The U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green

Legal History

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.

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