Exterior:  U.S. Custom House, Savannah, Georgia

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 impressive U.S. Custom House symbolizes Savannah's importance to Georgia's import-export trade during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The site is also significant in Savannah's history. A wood-frame residence used by James Edward Oglethorpe, founder (in 1733) of the Colony of Georgia and designer of Savannah's town plan, was previously on the site. The federal courthouse and the Tabernacle, where John Wesley preached his first sermon in America, were located on the rear of this lot.

Savannah's first U.S. Custom House opened in 1789 on Commerce Row on East Bay Street. The second, opened in 1819 on East Bryan Street, burned in 1837. In 1845 the federal government purchased a site at East Bay and Bull Streets for a third U.S. Custom House. New York architect John S. Norris (1804-1876) served as designer and supervisor of construction. The building was the first of eighteen commissions Norris designed while living in Savannah from 1846 to 1861. The cornerstone was laid on July 20, 1848.

The building was completed in 1852 and had the U.S. Post Office in the basement, the Customs Service on the first floor, and the federal courts on the second floor. The notorious case involving the yacht "Wanderer" was tried here in 1860. It was the last documented violation of the law against the importation of slaves. U.S. control of the building temporarily halted in January 1861 when the Confederate flag was raised above it the day after the Georgia State Convention adopted the Ordinance of Secession. In 1864 General William T. Sherman occupied Savannah and returned control of the building to the Union. In 1889 Colonel John H. Deveaux worked in the building as the first African American U.S. Customs Collector.

The U.S. Custom House was designated as a contributing building in the Savannah National Historic Landmark District in 1966. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Architecture

Constructed entirely of stone, the U.S. Custom House in Savannah represents John Norris' advocacy of fireproof construction, an interest fully supported by the city, which had experienced several devastating fires over its short history. Norris' interest in fire protection was instrumental in changing the construction methods and physical appearance of buildings in Savannah through the use of materials such as brick and stone.

The U.S. Custom House opened in 1852, four years after construction began. On June 5, 1852 the Savannah Journal reported: "It must be said that if our Custom House was a long time growing, it has grown to be a perfect thing at last."

The monumental Greek Revival U.S. Custom House is sited at the corner of Bull and East Bay Streets. A distinctive cast-iron fence with balusters in the design of a closed tobacco leaf and fleur-de-lis surrounds the building. The building is eleven bays wide by five bays deep and constructed of 32-inch blocks of load-bearing, gray granite stones quarried in Quincy, Massachusetts. A pedimented portico supported by six monolithic columns dominates the main facade. These columns, estimated to weigh between fifteen and twenty tons each, were freighted from Massachusetts lashed to the decks of ships. It reportedly took thirty days to transport the columns from the riverbank to the site and an additional thirty days to raise them into position. The fluted columns have capitals elaborately carved with a tobacco leaf motif. The striking granite stair provides access to the ceremonial public entrance. An unadorned entablature spans the building and the words "United States Custom House" are inscribed into the frieze of the pediment.

The focal point of the interior is the magnificent solid granite stair at the center of the first floor. It is constructed so that each step locks into the next without obvious perpendicular support. A massive granite octagonal column at the basement level provides the necessary structural support for the stair. The stair's distinctive cast-iron railing consists of balusters displaying the same closed tobacco leaf motif seen on the exterior and newel posts replicating the massive granite columns on the primary exterior elevation. A semi-circular rotunda encases the stairwell and original wood panel doors follow the curvature of the surrounding walls.

Still serving its original purpose with few changes over one hundred fifty years, the U.S. Custom House is a monument to Savannah's historic importance as a port city.

Significant Events

1789: The first U.S. Custom House in Savannah opens in Commerce Row on East Bay Street.

1819: The second U.S. Custom House is built at East Bryan Street; the building is destroyed by fire in 1837.

1845: The federal government purchases a lot on the corner of East Bay and Bull Streets for the third U.S. Custom House.

1848-1852: The U.S. Custom House is constructed to house multiple federal agencies.

1860: The infamous case of the yacht "Wanderer," the last documented violation of the law against the transportation of slaves, is tried in the building.

1861: The Confederate flag is flown above the U.S. Custom House one day after adoption of the Ordinance of Secession by the Georgia State Convention.

1864: General William T. Sherman occupies Savannah securing federal property for the United States.

1966: The U.S. Custom House is designated as a contributing building in the Savannah National Historic Landmark District.

1974: The U.S. Custom House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Building Facts

Architect: John S. Norris

Construction Dates: 1848-1852

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Contributing building in the Savannah National Historic Landmark District

Location: 1-3 East Bay Street

Architectural Style: Greek Revival

Primary Materials: Gray granite

Prominent Features: Portico interior staircase

The U.S. Custom House in Savannah is a Greek Revival structure which is rectangular in form (110'x90') with a raised basement and two floors above. The building is a granite bearing wall structure whose exterior surface is smooth, dressed grey granite from Quincy, Massachusetts. A pedimented portico dominates the E. Bay Street (north), or main, facade. The portico is supported by six monolithic columns. The columns are of particular architectural significance. They are solid granite shafts and were freighted by ship from Massachusetts to Savannah. The columns are fluted and have capitals which are elaborately carved with a tobacco leaf motif.

On the first (main) floor are three centrally placed entrances flanked by four windows on each side. These ceremonial public entrance doors are atop a raised platform, so that the visitor ascends 14 steps to the entrance. There are eleven windows across the second story. Each side facade (east and west) has five openings per floor. All windows are wood, six over six, double hung. A simple entablature spans the building at the cornice level. Gilded letters spelling out "UNITED STATES CUSTOM HOUSE" have been added to the frieze on the north elevation.

A distinctive cast iron fence encloses the site. The fence balusters are in the design of a closed tobacco leaf (this detail is repeated on the railing of the main interior staircase) with a fleur-de-lis atop each baluster. There are flagstone pavers at the north, west and south elevations. The east elevation has concrete paving.

The south (rear) elevation is unenriched. The projecting pavilion is a solid mass and does not contain a portico. There are granite engaged pilasters of the Tuscan order at each corner of the projecting bay and at the southwest and southeast corners of the building. These pilasters provide the only ornamentation on an otherwise austere elevation.

At the basement level the windows were originally shuttered with iron shutters. Six of eight sets of shutters are still in place on the basement windows.

The focal point of the interior of the U.S. Custom House is the magnificent staircase in the center of the first floor. The stairway, made of solid granite, divides midway between the first and second floors and returns upon itself at the second floor level. Constructed so that each step locks into the next, the staircase is without obvious perpendicular support. A semi-circular rotunda encases the stairwell and unusual original wood panel doors are curved to match the curvature of the wall. The distinctive cast iron railing consists of balusters displaying a closed tobacco leaf motif; repeating the motif on the iron fence at the exterior. The newel post appears to replicate the massive granite columns on the main elevation. The iron railing, which is carried around the second floor gallery overlooking the stairwell, has been painted gold. A semi-circular skylight within a semi-circular dome highlights the stairwell.

The first floor lobby and second floor corridor have granite block floors. There are engaged pilasters and free-standing columns which support vaults. The basement of the building has a central octagonal room containing a massive granite octagonal column which provides structural support for the staircase.

The tenant areas have been altered for contemporary office space. Typical contemporary finishes include carpet, vinyl wall covering or plywood paneling, and dropped acoustical ceilings.

The U.S. Custom House in Savannah was built in 1852 and is Georgia's oldest federal building. The site of the building was important from the beginning of Savannah history. A one-story frame house, built in 1733, was located on the site and was rented by James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony, on his return visits to Savannah. At the rear of the lot facing Bull Street, stood the Tabernacle and Court House. This building was described as "being one handsome room with a piache on three sides" and served as the colony's first house of worship. It was on this site that John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, preached his first sermon on American soil.

In July of 1789 the first Congress of the United States passed the Tariff Act of 1789. Four weeks later it enacted the statute which established the collection of duties set forth in this tariff. Thus the U.S. Custom Service was born. The original U.S. Custom House in Savannah was located on Commerce Row on Bay Street. Later custom houses were located at East Bryan Street and at the City Exchange.

In 1845 the federal government purchased the site at the corner of Bull and Bay Streets for a new Custom House. John S. Norris, a New York architect, was employed as both designer and supervisor of construction. The cornerstone was laid with full Masonic honors on July 20, 1848.

All of the granite in the building was brought from New England (primarily Quincy, Massachusetts) by rail and by ship. The monolithic granite columns on the main (east) elevation are estimated to weigh between fifteen and twenty tons each, and were freighted from Massachusetts lashed to the decks of ships. It took thirty days to transport each column up the thirty-eight foot bluff from the river to the building site. Each column was lifted off the ship with a block and tackle system and inched up the bluff on rollers. Once on the site it took another thirty days to raise each column into place.

By July 29, 1852, construction was complete and the architect, John Norris, invited the public to view the new U.S. Custom House. The city's post office occupied the basement, the Custom Service offices were on the first (main) floor, and the federal court occupied the second floor. The famous case of the yacht "Wanderer" was tried in this court in 1860. The case was tried as the last violation of the law against the importation of slaves.

In 1972, the Bureau of Customs designated the U.S. Custom House as one of the eight historic custom houses in the nation. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. In 1988 the building was designated as one of thirteen Bicentennial Custom Houses in celebration of the Bicentennial of the United States Custom Service.

The significance of this building lies in the history of its site, construction technology, role in the U.S. Customs Service and continued contribution to the city of Savannah as a symbol of the federal presence in Georgia's port city.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1852 Original Construction Norris, John S.