Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Alexander Hamilton Custom House

Custom House at Bowling Green
A superb example of Beaux Arts architecture  - the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House - is located at the southern tip of Manhattan, next to Battery Park, on the site of Fort Amsterdam, the fortification constructed by the Dutch West India Company to defend their operations in the Hudson Valley.
Constitution of the United States went into effect on March 4, 1789.  A bit more than four months later, on July 31 of that year, the U.S. Customs Service started operating, among the very first of the federal agencies to come to life.   On August 5, 1789 Captain James Weeks sailed his brigantine  into New York harbor with a miscellaneous cargo from   Italy. The duty on the cargo -- the first such payment ever made to the United States Treasury --was $774.41.


 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. From 1790 to 1799, New York Custom House was in downtown,  at S. William Street, opposite Mill Lane.
From 1799 to 1815, Customs house moved to the Government House, that was built exactly on the same  spot, where the first fort of New York, Fort Amsterdam was located and where in our days you can see an impressive structure of the Museum of American Indians.
26 Wall Street

The Government House was built in  1790 by the state  for President George Washington but Washington  never occupied it.  Before the house  was completed, in 1790,  the federal government moved temporarily to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; then permanently to Washington, D.C.   In 1815 the land was sold to the public and the Government House building demolished. In 1842 Custom House moved to 26 Wall Street.

The house that everybody know now as Federal Hall, was the first house built specially  for New  York Customs.  Twenty years later   Customs Office, having outgrown the space, vacated the building and  moved  to 55 Wall Street, Merchant's Exchange Building.

55 Wall street
And again very soon the place became  cramped  for the customs  and in 1899 the city held a competition for the design of a grand new home.  Twenty firms competed, and each of the firms was allowed to suggest two jury members. The jury, after requesting that the finalists further develop their designs and after meeting jointly and separately with the finalists, selected Cass Gilbert project. Before this building   Gilbert   designed the new state capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota.
This  job brought him national attention, but newyorkers primary know this architect because in  1913 he built  Woolworth  building,  that had been the world’s tallest building for over a decade at that time.  
Paris Opera Housed 

 The seven story Customs House contains 450,000 square feet of space and sits on three city blocks. It was richly decorated inside and out, including dozens of sculptures and carved images.  The inspiration for the Custom House was derived from the Paris Opera House, the most important Beaux-Arts building of the period.  The Palais Garnier,  a 1,979-seat opera house,    was built in Paris from 1861 to 1875  by French architect Jean-Louis Charles Garnier. 

The Customs building  incorporates Beaux Arts and City Beautiful movement planning principles, combining architecture, engineering, and fine arts.
 Sculpture was so important for the architect that  there were independent contracts for four sculpture groups in front of the building and standing sculptures above the main cornice.

"Continents", four female figures of limestone done by the sculptor  Daniel Chester French,  sit on large entrance pedestals and represent America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. Daniel  French  is one  of the most productive and acclaimed American sculptors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  He  is best known for his design of   the statue of Abraham Lincoln  in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C
When viewed from left to right, the first sculpture of the set is "Asia".

Asia
The central figure of this group is a woman, seated with eyes closed, her hands resting on her knees.  On her lap there is a small Buddha, and in one hand she holds a lotus flower, with a serpent wrapped around the stem. The three figures behind "Asia", one of which is bound, represent, in French's words, "the hordes of India, and the hopelessness of the life of so many of the inhabitants."

Africa
 "America"  is to the right of Asia.   A young  woman  sit  at the edge the  chair with a torch in one hand, and a bushel of corn is on her lap.   Her right foot, extended forward, leans on the head of an image of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. 
Native American wearing a warrior's headdress is    behind here   right shoulder. 
"Europe"  sits  on a throne decorated with a frieze from the Parthenon in Athens with her   right hand  resting on the bow of a ship with a lion's head, symbolizing the conquests of Europe.    "Africa" is     nude  and sleeping.

Europe

Nude- because for most people of that time there were only naked tribes there   and the "sleeping continent" was a common way of referring to Africa.     
Statues representing 12 seafaring nations stand above the front facade’s columns; the Corinthian capitals of the columns include the head of Mercury (representing commerce); second-story windows are topped by heads representing the “eight races of mankind.”  Among  the 12 top Nations there is Belgium. The statue was originally "German" , but  was  changed after the outbreak of World War I.

America
The murals in the great rotunda  inside the hose were added later. In 1936, during the Great Depression, the Works Projects Administration commissioned murals   from Reginald Marsh. The artist painted eight large murals depicting ocean liners at various stages of arriving in the Port of New York. In between the murals there are eight smaller panels of depicting explorers.  On one of the murals we can see   Lightship LV-87, also known as AMBROSE.


Great Rotonda
It was built in 1907 as a “floating lighthouse” to guide ships safely from the Atlantic Ocean into the broad mouth of lower New York Bay.  During the spring and summer, you can    board Ambrose that now is the part of  the South Sea Port Museum in New York,     and tour this original lightship, complete with working “radio shack.”  Marsh and his assistants, working fourteen-hour days, completed the murals on December 27, 1937.  The project cost the federal government $1,560.  The Customs House remained the primary tenant at this residence until 1973 when it moved to   Six World Trade Center.   Subsequent to 9/11 the offices were dispersed throughout New York.
Ambrose (Mural on the wall)

The building was empty for a decade, and slated for demolition until Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan sponsored a bill to restore the Custom House.
Now, the building is shared by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the National Archives, and the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution). You can read about  the Museum in my next post.