kids encyclopedia robot

Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
U.S. Custom House
U.S. Historic district
Contributing property
Alexander Hamilton U-S Custom House 001-002 combined.JPG
Location 1 Bowling Green
Manhattan, New York City
Built 1901-1907
Architect Cass Gilbert, Daniel Chester French
Architectural style Beaux-Arts
Part of Wall Street Historic District (ID07000063)
NRHP reference No. 72000889
Quick facts for kids
Significant dates
Added to NRHP January 31, 1972
Designated NHL December 8, 1976

The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is a custom house erected in 1902–1907 by the federal government to house the duty collection operations for the Port of New York. Designed by Cass Gilbert in the Beaux-Arts style, it is at 1 Bowling Green in the Financial District near the southern tip of Manhattan in New York City, roughly on the same spot as Fort Amsterdam and Government House.

The Custom House was proposed in 1889 as a replacement for the previous New York Custom House at 55 Wall Street. Due to various disagreements, the Bowling Green Custom House was not approved until 1899; Gilbert was selected as an architect following a competition. The building was officially opened in 1907, and the murals in the rotunda were added during a Works Progress Administration project in 1938. The United States Customs Service moved out of the building in 1974, and it sat abandoned for over a decade until renovations in the late 1980s. In 1990, the Custom House was renamed to commemorate Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and its first Secretary of the Treasury.

The building contains the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 1994, as well as the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. Since 2012, it is also the home to the National Archives at New York City. The exterior of the U.S. Custom House was designated a city landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965, while part of the interior was similarly designated in 1979. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976. It is also a contributing property to the Wall Street Historic District, a NRHP district created in 2007.


The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House occupies a trapezoidal plot bounded by Bowling Green to the north, Whitehall Street to the east, Bridge Street to the south, and State Street to the east. The Whitehall Street and State Street elevations are 300 feet (90 m) wide; the main elevation on Bowling Green is 200 feet (60 m) wide; and the rear elevation on Bridge Street is 290 feet (88 m) wide. Nearby buildings include the International Mercantile Marine Company Building and the Bowling Green Offices Building to the northwest 26 Broadway to the northeast, 2 Broadway to the east, and One Battery Park Plaza to the south.

The New York City Subway's BMT Broadway Line (now the R and ​W train) and IRT Lexington Avenue Line (4 and ​5 train) respectively run to the east and west of the Custom House. Entrances to the Broadway Line's Whitehall Street station and the Lexington Avenue Line's Bowling Green station are beside the east and north sides respectively of the building.

The building sits on the site of Fort Amsterdam, constructed by the Dutch West India Company to defend their operations in the Hudson Valley. The fort became the nucleus of the New Amsterdam settlement, and in turn, of New York City. Bowling Green, immediately to the north, became the oldest park in New York City.


George Gustav Heye Center Roof 2
Roof detail

The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is seven stories high with an interior steel frame and was designed by Cass Gilbert in the Beaux-Arts style. Gilbert designed the structure similarly to previous custom houses in New York City, namely Ithiel Town's Federal Hall and Isaiah Rogers's New York Merchants Exchange building.

The building incorporates Beaux Arts and City Beautiful movement planning principles, combining architecture, engineering, and fine arts. Gilbert had written in 1900 about his plans for a wide-ranging, site-specific decorative program, which would "illustrate the commerce of ancient and modern times, both by land and sea". Sculptures, paintings, and decorations by well-known artists of the time, such as Daniel Chester French, Karl Bitter, Louis Saint-Gaudens, and Albert Jaegers, embellish various portions of the interior and exterior.


Unlike most custom houses, which face the waterfront, the Alexander Hamilton Custom House faces inland toward Bowling Green. There are six entrances to the building. The main entrance is through a wide, centrally located stairway on the northern elevation of the building.

The first-floor facade is composed of rusticated rows of blocks and is 20 feet (6.1 m) tall. The second through fourth stories contain engaged columns in the Corinthian style; some of these columns are paired while the others are single. There are 44 columns in total: twelve each on the north, east, and west elevations, and eight on the south elevation. The second story is the piano nobile; the windows on this story are flanked by brackets and capped by enclosed pediments, with carved heads above them (see § Sculptures). The third- and fourth-story windows, conversely, are less ornately decorated; this was normal for Beaux-Arts buildings, which generally had greater detailing on the more visible lower levels. The center portion of the Bridge Street facade reaches only to the third story.

The fifth-story facade consists of a full-story entablature with a frieze and short rectangular windows. The sixth story is located directly above it, while the seventh story consists of a red-slate mansard roof with dormer windows and copper cresting.


AHCH-1Asia jeh
Asia by Daniel Chester French

The figure groups were commissioned to twelve sculptors. The major work flanking the front steps, the Four Continents, was contracted to Daniel Chester French, who performed the commissions with associate Adolph A. Weinman. The work was made of marble and sculpted by the Piccirilli Brothers, with each sculptural group costing $13,500. From east to west, the statues depicted larger-than-life-size personifications of Asia, America, Europe, and Africa. The primary figures were female, but there were also auxiliary human figures flanking each primary figure. In addition, Asia's figure was paired with a tiger, and Africa's figure was paired with a lion.

NY US Custom House Sculptures from the Cornice (3)
Sculptures of seafaring nations

Above the main cornice are a group of standing sculptures of personifications of seafaring nations. There are twelve such statues, which depict commercial hubs through both ancient and modern history. Each sculpture is 11 feet (3.4 m) tall and weighs 20 short tons (18 long tons; 18 metric tons). These sculptures were arranged in chronological sequence from east to west, so that the easternmost sculptures were of ancient Greece and Rome, while the westernmost sculptures were of the more recent French and British empires. Eight sculptors were commissioned for this work. One of these sculptures, Germania by Albert Jaegers, was modified in 1918 to display Belgian insignia rather than German insignia.

The capitals of each of the 44 columns are decorated with carved heads depicting Hermes/Mercury, the Greek/Roman god of commerce. The windows on the main facade are topped by eight carved keystones, which contain carved heads with depictions of eight human races, namely "Caucasian, Hindu, Latin, Celt and Mongol, Italian, African, Eskimo, and even the Coureur de Bois". Carved under the main entrance arch are the municipal arms of the city of New York. A cartouche of the United States' coat of arms, by Bitter, was commissioned for the roof. Andrew O'Connor created a similar work for the space above the main entrance. The lintel above the main entrance, quarried in Maine, weighed 50 short tons (45 long tons; 45 metric tons) and measured 30 by 8 feet (9.1 by 2.4 m).


A barrel-vaulted entrance vestibule, supported by marble columns and decorated with multicolored mosaics, is located just inside the entrance. Behind bronze gates is a passageway to the Great Hall. An interior courtyard at the center of the building serves as a rotunda, rising to the third story. Stairways, made of marble with iron handrails, connect the interior spaces. There were elevators in each corner, with the southwestern and southeastern banks containing two elevators each, and the northwestern and northeastern banks three elevators apiece.

Because the original appropriation was limited in scope, decorative elements in the initial construction were limited to several important rooms, including the rotundas, hallways, lobby, and collector's office. These spaces contained marble walls in multiple hues, while nautical motifs were placed in numerous locations.

Ground level

The ground story is 20 feet (6.1 m) tall. Near the building's south end is space formerly used by the United States Postal Service, located around a west-east corridor accessed by both State and Whitehall Streets. There are also two ramps for delivery vehicles. The floor surface, wainscoting, and pilasters are made of marble, and the ceilings are 17 feet (5.2 m) high. When the post office was in operation, mail arrived through the delivery docks and was sorted in the basement.

About 6,000 square feet (560 m2) of storage space on the ground floor, under the rotunda, was converted in 2006 to the Heye Center's Diker Pavilion for Native Arts and Cultures. This pavilion consists of a slightly-sloped circular space seating 400 people, surrounding a maple dance floor.

Second floor

The transverse lobby runs from east to west along the second floor.
The rotunda connects the lobby with the exhibition galleries of the Heye Center.

The second floor generally has a ceiling that is 23 feet (7.0 m) tall. It consists of the former office spaces in the front and rear; the transverse lobby; and the rotunda. Gilbert planned the Custom House's interior so "all entrances, corridors, stairways and passages [were] arranged on the most direct and simple axial lines". The second-floor space, including the former offices, is almost entirely occupied by the Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The transverse lobby crosses the northern end of the second floor, from west to east. Generally, the more important offices were positioned north of the lobby, while divisions dealing in more routine work were relegated to the south. The floors are decorated in marble mosaic patterns, the frames around the doorways contain maritime-related carvings, and the ceilings contain three overhanging bronze lanterns. An entablature runs around the top of the lobby, with galleries on the third story. The lobby is finished in marble, and a series of piers supports the vaulted lobby. At the center of the lobby is a three-section foyer with a pair of round arches to the north and south, which are supplemented by green Doric-style marble columns. Following the second floor's conversion into the Heye Center, the former back offices are occupied by various exhibition galleries, while the front offices house the museum store and a future cafe space.

Semicircular staircases, with bronze railings and marble stair treads, are located on either end of the lobby. The stairs do not have any metal support structures and are composed entirely of flat, hard-burned clay tiles. Only the western stair is open to the public, connecting the first and second floors.

The collector's office is located at the northwestern corner of the second floor. The office consists of elaborate oak wainscoting designed by Tiffany Studios; hardwood floors; a coffered plaster ceiling with ornamented molding that contains the collector's monogram; and lighting fixtures layered with gold leaf. There were ten paintings above the wainscoting depicting 17th-century ports, which were commissioned by Elmer E. Garnsey. The office also included a stone fireplace mantel with a plaque referencing Fort Amsterdam and the Government House, which both previously occupied the Custom House's site. It is normally closed to the public, but can be rented for events. The northeastern corner contained the cashier's office, which was finished in white marble with a plaster ceiling, and contained a marble countertop. This space has been incorporated into the Heye Center's museum store.

The rotunda is an elliptical space measuring 85 by 135 feet (26 by 41 m), which rises to the level of the third story. The walls and floors are composed of marbles in different hues. The ceiling is self-supporting, without any interior metal structure, using the Guastavino tile arch system created by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino. It consists of numerous layers of fireproof tiles, each of which measures 6 by 12 inches (15 cm × 30 cm) and has a thickness of 1 inch (2.5 cm), which are bonded using Portland cement. The center of the ceiling contains a 140-short-ton (120-long-ton; 130-metric-ton) oval skylight rather than a keystone. The underside of the ceiling contains eight trapezoidal panels, as well as eight long, narrow panels between them. The panels contain fresco-secco murals depicting shipping activity in the Port of New York and New Jersey, which were painted in 1937 by Reginald Marsh with the help of eight assistants. The rotunda can be rented during special events.

Other stories

The upper stories contain ceilings between 12 and 16 feet (3.7 and 4.9 m) tall. All of the upper stories contain office space. The outer portion of the fifth story was initially used for document storage since the windows overlooking the fifth story were small apertures within the entablature.


Before the implementation of income and corporate taxes in the United States, import taxes from custom houses provided much of the U.S. federal government's earnings. In the 19th century, the Port of New York was the primary port of entry for goods reaching the United States, and as such, the New York Custom House was the most profitable custom house operated by the United States Customs Service. Until a national income tax was implemented in 1913 with the passage of the 16th Amendment, the New York Custom House supplied two-thirds of the federal government's revenue. Because the incomes of custom houses' collectors were tied to the revenue of each custom house, the New York Custom House's collector earned more than the U.S. president, and the position was extremely powerful.

The New York Custom House had relocated several times in Lower Manhattan before the Alexander Hamilton Custom House was built. The first such house was established in 1790 at South William Street. The custom house moved to the Government House on the site of Fort Amsterdam in 1799. The old Government House was demolished in 1815, and the site was later developed with the houses of several wealthy New Yorkers. Meanwhile, the custom house moved to numerous locations; its last location prior to the construction of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House was 55 Wall Street, which it had occupied since 1862.

Planning and construction

The Merchants' Exchange Building served as New York City's custom house before the Alexander Hamilton Custom House was built.

In February 1888, William J. Fryer Jr., superintendent of repairs of New York City's federal-government buildings, wrote to the United States Department of the Treasury's Supervising Architect about the "old, damp, ill-lighted, badly ventilated" quarters there. Architecture and Building magazine called the letter "worthy of thoughtful investigation". In the mid-19th century, the custom house's Wall Street location had been optimal because it was close to the Subtreasury, thereby making it easy to transport gold, but by the end of the century, it was easier to use a check or certificate to make payments on revenue. On September 14, 1888, Congress passed an act that would allow site selection for a new custom house and appraiser's warehouse. Soon after, Fryer presented his report to the New York State Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber said in 1889 that "We have not seriously considered the removal of the present Custom House proper, since it is well located, and, if found inadequate, can easily be easily be enlarged to meet all the wants of the Government for an indefinite time to come."

Site selection

Fryer recommended Bowling Green as his first preference for a new custom house, followed by a site immediately south, along State Street north of Battery Park. In September 1889, Treasury secretary William Windom selected Bowling Green as the new site of the custom house and appraiser's warehouse. Almost immediately, problems arose with the selection: the following month, it seemed that Windom had exceeded his authority to select the new site. In addition, businessmen opposed moving the site of the custom house, and a judge ruled in 1891 that the federal government could not take the Bowling Green site by eminent domain as it had proposed to do. A bill to acquire land for a new New York City custom house and sell the old building was passed in both houses of the U.S. Congress in early 1891.

By July 1892, a cost appraisal for acquiring the Bowling Green site was completed. The appraisal estimated that it would cost $1.96 million to acquire land at Bowling Green. Still, in January 1893, there was not enough money to purchase the lots at Bowling Green: the lessees and landowners were supposed to receive $2.1 million, but there was only $1.5 million on hand. The 1891 bill had allowed up to $2 million for land acquisition, and had required that the previous building be sold for at least $4 million. As such, no progress was made until 1897, when a further appropriation was proposed. The proposed disbursements that would have gone to the landowners instead remained in the Treasury. An alternate site in the West Village was chosen for the appraiser's warehouse.

Competition and site acquisition

The Tarsney Act, passed in 1893, permitted the Supervising Architect to host a competition to hire private architects for the erection of federal-government buildings. However, the act did not proceed until Treasury secretary Lyman J. Gage took office in 1897. Furthermore, it was difficult for the federal government to sell the old building for at least $4 million. The new New York Custom House building was only the fourth building to be built under the Tarsney Act.

Republican Party officials wished to have the exclusive privilege of spending immense amounts on the new custom house building. Originally, the Chamber of Commerce and many business interests advocated for erecting a new custom house on the Wall Street site, even though it was less than half the size of the proposed Bowling Green site. In 1897, senator Thomas C. Platt and representative Lemuel E. Quigg, both Republicans, proposed bills in the United States Senate and House of Representatives for building a new custom house at Wall Street, with Platt's bill calling for a five-person commission to oversee the process. The bills died at the end of the 54th United States Congress in March 1897. The next February, during the 55th Congress, Platt and Quigg proposed bills to acquire the Bowling Green site, with $5 million provided for land acquisition and construction. The U.S. House and Senate passed the Bowling Green bills in March 1899. At the time, most of the structures on the site were three-story houses used by steamship offices; by April, agreements had been made with most of the sixteen landowners. The federal government disbursed $2.2 million to landowners at the Bowling Green site that June, and two months later, the old Custom House was sold for $3.21 million.

Twenty firms were invited in May 1899 to submit designs to the competition under the terms of the Tarsney Act. The government stipulated that any plan consist of a ground-level basement and up to six stories, as well as a southward-facing light court above the third story. A jury of three men were appointed to look over the submissions. By September 1899, there were two finalists: New York City firm Carrere & Hastings and Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert. After the failure of a plan to have the two finalists collaborate, Supervising Architect James Knox Taylor picked Gilbert, who had been his partner at the Gilbert & Taylor architecture firm in St. Paul, Minnesota. The selection of Gilbert was controversial, drawing opposition from Platt and several other groups. Some of the opposition centered around the fact that Gilbert was a "westerner" who had newly arrived to New York City, and several opponents raised doubts about the jury's competence. After Gage certified Gilbert's selection in November 1899, the opposition decreased significantly.

Construction and opening

US Customs House New York of to-day. (1912) (14782617492)
The Custom House in 1912

Demolition of existing buildings on the site began in February 1900, and by that August, test bores were being made for the construction of the new Custom House's foundations. Isaac A. Hoppes received a contract for such work the same December. The site was excavated to a depth of 25 feet (7.6 m), and some 2.2 million cubic feet (62,000 m3) of dirt was removed. The New-York Tribune called the site "the biggest hole that was ever made in this city over which to erect a building". In December 1901, the federal government accepted contractor John Peirce's bid to erect the Custom House building's first floor. Pending further appropriations, the rest of the building would also be built by Peirce. At the time, there was only $3 million budgeted toward the Custom House's completion. The following November, Peirce was authorized to complete the remaining stories, after another $1.5 million was allocated to continue construction.

The cornerstone of the building was laid on October 7, 1902, in a ceremony attended by Treasury secretary Leslie M. Shaw. After a ticker tape parade down Broadway, the cornerstone, filled with contemporary souvenirs and artifacts, was placed at the northeast corner of the site. The new Custom House's construction lagged due to government bureaucracy, while work on comparable private buildings nearby proceeded more quickly. This could be attributed to a variety of reasons, such as concurrent jobs being undertaken by the building's contractors; money shortages; and lack of supplies. Nonetheless, the building's presence resulted in the development of other nearby sites. The Custom House was reportedly 70% complete by February 1905, according to Peirce. That September, J.C. Robinson was contracted to furnish the interior of the building. With a proposed final cost of $4.5 million, it was to be more expensive than every other public building in New York City except for the Tweed Courthouse.

A branch of the United States Postal Service moved to the Bridge Street side of the building's ground floor in July 1906, becoming the first tenant to occupy the building. The same year, an additional $465,000 was allocated for the building's completion. By September 1907, the Custom House was ready for opening. The next month, the building was formally declared completed and the contractors formally turned over the building to the U.S. federal government. However, most of the internal furnishings had not been added. The U.S. Customs Service moved its offices to Bowling Green on November 4, 1907.

Use by U.S. Customs Service

AH Custom house dusk jeh
Seen at dusk, September 2008

Following the Customs Service's relocation to the Custom House, other government agencies with offices in New York City, such as the Weather Bureau, also moved to the Bowling Green Custom House. By 1908, the Custom House was fully occupied by these other agencies, as the Treasury's chief architect had assigned space to other departments without consulting with the collector. The next year, the House of Representatives approved the installation of a pneumatic-tube system so the post office and custom house could send packages to the appraiser's warehouse. With the onset of World War I, in 1918, Gilbert was directed to remove all references to Germany from the Custom House's sculptures, since Germany had become one of the Central Powers against which the United States was fighting. The German insignia on the entablature's Germania statue was accordingly replaced with those of Belgium. The next year, the U.S. Passport Agency moved to the Custom House building.

In 1937, during the Great Depression, the Treasury Relief Art Project (with funds and assistance from the Works Projects Administration) commissioned a cycle of murals for the main rotunda from Reginald Marsh. The ceiling of the rotunda had been undecorated white plaster when the building was first erected. By 1940, officials were asking that the Custom House be renovated. Then-collector Harry M. Durning requested at least $190,000 from Congress, saying that "men [were] falling out of ancient chairs, and [...] our valuable records and current papers stacked on desks and improperly filed in decrepit cabinets and bookshelves". From 1914 to 1956, the Bowling Green Custom House also included a regional tax office, where companies and residents in Manhattan south of 34th Street had to pay their taxes.

Decline, restoration, and later use

Decline and restoration

As early as 1964, the U.S. Customs Service considered moving to the World Trade Center, which was then under construction. The Customs Service signed a long-term lease with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey at Six World Trade Center in 1970. The Customs Service moved in 1973. At the time, the New York Custom House had 1,375 employees, and the land under the building was estimated to be worth between $15 million and $20 million. The General Services Administration (GSA) then took possession of the Bowling Green Custom House.

Most of the building fell into various states of disrepair: while Marsh's ceiling murals and the commissioner's room suffered little damage, other offices had peeling paint and weeds were growing from the statues outside. The nonprofit organization Custom House Institute was founded in 1974 to preserve the building, and the next year, the federal government declared the building as "surplus" property, thereby making it available to the city government. The architect I. M. Pei suggested converting the upper floors into office space, keeping the second-floor rotunda open, and converting the first floor to commercial use. This did not happen, and the Custom House Institute occupied the first floor while the GSA cleaned the facade; the upper six floors went unused. During this time, the rest of the building was seldom open to the public, except for special events. These included the bicentennial of the United States in 1976, a summer arts program in 1977, and another arts exhibition in 1979.

USA-NYC-National Museum of American Indian0
Main entrance, seen in 2013

The GSA estimated in 1977 that it would cost $24 million to renovate the Bowling Green Custom House. The building's preservation was spurred by U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who gave U.S. House representatives a tour of the building to convince them to fund its renovation. In 1979, in part because of his advocacy, Congress approved a $26.5 million budget for the renovation, including the restoration of Marsh's murals. The GSA opened a request for proposal in 1983 for the use of 77,000 square feet (7,200 m2) of space in the Custom House. Six plans for the building's reuse were presented to Manhattan Community Board 1 in August 1984. Among those, two plans were considered most seriously: one for a Holocaust museum, and the other for a cultural and educational center with an ocean liner museum, restaurants, and theaters. Of these, the community board's members was overwhelmingly in favor of the cultural and educational center, while Jewish groups preferred the Holocaust museum. The Holocaust museum proposal was selected in October 1984. The Museum of Jewish Heritage, as the museum would be known, accepted an alternate site nearby at Battery Park City two years later, after preservationists said it would be "inappropriate" for such a museum to be located in the Custom House.

An $18.3 million renovation began in August 1984. Exterior and ceremonial interior spaces were cleaned, restored, and conserved, while old office space was renovated for Federal courtrooms and ancillary offices, rental offices and meeting rooms, and for a 350-seat auditorium with state-of-the-art projection facilities. Upgrades of fire safety, security, telecommunications, and heating, air conditioning, and ventilating systems accompanied alterations. Ehrenkrantz and Eckstut Architects undertook the $60 million project.

Museum operation

By early 1987, Moynihan was proposing legislation that would turn over the building to the Museum of the American Indian (later the George Gustav Heye Center), which at the time occupied Audubon Terrace in Upper Manhattan. This led to opposition from the American Indian Community House, which wished to occupy a part of the Custom House, and which argued that the museum was run mostly by non-Indians. At the time, the Museum of the American Indian wished to relocate because its Upper Manhattan facility was insufficient, and the Custom House was being offered as an alternative for the museum's possible relocation to Washington, D.C. U.S. senator Daniel Inouye introduced the National Museum of the American Indian Act the next month, which would have brought the collection to Washington, D.C., instead. A compromise was reached in 1988, in which the Smithsonian would build its own museum in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian would also acquire the Heye collection, which it would continue to operate in New York City at the Custom House. The act was passed in 1989.

In 1990, the building was officially renamed after Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, by act of Congress. The George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in the Custom House in October 1994. At that time, most of the space had been closed for 20 years. The Heye Center occupied the three lower stories, while the United States bankruptcy court occupied two additional stories. The other two stories were unoccupied and had not been renovated, but the GSA planned to renovate the vacant stories.

During the September 11 attacks in 2001, the museum and building were mostly undamaged, but airborne debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center had to be cleared from some of the interior spaces. The Heye Center's exhibition and public access areas originally totaled about 20,000 square feet (1,900 m2). The museum expanded into part of the ground floor in 2006. Six years later, the National Archives and Records Administration offices in New York moved to the Custom House.

kids search engine
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.