The U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green
By Steven Flanders
The Custom House at the foot of Manhattan is one of New York’s most distinguished works of architecture. But from its origins in 1899 all the way to the present, nothing in its history has been simple. Designed by Cass Gilbert, an unknown provincial architect at the time, the Custom House essentially established the reputation of the architect who created our Thurgood Marshall Courthouse as well as the U. S. Supreme Court building, and was described by The New York Times when he got the Foley Square contract as the most important architect working in America. But the magnificent Custom House fell upon evil days when the World Trade Center went up 70 years later, and faced multiple uncertainties before the curious compromise was reached that led to its present uses: It is shared by the most unlikely possible pairing, of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York and the National Museum of the American Indian.
The Tarsney Act
The Custom House was the first federal building created under the Tarsney Act, an 1893 “reform” that had been urged upon Congress for decades by the American Institute of Architects, among others. Essentially all federal construction up to that time had been designed by the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, so the role (and opportunity for government business) for private architects was minimal. Though today the work of that office is regarded fondly (I urge well-traveled litigators to recall the magnificent 19th century federal courthouses in Milwaukee and Indianapolis, among others, as examples), the argument of the day was that the work of those government hacks should be enriched through competitions that brought in top firms.
The Custom House at the foot of Manhattan is one of New York’s most distinguished works of architecture. But from its origins in 1899 all the way to the present, nothing in its history has been simple.
The prospect of a much-expanded Manhattan Custom House was the ultimate prize. Though Democratic President Grover Cleveland had permitted his Treasury Secretary to ignore the Tarsney Act, President McKinley implemented it, in New York and elsewhere. The Customs Service of that day was the prime source of government revenue, exceeding 50 percent, and most of that came through the Manhattan office. The “short” list of competitors included 15 from New York, two each from Boston and Chicago, and a lone outlier, Cass Gilbert from St. Paul, Minnesota. Knowing that the Customs Service had an all-but-unlimited budget for this landmark project – in an amusing bureaucratic quirk of the day, the Customs Service expenses, including real estate, came off the top; revenues went to the Treasury after expenses were deducted – Gilbert created a monument with a monumental and expensive sculpture and mural program.
Gilbert’s selection created a “Manhattan firestorm.” Senator Platt, probably the most powerful man on Capitol Hill of the day, charged off to the White House to object to the choice of this provincial over such distinguished New York competitors as co-finalist Carrère and Hastings. But Gilbert had a bit of help. His former partner James Knox Taylor was McKinley’s Supervising Architect, in charge now of implementing the Tarsney Act. Though Taylor did not vote on the final selection, he did advise Gilbert at several points along the way. And another unknown Midwestern “provincial,” Thomas Kimball of Omaha, known to Gilbert but to none of the others among the 20 finalists, was a member of the three-man committee. A huge lobbying effort began on all sides, Gilbert spending some $5,000 – a considerable sum in those days – on legal fees. In the end, President McKinley and Treasury Secretary Lyman Gage were unwilling to upend this first implementation of the Tarsney Act, and we all are the beneficiaries.
A Great Building
The late Paul Spencer Byard, architect and preservationist, described the Custom House (after noting that some of Gilbert’s competitors for this job perhaps were better than he was): “The Custom House is a great building, rich, compact, with an almost anatomical fitness of its plan to its purpose
– a representation in the nation’s greatest seaport, of the fecundity of its wealth, the showering coin of customs collections that entered its front door and begat the capacity of the federal government to push and steer the growth of the nation.” The mural program and especially the Daniel Chester French sculptures of the continents that guard the entrance are the ultimate monument to American imperialism, created just as victory was achieved in our “splendid little war” against Spain. Professor Geoffrey Blodgett said, “The War turned the Caribbean into an American lake and broke open the Asian rim of the Pacific to American commerce. American power now was not only global but self-conscious and assertive. Of all the memorials to the mood of that war and its momentous consequences, the Custom House can be regarded as the most compelling.”
The Custom House served its intended purpose for nearly 70 years. Some complained of the incessant clattering of the typewriters in the huge Rotunda, where duties were actually calculated and receipts issued, but perhaps this was the price of prosperity. Gilbert had left the mural openings in that space blank; they were filled under the WPA by the more modern Reginald Marsh murals we see today. They portray the busy seaport, and such events as an arriving Marlene Dietrich holding court before the adoring press. But for whatever reason, perhaps in part because Beaux-Arts Classicism became thoroughly fusty and out of style, the Custom Service removed to the World Trade Center in the 1970s, leaving the building vacant, unused, and mostly unloved. It came close to demolition a couple of times before Brendan Gill and others mounted a determined effort to preserve it. Congress appropriated funds to stabilize and renew the building, and the judiciary in the early 1980s developed plans to move the bankruptcy court from grossly inadequate quarters on the second floor at Foley Square to Bowling Green.
That plan nearly came entirely unglued as a result of wholly unexpected and improbable events. David Rockefeller, a sort of neighbor as head of the Chase Manhattan Bank, had long regretted the seeming abandonment of the Custom House, a derelict relic at one of New York’s most prominent locations. At a White House dinner he urged President Ronald Reagan to offer this architectural orphan – as far as he knew – to the impecunious Museum of the Heye Foundation, whose magnificent collection of Indian artifacts languished in what had seemed an inaccessible location uptown. Observing that when the Heye Foundation had mounted a temporary exhibit at the Custom House, it drew more visitors in a few weeks’ time than its 155th Street museum did in a year, Mr. Rockefeller persuaded President Reagan that a gift to the Foundation was the answer.
The Senators Act
It is not easy to correct or modify an action of the President of the United States. Thankfully, Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse D’Amato, working together, were up to the task. Following a hearing over which they presided jointly, the present compromise was worked out. The bankruptcy court occupies the top floors, and its spaces are accessed via the ground floor doors that lead to the elevators. The grand entrance that leads to the rotunda and the intended public spaces, truly a natural for a museum, are the New York outpost of the National Museum of the American Indian, whose headquarters now occupy a major new building on the Mall in Washington. The courts and the museum have been comfortable neighbors now for more than 20 years.