The Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation.
The US Custom House was the place where the federal government collected duties on imported goods. As the country's primary port of entry for products from abroad, the New York-based Customs House performed an essential responsibility for the country's financial health. Prior to the implementation of the federal income tax in 1916, customs duties were the major source of revenue for the government.
Starting in 1842 the customs building was located at what is now known as Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street. But in 1899 the US invited architects to design a new customs house.
The man who won the honor was Cass Gilbert, who later designed the Woolworth building and the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. His stunning example of the Beaux Arts style of architecture was constructed between 1902 and 1907.
Cass studied architecture at MIT for one year, dropping out a year short of completing the program to tour Europe. On that trip which lasted almost a year, Cass made sketches that inspired much of his later work. He went on to work for architects in Minnesota and then New York. While the completion of the Minnesota Capitol building gave Cass a national reputation, the design of the US Customs House brought him prominence.
The design was embellished with lavish architectural details and sculpture and paintings by noted artists of the day portraying themes selected by Cass.
The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976; and in 1979 it was made a New York City Landmark.
In 1973 the building was vacated and customs services were moved to the World Trade Center. It was two decades before the building reopened, housing the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in 1992.
The sculpture and paintings that grace the building add to the beauty and value of the structure and tell important stories. "The Continents" at the entranceway steps include four groups of marble figures representing Asia, America, Europe, and Africa (left to right). Each has a central female figure who is surrounded by other figures and objects representing the history and character of each continent as envisioned by the artist from an 18th-century point of view.
Inside, look up to see the eight monumental murals by Reginald Marsh depicting life at the harbor on the ceiling of the rotunda. Marsh, an American originally from Paris, is known for painting everyday life in New York during the 1930s and 1940s. His work in the rotunda is impressive not only for the size of each piece but also for the detail he included. Marsh was commissioned by the Work Progress Administration and the Treasury Relief Art Project in 1936, and he and his assistants completed the work in December of 1937.
Marsh, one of the most prolific artists of the Great Depression, wanted his work to depict what life was actually like, and rejected modern art. He created paintings that chronicled the lives of New Yorkers enjoying leisure and entertainment (beach scenes and burlesque), as well as some of the most disenfranchised groups living in the Bowery area. One of the paintings in the rotunda features Greta Garbo being photographed by the press while on the RMS Queen Mary.
Marsh graduated from Yale University in 1920 where he was the campus cartoonist, drawing for The Yale Record. In 1925, when the New Yorker began publication, Marsh was among their first cartoonists. He rejoined academia in the 1940s as a teacher for The Art Students League of New York. It was there that he taught pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. An ironic turn considering his rejection of modern art during his career.
Cover Photo Credit: Timothy Vogel via Flickr