.S. Custom House is the best remaining example of Mullett's work in the state of Maine and continues to serve its original function. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Architecture

The U.S. Custom House is a skillful blend of the Renaissance Revival and Second Empire styles, which were popular in the United States during the mid- to late nineteenth century. It is highly intact to its original design. The three-story, free-standing, I-shaped structure is constructed of New Hampshire granite with a slate-shingled hipped roof. These fireproof materials were chosen in response to the 1866 fire.

The building rests on a sloping lot that forms an embankment along the sides and the Fore Street entrance of the building. A heavy cast-iron railing, designed of tangent ovals, rests on top of the embankment. The basement level is accented with a rusticated granite exterior finish.

The U.S. Custom House has a shallow I-shaped plan, with projecting pedimented entry pavilions on the Fore Street and Commercial Street facades. The entire building is dominated by large and handsome rhythmic, round-headed windows with simple keystones. The window openings are flanked by engaged Doric columns on the first and second stories. Square pilasters mark the corners of the pavilions and the facades. A cornice and balustrade surround the entire building. The cornice features ornamental triglyphs (three vertical bands separated by V-shaped grooves).

Distinctive twin, square cupolas rise above the pedimented pavilions. Double Corinthian pilasters flank arched Venetian windows, each of which is capped with a shallow pediment. The cupolas' distinctive mansard roofs are a defining feature of the Second Empire style.

The building is organized around the grand two-story customs hall, which is the building's public showplace and occupies the central portions of the first and second floors. The marble floor of the hall is laid with a sophisticated checkerboard pattern. Two counters run the length of the room and are fashioned of several different types of marble that were quarried on an island in Lake Champlain. These include a dark veined marble for the base; a red variegated marble for the pilasters, cornice and panels; a jet-black marble for the beading around the panels; and a dove-gray marble for the counters. Encircling the hall at the second floor is a narrow gallery with a decorative iron rail. The gallery is ornamented with symbols relating to commerce in the United States, including corn and tobacco leaf motifs and dolphins flanked by oak and olive leaves.

The ceiling of the customs hall is highly ornamented. A large plaster cove rises from the second-floor openings to an elaborate plaster cornice and coffered ceiling. Groin (cross) vaults over each second floor-opening extend from the cove, and the ceiling beams are decorated with a Greek key pattern and bosses (elaborate joints) at beam intersections.

An eight-foot, walnut, pedestal-mounted counter capped with a spherical clock stands at the center of the customs hall. The counter contains an octagonal writing surface decorated with flutes, bosses, a collar, and modified Ionic scrolls.

The original walnut woodwork is still intact throughout the building, as are the Italian marble fireplaces in the offices located at both ends of the building. The offices, which are more simply designed than the main hall, consist of plaster walls, and walnut baseboards, window surrounds, and doors.

The U.S. Custom House has experienced only minor changes since it was constructed, and therefore exhibits a high degree of architectural integrity. The most notable alteration to the structure has occurred in the interior customs hall, where the original gas chandeliers have been replaced with the current surface-mounted ceiling fixtures. The basement was converted into office and dormitory space for the U.S. Coast Guard in 1983. The majority of the building's distinctive elements, such as the marbled checkerboard floor and decorative staircases, remain in place. In 1998, the aluminum doors, which were installed during the 1960s at the main entrances, were replaced with wooden doors similar in design and color to the original doors to the building.

Significant Events

1866: Supervising Architect of the Treasury, Alfred B. Mullet, designs the U.S. Custom House.

1867-1872: The U.S. Custom House is constructed.

1950s: The U.S. General Services Administration acquires the building.

1973: The U.S. Custom House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1983: The basement is converted into office and dormitory space for the U.S. Coast Guard.

1998: Restoration of the building begins with restoration of the entrance to replicate its original appearance.

Building Facts

Architect: Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury

Construction Dates: 1867-1872

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 312 Fore Street, Portland, Maine

Architectural Style: Second Empire/Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: New Hampshire granite and slate tile roof

Prominent Feature: Customs Hall

The Portland Custom House is located on the Portland waterfront in the block bounded by Commercial, Custom House, Fore, and Pearl Streets. It is five bays wide and eleven bays long, with two stories above a full basement. The site is a steeply sloping one, which allows prominent entries at the first floor level on Fore Street and at the basement level on Commercial Street.

The symmetrical, I-shaped plan of the building occupies nearly all of the site. A "moat" at basement level on the Custom House, Fore, and Pearl Street sides of the building between the building and the sidewalk accommodates the level change, and allows light into the basement level. A wide area of granite pavement at the Fore Street entry covers a coal storage vault.

The exterior of this masonry building is granite; the other bearing walls are brick. Floors are carried by shallow brick arches supported on steel beams, and the hipped slate roof is carried by steel trusses.

The building is organized around the Customs Room, which occupies the entire central portion of the first and second floors. Offices are located on the first and second floors in both ends of the building, which are slightly wider than the central portion. The basement, originally office and warehouse space, has been converted to office and dormitory use for the Coast Guard.

Designed in 1866 by B. Oertly under the direction of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury Alfred B. Mullett, the Custom House ranks among the best of Portland's public buildings. Its Renaissance Revival exterior remains much the same as originally constructed, and within the building most of the original finish materials survive. The only major alteration, conversion of the basement level to office and dormitory use, has had little effect upon the important spaces in the building.

The Portland Custom House is significant for its associations with Maine's maritime heritage, and as an impressive and intact example of post Civil War Federal architecture. Constructed in 1867-72, on the site of the city's first Custom House, it is a richly articulated Renaissance Revival style building executed in granite with a grand marble interior. It reflects the growing wealth and optimism of the United States in the post Civil War period, and is also a testimony to Portland's national prestige at the time. Its importance on the local, state and national levels was heightened by demolition of the contemporary Post Office/Court House in the 1960's. It now remains as the best example in the state of Maine of the work of Alfred B. Mullett, third Supervising Architect of the Treasury.

The building was turned over to the GSA in the 1950's. It was listed in the National Register in 1972, and subsequent work has respected that status. One of the most outstanding aspects of the Portland Custom House is its exceptional degree of integrity.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1868 1872 Original Construction Mullett, Alfred B., Sup.Arch, Treas
1899 Heating & ventilating apparatus-piping/radiators Wm Martin Aiken & Henry Adams, Eng.
1905 1907 Plumbing & new toilet rooms-marble veneer stalls Taylor, James Knox & J.E. Powell,En
1928 Gas lighted pendant fixtures installed Supt - P. Balch & S. Thompson, Mech
1934 Plumbing Simon, Louis A. & Geo. O. Von Nerta
1961 *Major - Painting, pointing & misc repairs Woodward, Deane M., Auburn, Maine
1965 *Major-Int painting, fluor lights & misc repairs Design & Constr Div,Region#1-Boston
1967 Heating & plumbing repairs Design & Constr Div,Region#1-Boston
1977 Rebuild areaway retaining walls & castiron rail Cullinan, Robert V.
1983 Misc. alter in base & 2nd fl-windows,doors,part. Constr Manage Div, Region #1-Boston