New Orleans Custom House is Testament to GSA’s Preservation Pledge

General Services Administration
By Steven Donald Smith

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23, 2012 – The conservancy of the historic U.S. Custom House in New Orleans illustrates the General Services Administration’s commitment to the preservation of America’s building and architecture heritage.

The New Orleans Custom House, a national historic landmark, is considered by many architects to be one of the principal works of architecture commissioned by the federal government during the 19th century.

“This building has a very simple style of architecture on the exterior. It has details of Greek Revival and Egyptian Revival architecture.” said GSA Deputy Chief Architect Rolando Rivas-Camp. “Inside, however, the Marble Hall is one of the most important Greek Revival interiors in the country.”

The custom house was built to accommodate the increasing trade through the Mississippi River and the Port of New Orleans during the 1840s. The cornerstone was laid in 1848, but the building was not completed until 1881. The U.S. Customs Service moved into the unfinished structure in 1856, and it served as the city’s main post office through the second half of the 19th century.

Historical events were partly to blame for the building’s construction delays, most notably, the American Civil War. During the war, the incomplete building was at various times occupied by both North and South. The Confederacy used the building to manufacture gun carriages, while the Union used it as a headquarters and a federal prison.

Aside from the Civil War, the building bore witness to another traumatic event in American history: Hurricane Katrina.

Although the exterior walls and overall structure remained relatively unharmed by the storm, the roof failed. The building stood unoccupied while repairs were made.

A few new tenants now call the building home, including the Audubon Insectarium, one of the largest American museums devoted to insects, which opened there in 2008. The quick reoccupancy of the building stands as a testament to its quality design and construction, GSA officials said.

“I feel that the custom house is a treasure,” said L.J. Bourgeois, a GSA senior property manager. “It’s a stately building; it’s a very sound and majestic building. When you’re walking up Canal Street, and you see this building, it shows the authority of the United States government. So I guess, in a way, you could say that the city of New Orleans was built around the custom house.”

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Last Reviewed 2014-12-01