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Saving Taxpayer Dollars Through Historic Preservation

The U.S. Custom House and the Edward T. Gignoux Courthouse - both prominent landmarks in Portland, Maine, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places and both with a story to tell.

The Custom House was born in 1866 with its design by Supervising Architect of the Treasury Alfred B. Mullet and was constructed from 1867-1872. The need for a custom house was evident. The Exchange Building, which originally housed the customs office, burned to the ground when a firecracker ignited a boat building shop on Commercial Street and started the Great Fire of July 4, 1866. The fire consumed 1,800 buildings on over 58 streets, leaving nothing but free-standing walls and chimneys.

Located on Portland’s waterfront, the Custom House is a testament to the city’s maritime history. The building 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. Although well built, the Custom House could no longer endure the severe New England weather. The roof, windows and masonry were heavily damaged. Inside, ornamental and historic lime plaster was flaking and peeling from the surface.

In 1908, the federal government purchased a site for a new courthouse just a few streets from the Custom House. Construction began that year on the Italian Renaissance Revival style building designed by Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department James Knox Taylor. Knox designed a trapezoidal building with an interior courtyard to be constructed in two phases. The U-shaped first phase was completed in 1911. From 1931-1932, under the direction of Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department James A. Wetmore, Knox’s original design was completed, closing the U. The new construction provided space for a post office and additional offices on the upper floors. In 1988, the U.S. Courthouse was renamed in honor of Judge Edward T. Gignoux, who had gained notoriety when he presided over the contempt trial of activists who attempted to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Like the Custom House, however, the Gignoux Courthouse was rapidly deteriorating from age and years of harsh weather conditions.

All was about to turn around in 2010 when an emergency mitigative repair contract was awarded to Ganneston Construction Corp. The following year, a restoration and repair contract was awarded to CCB, a woman-owned small business. All contractors and subcontractors for both projects were from Maine as were all materials used. Between the two projects, over 200 jobs were created. Now fully restored and repaired, the U.S. Custom House and Edward T. Gignoux Courthouse are 20-30 percent more energy efficient. In addition, once a single-tenant building, the Custom House is now home to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, Department of Labor and GSA with Federal Protective Service moving in soon.

These projects are just two examples of GSA’s ongoing efforts to get the best use of existing federal buildings, increase energy efficiency and water conservation, and preserve the nation’s historic structures all of which result in taxpayer savings.

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