100 Years of Grandeur: Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, New York, New York

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[ MUSIC ] [ BACKGROUND MUSIC ]>>WRITE ITS HISTORY AND
YOU HAVE WRITTEN THE HISTORY OF THE COMMERCE OF
THE UNITED STATES.>>IT’S BEEN SAID THAT THE SITE OF NEW YORK’S ALEXANDER HAMILTON
CUSTOM HOUSE IS NOT JUST WHERE THE CITY STARTED, BUT
WHERE THE COUNTRY STARTED. THIS TRIANGULAR TIP OF LOWER
MANHATTAN WAS THE HEART OF NEW YORK’S EARLIEST
COLONIAL SETTLEMENT. HERE IN 1626 DUTCH COLONISTS
BOUGHT MANHATTAN ISLAND FROM ITS NATIVE AMERICAN
RESIDENTS FOR $24 WORTH OF TRINKETS. IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED
THE DUTCH BUILT FORT AMSTERDAM ON THIS SITE BUT AS THE
ROLE OF THE HARBOR CHANGED FROM NATIONAL DEFENSE
TO COMMERCE, NEW YORK’S FIRST CUSTOM
HOUSE REPLACED THE FORT. BEFORE THE INCOME TAX
WAS INSTITUTED IN 1913, CUSTOM DUTIES WERE THE
GREATEST SOURCE OF REVENUE FOR THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT.>>NEW YORK WAS THE
MOST PROMINENT PORT IN THE UNITED STATES. IT DID MORE THAN THREE TIMES
AS MUCH REVENUE COLLECTION AS BOSTON, PHILADELPHIA,
AND BALTIMORE PUT TOGETHER. BY THE LATE 1800S THE COURT WAS SO BUSY NEW YORK NEEDED
A NEW CUSTOM HOUSE, A BUILDING WITH THE
SIZE AND GRANDEUR SUITED TO THE LEADER OF
AMERICAN COMMERCE.>>OUR CITIES WILL BE AS
OUR PEOPLE WILL THEM TO BE.>>IN MAY 1899 SUPERVISING
ARCHITECT OF THE UNITED STATES TREASURY
DEPARTMENT JAMES KNOX TAYLOR INVITED 20 OF THE NATION’S
MOST PROMINENT ARCHITECTS TO VIE FOR DESIGNING
THE NEW CUSTOM HOUSE.>>MY DEAREST JULIA, THE CUSTOM
HOUSE DRAWINGS ARE FINISHED AND SO ARE WE. WE ARE ALL DEAD USED UP. I’M PERFECTLY SATISFIED
THAT I’VE GIVEN.>>IT WAS AN INTENSE COMPETITION
THAT CAME DOWN TO TWO FINALISTS. CARRERE AND HASTINGS WAS
AMONG THE FOREMOST FIRMS IN AMERICAN ARCHITECTURE. THE OTHER WAS A VIRTUAL
NEWCOMER, CASS GILBERT. AFTER SEVERAL MONTHS
OF DELIBERATION.>>JURY UNABLE TO DECIDE
BETWEEN C&H AND MYSELF BUT HAVE DEFINITELY
PLACED US ABOVE ALL OTHERS. H WANTS NEW COMPETITION
OR URGES PARTNERSHIP.>>GILBERT WAS DECLARED
THE WINNER. AT THE AGE OF 40 CASS
GILBERT WAS A RELATIVELY YOUNG MIDWESTERNER BUT HE HAD
EARNED TAYLOR’S RESPECT AS HIS FORMER PARTNER. GILBERT HAD SPENT THE PAST 2
DECADES BUILDING HIS REPUTATION IN MINNESOTA.>>CASS GILBERT IS
CERTAINLY BEST KNOWN FOR HIS COMMERCIAL
BUILDINGS, HOWEVER, HE DESIGNED OVER 60
BEAUTIFUL RESIDENCES IN AND AROUND ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA.>>THE BIG BREAK FOR CASS
GILBERT WAS THE MINNESOTA STATE CAPITAL. IT WAS AN ASTONISHING COMMISSION
AND HE POURED EVERYTHING INTO IT, PUT HIM ON A
MAP ARCHITECTURALLY.>>WHEN HE RECEIVED THE
COMMISSION FOR THE CUSTOM HOUSE, IT WAS A TURNING
POINT IN HIS CAREER. HIS BUSINESS IN ST.
PAUL HAD BEEN STRUGGLING AND SO THIS MADE
A HUGE DIFFERENCE TO HIM AND TO HIS FAMILY. AND HE WROTE TO MY
GREAT GRANDMOTHER AND SAID MY DEAR OUR
SHIP HAS COME IN. GO OUT AND BUY YOURSELF
SOME PRETTY UNDERWEAR AND PERHAPS I WILL HAVE A
ONE HORSE CARRIAGE WITH A MAN IN LIVERY, OR MAYBE ONE OF
THOSE NEW HORSELESS CARRIAGES.>>GILBERT ENVISIONED THE
CUSTOM HOUSE AS AN ICON OF THE BEAUX ARTS BELIEF THAT BEAUTIFUL CITIES INFLUENCE
SOCIETY IN POSITIVE WAYS.>>PUBLIC BUILDINGS
EXPLAIN WHO WE ARE AS A CULTURE, AS A CIVILIZATION. IT HAS VERY MUCH TO DO WITH
THE PUBLIC’S UNDERSTANDING OF GOVERNMENT. THESE BUILDINGS SPEAK
ABOUT GOVERNMENT AND THE IDEALS OF GOVERNMENT.>>GILBERT SELECTED
DANIEL CHESTER FRENCH TO ADD ART TO THE ARCHITECTURE. FRENCH’S MINUTE MAN STATUE
IN CONCORD, MASSACHUSETTS AND HIS COLOSSAL
STATUE OF LINCOLN AND WASHINGTON DC MADE
HIM AMERICA’S LEADING MONUMENTAL SCULPTOR.>>DURING THE BEAUX ARTS
ERA, THE BEST ARTISTS OF THE DAY WERE INVITED TO
CREATE SCULPTURE AND ARTWORK FOR PUBLIC BUILDINGS
LIKE THE CUSTOM HOUSE. TOGETHER, ARCHITECT AND ARTIST
WOULD MAKE THE CUSTOM HOUSE A TOUR DE FORCE OF
BEAUX ART STYLE.>>SHAPED NEW THOUGHTS,
NEW HOPES, AND NEW DESIRES IN NEW FORMS OF BEAUTY BUT
DISREGARD NOTHING OF THE PAST THAT MAY GUIDE US IN DOING SO.>>CONSTRUCTION OF THE CUSTOM
HOUSE BEGAN IN JANUARY 1901. [ MUSIC ]>>THE REMARKABLE THING
ABOUT THE CUSTOM HOUSE OF COURSE IS THE FACADE AND
THE WHOLE RELATIONSHIP OF ENTRY INTO THE STREET AND
THOSE FOUR GREAT FIGURES BY DANIEL CHESTER FRENCH.>>FRENCH’S FOUR CONTINENTS
ARE AMONG THE FINEST EXAMPLES OF BEAUX ARTS SCULPTURE, VERY
MUCH THE PRODUCT OF THEIR TIME. THE STATUE OF ASIA DEPICTS
ITS OPPRESSED MASSES. NORTH AMERICA, REALLY JUST THE
US, HOLDS THE TORCH OF PROGRESS. EUROPE RESTS ONE ARM ON THE LAW AND AFRICA IS HALF
NAKED SLEEPING BETWEEN A LION AND A SPHINX. EVERY COLUMN AND CORNER OF THE
BUILDING’S FACADE TELLS A STORY FROM MYTHOLOGY OR HISTORY. LIKE THESE 12 FIGURES IN WHITE
TENNESSEE MARBLE LINING THE SIXTH STORY CORNICE,
EACH WEIGHS 200 TONS AND REPRESENTS A HISTORICALLY
PROMINENT SEA TRADING NATION. INSIDE THE 7-STORY CUSTOM HOUSE
IS LARGE ENOUGH TO FIT A QUARTER OF THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING. ITS SIZE REFLECTS
ITS SIGNIFICANCE.>>IT MAKES YOU FEEL IMPORTANT. REALLY GREAT PUBLIC
BUILDINGS FROM MY POINT OF VIEW DON’T OVERWHELM YOU,
THEY DON’T MAKE YOU FEEL SMALL AND INSIGNIFICANT, THEY MAKE
YOU FEEL EMPOWERED AND JOYFUL.>>THE FOCAL POINT OF THE
CUSTOM HOUSE IS THE IMPOSING CENTRAL ROTUNDA. ITS SKYLIGHT IS ONE OF THE LARGEST FREE
STANDING OCULI IN THE WORLD. A MASTERPIECE OF SPANISH
ENGINEER RAFAEL GUASTAVINO. THERE ARE NO STEEL SUPPORTS, THOUGH THE ROTUNDA
WEIGHS 140 TONS. THE SECRET TO ITS
STRENGTH IS GEOMETRY. GUASTAVIONO’S TILE ARCH SYSTEM BORROWS FROM ANCIENT CATALAN VAULTING
IN WHICH INTERLOCKING TILES AND MORTAR FORM SELF-SUPPORTING
ARCHES. THE ROTUNDA BROUGHT BEAUTY AND
NATURAL LIGHT TO THE ENGINE OF AMERICAN COMMERCE-
THE CUSTOM SERVICE.>>WHEN A SHIP ARRIVED,
THE CAPTAIN OR A STEAMSHIP REPRESENTATIVE
WOULD SUBMIT SOME PAPERS TO A CUSTOMS INSPECTOR
WHO BOARDED THE VESSEL. BROKERS WOULD TAKE DOCUMENTS
BACK TO THE CUSTOM HOUSE TO THE ENTRY CLERKS WHO SAT IN THE GREAT ROTUNDA
INSIDE THE MARBLE COUNTERS. THEY WOULD LOOK IN
THEIR TARIFF BOOK TO SEE IF THE BROKER HAD
THE CORRECT TARIFF AND SEND THEM TO THE CASHIER.>>IN THE CASHIERS
OFFICE BROKERS PAID DUTIES AT AN ORNATE MARBLE COUNTER. CASHIERS SOMETIMES COLLECTED A
HALF A MILLION DOLLARS A DAY.>>THE REVENUE THAT WAS
COLLECTED WAS USED TO PAY FOR ALASKA, LOUISIANA,
THE GADSDEN PURCHASE, THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD,
THE ROAD SYSTEM, FLORIDA AND THE BUILDING OF THE
CAPITAL IN WASHINGTON D.C.>>MORE COMMANDING
VISITORS MADE THEIR WAY TO THE COLLECTORS SUITE. THESE ROOMS REFLECTED THE POWER
OF A MAN APPOINTED DIRECTLY BY THE PRESIDENT OF
THE UNITED STATES. THE CEREMONIAL SPACE WAS
DIVIDED INTO A WAITING AREA AND A PUBLIC OFFICE BY AN INTRICATE HAND
CARVED OAK SCREEN. THE WOOD FINISHES AND
FURNISHINGS WERE DESIGNED BY GILBERT BUT EXECUTED BY
THE FAMED TIFFANY STUDIOS. MARITIME THEMES ANCHORED
THE COLLECTOR’S SUITE TO THE HARBOR OUTSIDE. ART LINED THE WALLS.>>ELMER GARNSEY WAS
COMMISSIONED TO PAINT MURALS THAT ARE OIL ON CANVAS
AND ARE LOCATED IN THE COLLECTOR’S OFFICE. THEY DEPICT THE MOST IMPORTANT
PORTS AND CITIES IN TERMS OF SEA FARING COMMERCE.>>THE ROOM WAS WARMED BY A
MASSIVE CONSTONE FIRE PLACE. THROUGH A SHORT PASSAGE WAS
THE COLLECTOR’S PRIVATE OFFICE WHERE HE MET WITH THE
CAPTAINS OF THE WORLD OF TRADE. LUNETTES PAINTED BY GARNSEY
DEPICT A CAMEL TRAIN, THE SHIPS OF THE DESERT
AND A SHIP OF THE SEA. THREE DECADES AFTER THE
BUILDING WAS COMPLETED, AFTER CASS GILBERT’S DEATH,
A FINAL TOUCH WAS ADDED TO THE CUSTOM HOUSE-REGINALD
MARSH WAS COMMISSIONED TO PAINT 16 MURALS
IN THE ROTUNDA.>>REGINALD MARSH WAS
A MARVELOUS ARTIST OF HIS TIME WHOSE WORK
REALLY DEPICTED THE SCENES OF NEW YORK CITY AND
THE WORKING WATER FRONT. HE STARTED BY SKETCHING
THE SCENES IN PENCIL AND WATER COLOR. THOSE IMAGES WERE THEN
PROJECTED ONTO THE ROTUNDA WALLS THROUGH THE USE OF A MAGIC
LANTERN DEVICE AND SKETCHED OUT AND THEN PAINTED IN
BY HIS ASSISTANTS, YOUNG WOMEN WHO SPENT MANY
HOURS AND MONTHS WITH HIM UP ON THE SCAFFOLDING 30 FEET
IN THE AIR, ON THEIR BACKS, PAINTING THESE MARVELOUS
SCENES OF THE NEW YORK HARBOR.>>BECAUSE THE WALLS WERE
CONCAVE IT WAS DIFFICULT TO MAINTAIN PERSPECTIVE AND TO IMAGINE HOW THE PAINTINGS
WOULD LOOK FROM THE GROUND. BUT THE ARTIST SUCCEEDED.>>THERE ARE 8 LARGE PANELS
THAT DEPICT A SHIP COMING INTO NEW YORK HARBOR, PASSES
AMBROSE LIGHT, PASSING THE STATUE OF LIBERTY, BEING ACCOMPANIED
BY A TUG BOAT AS IT COMES INTO THE PORT, AND A
CELEBRITY COMES ON BOARD AND SHE IS APPROACHED BY
A MOB OF PHOTOGRAPHERS WHO ARE SHOOTING PICTURES OF
HER AND IT’S A VERY VIBRANT AND LIVELY ALMOST
CINEMATIC SCENE.>>I HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO GO
UP ON THE SCAFFOLDING AND GET UP TO THE MURALS AND
LOOK AT THEM FACE TO FACE AND I CAN TELL YOU NOW THAT
EVEN THOUGH EVERYBODY SAYS GRETA GARBO WAS THE ONE WHO WAS
BEING INTERVIEWED ON THE SHIP, IT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE HER.>>THERE ARE ALSO 8 SMALLER
PANELS THAT ARE PAINTED IN GRISSAILE, WHICH IS A BLACK
AND WHITE TECHNIQUE OF PAINTING OF 8 EUROPEAN EXPLORERS.>>THE NEW CUSTOM HOUSE
WAS COMPLETED IN 1907. FOR CASS GILBERT IT HAD
SHORED UP THE GROWING LEGACY. HE HAD BEGUN TO DEFINE THE
PUBLIC FACE OF NEW YORK CITY IN 1899 WITH HIS CLASSICAL
STEEL FRAME BROADWAY CHAMBERS BUILDING. HIS 1913 GOTHIC WOOLWORTH
BUILDING WAS DUBBED THE CATHEDRAL OF COMMERCE. IT WAS A CHARTER MEMBER OF WHAT
KURT VONNEGUT LATER CALLED SKYSCRAPER PARK.>>HE WAS ATTEMPTING TO MAKE
A NEW FORUM, A HIGH RISE. HE WAS EXPLORING NEW IDEAS ABOUT WHAT ARCHITECTURE
VOCABULARY SHOULD BE AND BUILDINGS SUCH AS THIS; IT’S
AN ASTONISHING LEGACY TO LEAVE.>>IN 1929, GILBERT REACHED
THE HEIGHT OF HIS CAREER. HE DESIGNED THE SUPREME COURT
BUILDING IN WASHINGTON DC. THROUGHOUT THE FIRST
HALF OF THE 20TH CENTURY, THE CUSTOM HOUSE WAS A
DISTINGUISHED NEW YORK LANDMARK THAT LAUNCHED MANY
CITY CELEBRATIONS. BY THE EARLY 1970S ITS
FORTUNES BEGAN TO SINK.>>WE WANT TO MAKE
THIS BUILDING OPEN AND WELCOMING AND ACCESSIBLE.>>JUST OVER HALF A CENTURY AFTER THE CUSTOM
HOUSE WAS CONSTRUCTED, THE CUSTOM SERVICE MOVED TO THE
THEN NEW WORLD TRADE CENTER. THE ONCE CELEBRATED BUILDING
WAS EMPTY AND HALF FORGOTTEN.>>THE BUILDING WAS
VERY COLD AND DAMP. IT WAS EVEN EERIE
TO WALK THROUGH AND HEAR YOUR FOOTSTEPS
RESOUND WITH NOBODY ELSE AROUND THROUGH THE
MARBLE CORRIDORS.>>EVERYBODY KNEW IT WAS
DANGEROUS TO LEAVE IT VACANT. IF YOU LEFT A BUILDING
VACANT IT WOULD DETERIORATE AND SO WE KNEW THE LAND
MARSH CONSERVANCY HAD TO BE AN AGGRESSIVE
PLANNER FOR ITS REUSE.>>THE GENERAL SERVICES
ADMINISTRATION ALSO PLAYED A KEY ROLE.>>GSA HAS MANY CHALLENGES
ESPECIALLY AS WE DEAL WITH THESE HISTORIC STRUCTURES. WHEN YOU HAVE BUILDINGS
AS SIGNIFICANT AS THE CUSTOMS HOUSE WE HAVE
TO DO EVERYTHING POSSIBLE TO MAKE SURE THESE BUILDINGS
ARE VIABLE AND REMAIN IN THE GSA INVENTORY TO
SERVE THE AMERICAN PUBLIC.>>IN 1982 THE GOVERNMENT
REQUESTED BIDS FOR THE RESTORATION
AND RENOVATION OF THE OLD CUSTOM HOUSE. IT WOULD BE A LONG
AND COSTLY PROCESS.>>GSA BEGAN A RESTORATION
PROJECT IN 1983 THAT WAS 29 MILLION DOLLARS
AND THAT WAS TO GET THE BASE OF THE BUILDING WHICH HAD
BEEN OPEN TO THE ELEMENTS FOR ABOUT 10 YEARS AT THIS
POINT BACK INTO A CONDITION WHERE WE COULD THEN
MARKET IT TO TENANTS.>>THE GOAL WAS TWO-FOLD. IT WAS A RESTORATION, AS
WELL AS A MODERNIZATION, WHICH SOMETIMES IS
IN CONFLICT OBVIOUSLY AND THE DIFFICULTY WE HAD WAS
BALANCING THOSE TWO ROLES. OUTSIDE THE FACADE AND STATUES WERE
CLEARED OF DECADES OF GRIME. INSIDE ART WORK WAS
CLEANED AND CONSERVED. THE ROTUNDA SKYLIGHT HAD
BEEN COMPLETELY TARRED OVER TO SEAL LEAKS BUT NOW THE
RENOVATION TEAM RESTORED ITS ORIGINAL BEAUTY. FIVE YEARS AFTER THE RENOVATION
BEGAN THE CUSTOM HOUSE WELCOMED ITS FIRST NEW TENANT: THE
UNITED STATES BANKRUPTCY COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN
DISTRICT OF NEW YORK. IN 1994 THE SMITHSONIAN
INSTITUTION’S MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN
OPENED ITS GALLERIES. IT WAS IRONICALLY CLOSE TO WHERE
COLONISTS HAD ACQUIRED MANHATTAN FROM NATIVE AMERICANS
THREE CENTURIES BEFORE.>>CELEBRATING THE PEOPLE
THAT WERE FIRST HERE, THE NATIVE AMERICAN PEOPLE AND HAVING THE ELLIS
ISLAND NATIONAL MUSEUM OF IMMIGRATION RIGHT
ACROSS THE WATERWAY THAT CELEBRATES THE PEOPLE WHO
CAME HERE, THAT JUXTAPOSITION THAT IS ONE OF THE CENTRAL
NARRATIVES IN AMERICA’S HISTORY. WE GET 300,000 VISITORS A YEAR; IT’S A REALLY VERY
POPULAR DESTINATION.>>THE PROJECT ALSO INCLUDED
A NEW 350 SEAT AUDITORIUM.>>PUTTING THE AUDITORIUM IN THE
BASEMENT HAS OPENED THE BUILDING TO THE PUBLIC TO DIFFERENT
VENUES SUCH AS FILM FESTIVALS, PUBLIC LECTURES, AND
EVENTS OF THAT SORT, INCLUDING FEDERAL AGENCIES USE OF THAT SPACE FOR
PUBLIC MEETINGS.>>IN 1990, THE CUSTOM
HOUSE WAS RENAMED FOR ALEXANDER HAMILTON AMERICA’S
FIRST SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY. IT WAS THE 200TH ANNIVERSARY
OF HAMILTON’S FINANCIAL PLAN, WHICH HELPED A NEW
NATION PROSPER.>>THE ALEXANDER HAMILTON
CUSTOM HOUSE IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT
STRUCTURES IN THE INVENTORY OF GENERAL SERVICES
ADMINISTRATION. IT IS THE CROWN JEWEL
AND AS SUCH REQUIRES THAT WE PUT EVERYTHING THAT
WE POSSIBLY CAN TO MAKE SURE THAT THE BUILDING
CONTINUES IN PUBLIC USE AND FOR THE AMERICAN PEOPLE.>>I’VE BEEN INVOLVED IN
THIS BUILDING SINCE THE 1970S AND EVERY TIME I COME HERE I SEE
SOMETHING NEW AND INTERESTING THAT I HADN’T SEEN
BEFORE AND THE ONE THING THAT I SEE ALL THE TIME
THOUGH ARE OTHER PEOPLE COMING TO THIS BUILDING AND ADMIRING
ALL OF THE BEAUTIFUL ARTWORK AND THE MARBLE THAT
THIS BUILDING CONTAINS. I’M SURE THERE ARE OTHER
BUILDINGS THAT HAVE THIS BUT NO OTHER BUILDING IN
NEW YORK CITY CAN EQUAL IN MY MIND THE UNIQUENESS
OF THE CUSTOMS HOUSE. [ MUSIC ]

2 comments

  1. Fantastic. Absolutely Beautiful. I've been there. The Museum of the American Indian is there now also. Its a wonderful place.

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