|photo NYPL Collection|
At the near-tip of Manhattan on the site where the Dutch West India Company built Fort Amsterdam to defend themselves against Native Americans sits one of the most monumental of New York structures.
The greatest source of revenue for the U.S. Government before the creation of income tax in 1916 was the collection of customs duties. As the 19th Century came to a close there was a need for a substantial new U.S. Customs house in New York City.
In 1899 once-elegant row houses, since converted to office space, lined the site of the old Fort Amsterdam. The federal government took ownership and the Department of the Treasure sponsored a competition for the design of the new Customs House -- and sparked a controversy that would last for years. The Customs House was the first major competition under the 1893 Tarnsey Act that allowed architects to compete for the design of public structures. The competition ended in a tie between Cass Gilbert, from Minnesota, and the New York City firm of Carrere & Hastings.
While the jury requested the finalists to submit further developments to their designs, Carrere & Hastings suggested to Gilbert that they join forces in the project and that they request the jury be enlarged. Gilbert, who wanted this plum commission for himself, refused on both counts. After resubmitted designs, much deliberation and Gilbert paying his lawyer $5000 in legal fees, Cass Gilbert won the commission.
Coming amid the City Beautiful movement which stressed monumental, decorative buildings, Gilbert's design was exactly that. Seven stories of Beaux Arts-styled gray Maine granite covered three city blocks and contained 450,000 square feet of space. Drawing his inspiration from the Paris Opera, his building would be as lavish as it would be massive.
Critical to the architecture was the sculpture. Four colossal seated figures representing Africa, Asia, America and Europe would decorate the front facade. So important were these allegories that each had a separate contract, the commissions being given to Daniel Chester French. Above the twelve 3-story high columns are statues representing the sea powers of the world. For dramatic contrast to the gray granite the statuary was executed in brilliant white Tennessee marble.
Masterpieces of symbolism, French's groups deserve careful study:
America rests her foot on Quetzelcoatl, the feathered South American serpent god. A Native American watches over her shoulder. Corn, wheat, cacti, a buffalo skull and a broken Indian pot symbolize the United States. Next to her Labor rolls the wheel of progress. Along the sides of America's throne are Mayan glyphs.
Europe sits on a throne decorated with parts of the frieze of the Parthenon, her left hand grips the bow of a ship with a lion's head, representing Europe's many conquests during the Age of Discovery. Her right hand, in a fist, rests on a globe -- a symbol of her many colonial take-overs. Behind her a shrouded figured depicting ancient history contemplates a human skull.
The interior of the Custom House was a lavish as the exterior. The rotunda remains one of the largest public spaces in New York. Over the ornate room a 140-ton skylight was engineered with no visible means of support. The adjoining oak-paneled Collector's Reception Room was decorated by Tiffany Studios.
In a last minute rescue, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan sponsored a bill appropriating nearly $30 million for the restoration of the old Customs House. Because of the variety and quality of the artwork, preservation efforts involved a series of subcontracts. Painstaking research was done on every piece after which individual curators recommended methods, tested those methods, then restored the art under the watchful eye of experts. The Marsh murals, for instance, were unable to be cleaned; the sand-rich plaster on which they were painted being far too delicate.
Today the U.S. Customs House is the home of the George Gustav Heye Center -- National Museum of the American Indian, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution.