Tariff Temples

Unsung but imposing, customhouses are among the best of federal buildings.


The U.S. Customhouse, New York City

Credit: Carol Highsmith

If you scan lists of preservation award winners, you'll soon conclude that we love courthouses. Ditto city halls and mills, diners and railroad stations, movie palaces and big ol' barns. The customhouse, on the other hand, appears on these lists so infrequently that it's practically the Invisible Man of historic building types.

Why? For one thing, customhouses aren't liberally and uniformly dotted across the map of America. The very reason for their existence-the assessment and collection of customs duties at points of entry into the country-means that these landmarks, with some notable exceptions, are found in communities on the water-lapped edges of the United States. You're not likely to come upon one in a high-and-dry place like Topeka or Boise. They have an image problem, too: After all, "assessing and collecting customs duties" is another way of telling people how much money they owe, and then making them pay it. It's hard to get a warm feeling about that kind of thing, even when it takes place in a genuinely distinguished building.

Which is exactly what many customhouses are. The one that lords it over lower Canal Street in New Orleans, for example, is a real eye-catcher, and even though the 1881 structure's gray stone exterior is a bit ponderous for my taste, Marble Hall at its heart is an awesomely dignified space that tells you everything you need to know about neoclassicism. Less grandiose and more charming, the 1861 customhouse in Galveston, Tex., saw construction delays occasioned by a yellow fever epidemic, shelling during the Civil War, a "bread riot" by hungry Confederate women, and a boiler explosion in 1978-and still looks as elegant as it did on the day it opened. Exuding the same air of miniature monumentality, the 1858 Georgetown customhouse here in Washington-a reminder that this tony residential neighborhood was once a bustling port-is a minipalazzo whose granite walls stand out amid Georgetown's pastels like a rock in a basket of Easter eggs.

The U.S. Customs Service is the oldest federal agency (who knew?), and for more than a century after its establishment in 1789, it practically funded the entire government. This fact helps explain why customhouses were designed to make a strong architectural statement: They were the bricks-and-mortar embodiment of the federal government, and architects went all-out to make them imposing. The persistence of this design philosophy can be seen in the marvelous Philadelphia example, built in the 1930s and boasting all the grandeur of its 19th-century counterparts, with a dazzling art deco rotunda that could be the set for a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical.

Since the Customs Service does much of its work at airports nowadays, many of its historic facilities have been converted to other uses. Boston's 1847 customhouse is a good example. It started out as a chaste little Greek temple with Doric columns and a dome.  In 1913, a 26-story skyscraper was built on top of it-a radical expansion (no kidding!) that created one of the most distinctive shapes on the city's skyline. Having survived years of underuse, several abortive rehab schemes, and the threat of demolition, it's now a hotel.

Appropriately, our most opulent customhouse is located in New York City, our biggest port. It's a Beaux-Arts tour de force, the confident work of an architect (Cass Gilbert) who knew what was expected of him and delivered it with supreme skill. It's a veritable outdoor sculpture gallery, too, with monumental figures representing the continents flanking the entrance and a whole population of statues ranged along the cornice. The rotunda is one of the nation's great rooms-a vast, domed space with vivid murals that show, among other things, an ocean liner's majestic progress through New York harbor.

The U.S. General Services Administration, which owns many of these landmarks, has been celebrating the New York facility's centennial this year. More birthdays are coming up in Baltimore, New Bedford, Mass., and other places, so blow up some balloons. When was the last time you threw a party for a customhouse?

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