Built in the early 20th century, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is an architectural masterpiece. This landmark was originally used to collect taxes and tariffs by the federal government. The property was eventually renamed to commemorate the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Additionally, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is home to a Smithsonian museum that celebrates Native American history and culture.
The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is located on Bowling Green in Manhattan’s Financial District. It sits on the original site of New York City’s first custom house.
History of the Building
The Port of New York was by far the busiest commercial port in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. The United States Customs Service enthusiastically took advantage of NYC’s bustling shipping industries.
At the end of the 1800s, this important federal agency launched plans for a new headquarters on the tip of Lower Manhattan. A competition was held to find the most qualified architect for the ambitious project. Having earned a solid reputation in the Midwest, Cass Gilbert was commissioned to design the U.S. Custom House. Construction for the building took just more than five years.
In 1907, the Custom House officially opened and solidified NYC’s status as an economic powerhouse on a national scale. Brokers, cashiers, clerks and other professionals used the grand building to collect tariffs and taxes that ultimately funded local, regional and national programs.
The Great Depression ultimately sparked some major renovation and improvement projects in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. Using federal funds from the Works Projects Administration, contractors, artists and interior designers added several murals to the rotunda. After World War II, business in the building resumed to normal levels.
However, the construction of the nearby World Trade Center threatened the fate of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. The U.S. Customs Service moved into the modern office space in this massive complex that consisted of two iconic skyscrapers. The General Services Administration took over control of the historic landmark that was quickly falling into decline and neglect. After a major restoration project, a federal bankruptcy court for the New York region moved into the building.
In 1990, the magnificent landmark was renamed in honor of Alexander Hamilton, who took a leading role in the U.S. Treasury immediately after the birth of the nation. In 1994, the National Museum of the American Indian became the second tenant. Also known as the George Gustav Heye Center, this museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution. Additionally, a branch of the National Archives is based in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House.
Art and Architecture
Cass Gilbert designed the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in the traditional Beaux-Arts style. Massive Corinthian columns decorate the facade of this architectural gem. One of the most prominent sculptors in American history, Daniel Chester French sculpted several major installations at the base of the building.
Standing at the footsteps of the main entrance, the Four Continents welcomed countless visitors to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. These intricate sculptures refer to Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. For example, the American monument depicts the mythical figure Labor pushing a wheel. This scene symbolizes the leading role of the United States in industry and commerce.
The entire perimeter of the building is decorated with reliefs and other carvings of figures from European mythology. The metalwork on the roof includes sculptures that are made of bronze, copper, iron and other materials that have been routinely repainted to prevent corrosion.
The interior design of the U.S. Custom House is just as stunning as the facade. The main rotunda has several colorful murals that depict various scenes relating to the local maritime industry. Tall marble columns and massive vaults emphasize the grand scale of this stunning edifice. The Collector’s Reception Room also has some of the building’s most impressive artwork.
Visiting Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House
The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is located between Bowling Green Park and The Battery in Lower Manhattan. The 4 and 5 trains of the New York City Subway conveniently stop just one block away from this historic landmark. Additionally, the Staten Island Ferry stops at the Whitehall Terminal, which is just a few blocks away from the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. There are plenty of Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) bus stops within walking distance of the attraction.
Location: 1 Bowling Green (near the southern tip of Manhattan), New York, NY, 10004
Click here to visit Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House official website.