Cass Gilbert Society

Government Buildings

U.S. Custom House, New York, NY

U.S. Custom House, Tom Blanck

U.S. Custom House

New York, New York
Design & Construction:
1899-1907[1899-1907 Irish-1999; 1899 Christen-2001]
Cass Gilbert 

The design of the U.S. Custom House is Beaux-Arts. Its inspiration is derived from the Paris Opera House, the most important Beaux-Arts building of the period. It also fits squarely with the American Renaissance, which began with the 1893 Columbian Exposition and continued until World War I. The exterior ornament is lavish. Daniel Chester French sculpted the groups of the "Four Continents," but the interior decoration was added decades later and was not to the artistic level that Gilbert envisaged. Gunwald Aus was the engineer for the project.

The selection of Gilbert as architect for the project caused even more controversy and furor than his selection as architect for the Minnesota State Capitol. The controversy began within the architectural profession and quickly spilled over in to the political arena. At the center of the storm was the manner in which the competition was designed. In 1893, Congress passed the Tarnsey Act. It allowed for a program by which architects in the private sector be given an opportunity to compete for the design of public buildings. The American Institute of Architects, which had supported the measure for nearly two decades, was delighted with its passage; however, politics became an obstacle to its implementation. It was not until the McKinley administration took office in 1897 and Lyman J. Gage was named Secretary of the Treasury that the act was implemented.[After the Tarnsey Act was implemented, it ran almost concurrently with Taylor's administration of the supervising architect's office. Taylor resigned in June 1912, notifying Gilbert in a May letter that after the "Roosevelt raid," his allies were gone. The Tarnsey Act was repealed in August. Taylor went to MIT. He later headed the architecture department for a short time until he was replaced by Ralph Adams Cram in 1914. During his period at MIT, he served on the AIA's Committee on Conservation of Natural Resources with Gilbert and Glenn Brown.]

The U.S. Custom House was the first major competition under the Tarnsey Act. Twenty firms competed, and each of the firms was allowed to suggest two jury members. Both Gilbert's selections (Thomas R. Kimbell and Frank Miles Day) made the jury. The third member of the jury was James Knox Taylor, Gilbert's former partner. Taylor was Supervising Architect of the Treasury, a position that Gilbert assisted him to obtain two years earlier. The jury ranked seven firms in four classes. Carrere & Hastings and Gilbert were ranked together in the first class. Taylor voted during the process that selected the seven finalists, but he abstained from voting after the finalists were chosen. The competition essentially ended in a draw. Carrere & Hastings urged Gilbert join in proposing a new competition with an enlarged jury to judge the two finalists. They also suggested joining forces to build the project. Gilbert rejected both proposals. He didn't want to join forces because he wanted the project for himself, and he argued against a new jury because it would give politicians an opportunity to condemn the process, which could be the first step in throwing out the competition, not a rare experience for Gilbert. The jury, after requesting that the finalists further develop their designs and after meeting jointly and separately with the finalists, selected Gilbert.

Gilbert's attorney, George C. Squires, must have been quite busy in the few weeks he worked on the Custom House competition, for he sent Gilbert a bill that was in excess of $5,000.[George Squires to CG, December 30,1899, Box: 16, Fldr.: Ill, MNHS-CGP.]

Today the building is owned by the federal General Services Administration and houses the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. .