The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is a building in New York City built in 1902–1907 by the federal government to house the duty collection operations for the Port of New York. It is located at 1 Bowling Green, near the southern tip of Manhattan, roughly on the same spot as Fort Amsterdam, the original center of the settlement of New Amsterdam, and Government House, the mansion built as an official residence for the President of the United States, but which was never occupied. The Custom House was named to commemorate Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and its first Secretary of the Treasury.
The building is now the home of the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, as well as the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York; since 2012, it is also the home to the National Archives at New York City.
The Customs House in 1912
The building was designed by Minnesotan Cass Gilbert, who later designed the Woolworth Building, which is visible from the building's front steps. The selection of Gilbert to design the building was marked with controversy. Until 1893, federal office buildings were designed by government architects under the Office of the Supervising Architect of the United States Department of the Treasury. In 1893, the Tarsney Act permitted the Supervising Architect to hire private architects following a competition. The Supervising Architect James Knox Taylor picked Gilbert, who earlier had been his partner at the Gilbert & Taylor architecture firm in St. Paul, Minnesota. The controversy never quite blew over, and in 1913, the Tarsney Act was repealed.
Constructed between 1902 and 1907, the building is considered to be a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style, where public transactions were conducted under a noble Roman dome. It incorporates Beaux Arts and City Beautiful movement planning principles, combining architecture, engineering, and fine arts. Lavish sculptures, paintings, and decorations by well-known artists of the time, such as Daniel Chester French, Karl Bitter, Louis St. Gaudens and Albert Jaegers, embellish the facade, the two-story entry portico, the main hall parallel to the facade, the Rotunda, and the Collector's Reception Room.
Sculpture was so crucial to the scheme that the figure groups had independent contracts. The major work across the front steps, The Continents, also called the Four Continents, of Asia, America, Europe, and Africa, was contracted to French, with associate Adolph A. Weinman. Above the main cornice are standing sculptures representing the great seafaring nations, representing American seagoing commerce as the modern heir of the Phoenicians.
In 1937, during the Great Depression, the Treasury Relief Art Project (with funds and assistance from the Works Projects Administration) commissioned a cycle of murals for the main rotunda from Reginald Marsh.
The building sits on the site of Fort Amsterdam, the fortification constructed by the Dutch West India Company to defend their operations in the Hudson Valley. The fort became the nucleus of the New Amsterdam settlement, and in turn, of New York City. From 1799 to 1815, the first Custom House at this site was the Government House.
The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, for both its exterior and public interior spaces. The Custom House was one of the earliest designations of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In 1987, the completion of its preservation, spurred by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who saved the building from demolition in 1979, attracted much public attention. Exterior and ceremonial interior spaces were cleaned, restored, and conserved, while old office space was renovated for Federal courtrooms and ancillary offices, rental offices and meeting rooms, and for a 350-seat auditorium with state-of-the-art projection facilities. Upgrades of fire safety, security, telecommunications, and heating, air conditioning, and ventilating systems accompanied alterations. In 1990, Moynihan sponsored the law that renamed the building after Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury.
The site was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.