Architecture & History
“Indians migrate to New York, now as in the past, for the same reason others do: to seek their fortunes. But beyond that, New York, an ancient place of exchange among Indians, has become a center of new thinking about Native cultures. The Hopi of Arizona have a prophecy of a time when they would travel to the east to meet with the nations of the world in a ‘house of mica.’ Through the exhibitions and programs of the National Museum of the American Indian's Heye Center, the custom house, too, is becoming a place for the exchange of ideas among peoples.”
—W. Richard West (Southern Cheyenne and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma), Founding Director, National Museum of the American Indian
The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House
Home of the NMAI's George Gustav Heye Center, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is one of the most splendid Beaux Arts buildings in New York. Rich in architectural and historic significance, the custom house is a National Historic Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Before the imposition of the income tax in 1916, customs duties were the greatest single source of revenue for the U.S. government, and the Port of New York was the country's most prosperous trade center. In 1899, the government invited twenty architects to submit designs for a new custom house. The design chosen was by Cass Gilbert (1859–1934), a well-known young architect from St. Paul, Minnesota. Gilbert, who had once worked in the offices of McKim, Mead & White, felt that a public building should reveal the "imponderable elements of life and character."
A Monument to Commerce
The custom house Gilbert built, in collaboration with other renowned artists and craftsmen, was begun in 1900 and completed in 1907. The vast seven-story structure, with its 450,000 square feet, covers three blocks in lower Manhattan, immediately south of Bowling Green at the foot of Broadway. The exterior features forty-four columns, each decorated with a head of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce. On the building's huge entrance pedestals are four large sculptures—seated female figures representing America, Asia, Europe, and Africa—by Daniel Chester French (1850–1931), who also created the statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Above the columns of the main facade are twelve heroic statues representing the sea powers of Europe and the Mediterranean, while above the main-floor windows are sculpted heads symbolizing the races of humanity. The exterior also features a giant cartouche depicting the shield of the United States, with a serene head of Columbia, sculpted by Vincenzo Alfano (1854–1918) in 1903, presiding over the building's main entrance.
Shells, marine creatures, and sea signs abound throughout the interior, as befits a tribute to New York's preeminence as a seaport. Monumental arches and columns highlight the symmetry of the great hall. Off this spectacular lobby is the ornate Collectors Reception Room, its walls oak-paneled by the Tiffany Studios. The immense arch of the custom house's magnificent elliptical rotunda was built according to the principles of Spanish-immigrant engineer Rafael Guastavino (1842–1908). The ingenious design allowed the rotunda's 140-ton skylight to be constructed without visible signs of support.
In 1937, celebrated New York painter Reginald Marsh (1898–1954) accepted a low-paying position with the Treasury Department to produce murals for the rotunda dome. Working with astonishing speed, Marsh and eight young assistants depicted early explorers of the Americas in one series of paintings and traced the course of a ship entering New York's harbor in the other.