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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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The Customs House
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Expansion of the Public Realm
The Customs House
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Another one of the great Beaux-Arts buildings was the major federal installation in New York. The federal government didn't build a lot of buildings in New York. But one of the most important federal buildings anywhere in the country was the Custom House in New York, because before the advent of the income tax, the federal government relied in large part for its income from custom duties that were paid in the port of New York. New York was the great port city, and for many years about three-quarters of the federal government's income came from the custom duties paid in New York.

So in the 1890s when the customs service had outgrown its earlier custom houses on Wall Street, a new building was needed. And the federal government purchased one of the great sites in New York, right at the foot of Broadway at Bowling Green, right opposite the port, to build a great new building.

And a competition was held for the design, and all the great New York firms entered the competition—McKim, Mead, and White, Carrère and Hastings, Francis Kimball, J. C. Catey, others we've talked about—entered the competition, and it was won not by any of these New York firms, but by Cass Gilbert from St. Paul, Minnesota.

And the reason why Cass Gilbert won was the fact that this competition was organized by the Department of the Treasury, which was responsible for the construction of federal buildings. And the supervising architect of the treasury was James Knox Taylor, also from St. Paul, Minnesota, and Cass Gilbert's former partner. And although they held a competition, the judging was fixed; the judges that were chosen were chosen basically to vote the way James Knox Taylor wanted, and so Cass Gilbert won the competition.

New York architects were not happy about this. But fortunately Cass Gilbert was also an extraordinarily talented architect. And he did move his offices to New York and later went on to design the Woolworth Building and many other important buildings in New York.

Although Cass Gilbert did not study architecture at the École des Beaux-Arts, he was very familiar with French architectural ideas, and designed one of the great monuments of Beaux-Arts design for the Custom House.

It is a very three-dimensional, very sculptural building. You can see the columns projecting out and the mansard roof rising up. And on top of that it is filled with sculptural detail that says something about the building, either there are symbols of the United States or there are symbols that deal with world trade, or that deal with the sea. There are dolphins, there are Neptune's tridents used as ornament. There are keystones on the major first floor that are the heads of the ethnic peoples of the world, which say something about world trade. There are symbols of Mercury, the god of commerce; in the column capitals there are heads of Mercury.

Along the roofline there are sculptures that are allegories of the great seafaring nations in the history of the world, beginning with Greece, Rome, and Phoenicia, and here a doge representing Venice and Queen Isabella of Spain. There's Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New York, representing Holland. And it ends with England and France.

Most significantly in the primary spot, the most important sculptor was chosen—again Daniel Chester French was chosen—to design the four continents: America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. And this is some of the great public sculpture of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. These were actually carved in the early twentieth century.

And beyond being great works of public sculpture, if you read these works of sculpture, they say a lot about a certain worldview in America in the early twentieth century. This building was begun in 1898, which was the year that America became an imperial power. This was the year of the Spanish-American War. All of the new American colonies—the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba—were all islands. And so they all deal with the water and trade and so this whole notion of the world and the continents and a kind of imperial vision is evident in America, especially among a certain upper class of people.

And if you read the sculptures here you can see this imperial worldview. Europe and America flank the entrances; they're in the most significant spot. And it's no accident that Europe and America were chosen to be in this spot.

Europe is a regal figure sitting on a throne that becomes a sailing ship in the back, and she's filled with symbols of knowledge and learning and travel. There are symbols of the great European powers; there are books, and there's a globe of world exploration.

And in the back is a shrouded figure of ignorance that's sort of been left behind by Europe's rise to world power and greatness.

America is the only one of the four allegorical figures—all of which are women—[America] is the only one that's in motion. She's striding forward, carrying a torch of liberty, in her right hand, and her left hand is protecting the worker, who is a man symbolized by a symbol of Mercury. There's a wheel with wings on it, which symbolizes Mercury.

So she's protecting commerce. And there are symbols of America's agriculture. There are tobacco and corn and symbols. There's an American eagle and there are some pre-Columbian symbols. And as she strides forward she's leaving an Indian in the background, who looks up sort of quizzically, as America is striding forward into the future.

Asia is a royal figure who's in a religious trance. And she has a little Buddha statue on her lap, and her throne sits on the skulls of slaves, and bound slaves are bowing down to her. But there are cultural symbols here because there was a view that there were rich cultures in Asia, even if they were cultures with what would have been considered pagan religions. But all is not lost here because in the background a cross rises up. And this was a period of tremendous American missionary activity in Asia. This was the period when large numbers, for example, of Presbyterians were going to Korea, a reason why today there are so many Korean Presbyterian churches in America. In fact, the earliest Korean missionaries from America were sent by the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn.

And so there's this whole notion that the culture of Asia could be westernized as Christianity came in.

At the other far distance is Africa, which is a naked figure that's sleeping, this notion of the sleeping continent. And she rests on the ruins of a sphinx, the ruins of a past civilization, and there are no cultural symbols because at this time in the early twentieth century there was this vision that there was no culture in Africa, so there could be no symbols. So basically you have this sleeping giant continent that was waiting to be aroused and to become a cultural powerhouse.

So this says a tremendous amount about a worldview. And it's interesting to look at this in different levels. The building not only has sculpture, but beautiful metalwork, and when you go inside there are murals and extraordinary marble work. And then in the 1930s during the Depression, the Treasury Department sponsored art projects, and the great American muralist Reginald Marsh did a whole series of murals about passenger liners entering into New York Harbor, which are in the great custom hall, a great oval room, another one of the great public spaces of New York.

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