As the New York Party Shuttle continues its way down the Wall Street-Bowling Green area, we come upon one of the most magnificent sights in New York, the incredible Beaux Arts building formally known as the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House.
United States Customs House in New York City
The rationale behind this grandiose structure was quite simple: before the imposition of the income tax in 1916, customs duties were the greatest single source of revenue for the U.S. government, and the Port of New York was the country’s most prosperous trade center. Therefore, this building had to be quite impressive, if not awe-inspiring, so in 1899 the government invited twenty architects to submit designs for a new customhouse, and noted architect Cass Gilbert was the winner.
Begun in 1900 and completed in 1907, this monumental palace soars to a height of seven stories and sprawls over 450,000 square feet, covering three blocks of lower Manhattan. Located directly behind Bowling Green Park, this magnificent building boasts an incredible facade of white Tennessee marble sculpture adorned by gray Maine granite. Featuring forty-four columns, each decorated with a head of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, this sumptuous entranceway serves as backdrop to four large sculptures — seated female figures representing America, Asia, Europe, and Africa — by Daniel Chester French (who also did the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at Washington’s Lincoln Memorial). Above the columns of the main facade are twelve heroic statues representing the sea powers of Europe and the Mediterranean featuring several curious representations of the most famous trading cities of the world: notice, to the left of the central shield, a woman representing Lisbon by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the doge with a death’s head representing Venice. The front exterior also features a giant cartouche depicting the shield of the United States, with a serene head of Columbia, sculpted by Vincenzo Alfano in 1903. Above the main-floor windows are sculpted heads symbolizing the races of humanity.
As magnificent as the exterior is, the interior is just as sumptuous. Shells, marine creatures, and sea signs abound throughout the interior, as befits a tribute to New York’s status as a global seaport. Monumental arches and columns highlight the symmetry of the great hall. Off this spectacular lobby is the ornate Collector’s Reception Room, its walls oak-paneled by the Tiffany Studios. The immense arch of the Custom House’s magnificent elliptical rotunda was built according to the principles of Spanish-immigrant engineer Rafael Guastavino (1842–1908). The ingenious design allowed the rotunda’s 140-ton skylight to be constructed without visible signs of support.
In 1937, celebrated New York painter Reginald Marsh (1898–1954) accepted a low-paying position with the Treasury Department to produce murals for the rotunda dome. Working with astonishing speed, Marsh and eight young assistants depicted early explorers of the Americas in one series of paintings and traced the course of a ship entering New York’s harbor in the other. One of them shows Greta Garbo disembarking and being met by the press.
Rich in architectural and historic significance, the Custom House is a National Historic Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Museum of the American Indian took over these premises in 1999, serving as the National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition and education facility in New York City. Permanent and temporary exhibitions are on display every day of the week, and best of all, it is free!