Explore by Timeline: The New Nation (1783-1860)
U.S. Constitution Signed
The Constitutional Convention convened at the Philadelphia State House (Independence Hall) in May 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. After some debate, the convention decided to instead frame an entirely new government, which would include an executive, judiciary, and legislature comprised of two houses. The Convention approved the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and it was ratified on July 2, 1788 after nine states had approved it.
American architects felt that architecture in the United States should be symbolic of the new national government, which was heavily based on the ideals of the Roman Republic. They thus rejected the British-influenced Georgian style and began looking directly to Rome for architectural inspiration.
U.S. Customs Service Established
On July 31, 1789, the Fifth Act of the First Congress created a field organization of collectors "to regulate the Collection of the Duties imposed by law on the tonnage of ships or vessels, and on goods, wares and merchandises imported into the United States." Fifty-nine customs districts were established in eleven states, each with a collector appointed by the president.
Custom houses were usually the earliest federal buildings constructed in cities outside of the nation’s capital. In 1816, Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Maximilian Godfrey designed a custom house for Baltimore, which formed the south wing of the Exchange Building.
Act of Congress Establishing the Treasury Department
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there shall be a Department of Treasury…”
During its first session, Congress formally established the Department of the Treasury to manage the new nation’s finances. Alexander Hamilton became the first Secretary of the Treasury on September 11, 1789. As part of its fiscal responsibilities, the Treasury Department administered appropriations for early public building design. A centralized program to manage federal building activities did not develop until the mid-nineteenth century.
Judiciary Act Adopted
On September 24, 1789, during its first session, Congress formally established the federal judiciary, as called for in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. The Judiciary Act of 1789 created thirteen district courts, each with one judge, in major cities, and three regional circuit courts. The Supreme Court, with one chief justice and five associate justices, sat above the inferior courts as the only court of appeals. The act also created the office of Attorney General.
On February 1, 1790, the Supreme Court convened for the first time in New York City, which was then the capital of the United States, at the Royal Exchange Building. The court did not receive its own, permanent building until 1935.
Residence Act Passed
The Residence Act of 1790 designated a site on the Potomac River as the permanent capital of the United States. Philadelphia was named the temporary capital, and assumed this role until the federal government relocated to the District of Columbia in 1800. George Washington selected Pierre-Charles L’Enfant to design the new city of Washington. On August 26, 1791, L’Enfant submitted his plan, which consisted of broad, radiating avenues connecting significant focal points—the planned houses of Congress and the president—at the two highest elevations. L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C., remains largely in place today.
Competitions to Design the President’s House and U.S. Capitol
In 1792, the federal government’s first major architectural competitions took place. At the request of President George Washington, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced the competition to design the President’s House. James Hoban, an Irish-born architect, won the commission for the house, which L’Enfant had allowed for in his 1791 plan for the capital city. The building was ready for occupancy in 1800, with John Adams being the first president to live there. Though mostly late-Georgian in style, the building had a Roman dome and temple front.
Dr. William Thornton, a physician, submitted his design for the Capitol after the competition deadline. He won first place, and the cornerstone was laid in 1793. James Hoban oversaw much of the construction, and the north wing was ready for occupancy by the Senate, House of Representatives, and Supreme Court by 1800.
Latrobe named Surveyor of Public Buildings and Grounds
President Thomas Jefferson invited Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1819), an English immigrant, to become Surveyor of Public Buildings and Grounds for the nation’s capital in 1802. In this position, Latrobe oversaw the completion of the Capitol building and the President’s House, for which he designed the north and south porticos. The position ended in 1811. Although Latrobe was rehired to work on the Capital after the British burned it during the War of 1812, he resigned due an altercation with the commissioner and left Washington.
In his Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Latrobe was the first American architect to incorporate a Greek Order into a design. The Greek Revival style soon grew to national prominence, largely through the work of two of his students: William Strickland and Robert Mills.
Oldest Building in GSA Inventory Constructed
In 1810, David Parish, a German financier, constructed a a simple store and warehouse in Ogdensburg, New York. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ogdensburg was an important component of a regional distribution network for goods brought to upper New York State via the St. Lawrence River. The area around Ogdensburg was unsettled and remote; there were few roads and transportation of goods was extremely difficult. When the Parish Store was built, goods were brought up the St. Lawrence River, warehoused in Ogdensburg, and distributed regionally.
In 1811, Congress established the U.S. Customs District of Oswegatchie in Ogdensburg. According to local tradition, the Parish store likely housed U.S. Customs Service functions as early as 1811 until 1870 (when a new building was constructed to house government offices). In 1928, the district headquarters of the U.S. Customs Service was moved into leased space in the Parish Store; the U.S. Government subsequently purchased the building in 1936 and changed its name to the U. S. Custom House.
Capital Burned During War of 1812
The United States responded to a series of naval conflicts with the British with a declaration of war in 1812. After defeating American troops at Bladensburg, Maryland, British troops arrived in Washington on August 24, 1814. They soon set fire to major federal buildings throughout the city, including the President’s House, the Capitol, and the Treasury Building. The city was in ruins.
After contemplating relocating to a more secure location, the government decided to remain in Washington. Congress met in the General Post Office (formerly Blodgett’s Hotel) and the Madisons took up residence at the Tayloe family’s Octagon House. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, ending the war. In 1815, Congress passed a bill that all public buildings in Washington should be rebuilt on their original sites.
Charles Bulfinch Appointed Architect of the CapitolAfter the resignation of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Charles Bulfinch assumed the role of Architect of the Capitol on January 8, 1818. Born in Boston and educated at Harvard, Bulfinch was New England’s leading architect. He oversaw completion of the wings and the central portion of the U.S. Capitol building, as well as the original low, wooden dome. In 1829 construction was completed, and Bulfinch’s position was abolished.
William Strickland Selected to Design U.S. Custom House in PhiladelphiaIn 1816, the federal government appropriated funding for the construction of a new custom house in Philadelphia. William Strickland (1788-1854), a former apprentice of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, oversaw the construction of the Greek Revival building. The building was used by the U.S. Customs Service until 1844, when the agency relocated to the former Second Bank of the United States, also designed by Strickland and modeled after the Parthenon in Athens.
Robert Mills Appointed Architect of Public Buildings
One of the first American-born and professionally trained architects, Robert Mills (1781-1855) studied under Benjamin Henry Latrobe and James Hoban. Mills arrived in Washington, DC, in 1830. After spending his first years in Washington altering existing public buildings, Mills won the competition for the design of the Washington Monument in 1836. The same year, President Andrew Jackson appointed Mills Architect of Public Buildings, through which role he designed the Treasury Building, Patent Office and General Post Office in Washington, DC.
In his work, Mills utilized Classical Revival architecture, most often employing the Greek Revival style. His role as public buildings architect ceased in 1842, but Mills remained in Washington until his death.
U.S. Custom House Completed in New York City
Located at 26 Wall Street, New York’s City Hall housed the federal government before it moved to Philadelphia in 1789. The building, the site of George Washington’s inauguration and the adoption of the Bill of Rights, was demolished in 1814. In 1833, the government held a competition for the design of a custom house on the site. First prize went to Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, who submitted a design in proportion with the Parthenon. The original plans were significantly altered during the construction phase, however, with architects William Ross and John Frazee redesigning the interior.
The building was completed and occupied in 1842. The Customs Service relocated in 1860, and the building became the U.S. Sub-Treasury. Today known as Federal Hall, the building houses a National Park Service museum dedicated to George Washington and the founding of the United States.
After declaring its independence from Mexico in 1836, Texas became an independent nation until 1845 when it was voluntarily annexed by the United States.
A border dispute soon arose between the United States and Mexico, which had refused to recognize Texas’s independence. Skirmishes in South Texas led to the United States declaring war on Mexico in 1846. The Mexican-American War had begun.
When the war ended two years later, the Rio Grande River was established as the border between Mexico and the United States. The city of Laredo, formerly part of Mexico, became part of the United States as the so-called “Gateway to Mexico”.
U.S. Custom House Constructed in BostonIn 1837, architect Ammi Burnham Young entered a design competition for the U.S. Custom House in Boston. His Greek Revival design won, and construction took place over the next decade. The building had a pedimented portico supported by Doric columns and a cruciform plan. It is this important commission that likely secured Young the position of first Supervising Architect of the Treasury in 1852.
Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848. For $15 million, the U.S. acquired 500,000 miles of land in the West and Southwest from Mexico, including New Mexico, Arizona, California, Texas, and portions of Colorado, Utah and Nevada.
A few years later, in 1853, the federal government began construction of a “state house” in Santa Fe. The building has housed federal courts since it was completed in 1889.
Construction Begins on U.S. Custom House in New Orleans
The U.S. Custom House was planned in the 1840s in response to increasing trade through the Mississippi Valley. In 1847, the Treasury Department chose the design of Alexander Thompson Wood, and construction began in 1848. After Wood was replaced as architect in 1850, a succession of eight architects followed, each modifying the original design concept.
The partially completed building was first occupied in 1856 when the U.S. Customs Service moved into the first floor. The post office followed in November 1860, and the building served as the city’s main post office through the remainder of the nineteenth century.
U.S. Custom House Constructed in Savannah
The federal government purchased a site to house a new custom house in Savannah, Georgia in 1845. Architect John Norris designed the Greek Revival style building, which also housed the U.S. Post Office and federal courts, and construction took place between 1848 and 1852.
In 1860, the case involving the Wanderer, a ship that illegally transported African slaves to the United States in 1858, was tried in the building. None of the defendants was convicted.
Ammi B. Young Appointed First Supervising Architect
In the early 1850s, Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Corwin sent architect Ammi B. Young to inspect various federal building projects. Young’s work met with the secretary’s approval, and in March 1852 Corwin offered Young a permanent position with a $3000 annual salary. By late 1852, Young had assumed the title of “Supervising Architect” and was not only inspecting buildings, but also designing them. Young retained this responsibility until the Civil War brought all building projects to a standstill.
Bureau of Construction Established
After James Guthrie became Secretary of the Treasury in 1853, he reorganized the newly centralized public buildings program. He appointed Captain Alexander Hamilton Bowman as chief of the Bureau of Construction. In this role, Bowman oversaw the Office of the Supervising Architect, though Ammi Young remained the primary designer of buildings.
After many years of disjointed supervision, the Department of the Treasury had centralized system for managing the nation’s federal building projects.