This story is part of a monthlong series of guests posts by AIA New York that feature Archtober Building of the Day tours. See the full 2017 schedule here. For today’s Building of the Day, Archtober took us on a guided architectural tour of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, now home to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Our knowledgeable guide, Jeff Harrington, Museum Ambassador of NMAI, described the building’s history, focusing on the magnificent architecture by Cass Gilbert. We started our tour in the rotunda, the massive central space that anchors the building. Here, Harrington gave us a run-down of the site's history. The lower tip of Manhattan Island, acquired by Dutch settlers in the early-17th Century, was the site of the New Amsterdam settlement. The central point of New Amsterdam was Fort Amsterdam, which stood where the Customs House is now. In 1665, New Amsterdam surrendered to the British, who renamed it New York. In 1790, the federal government demolished Fort Amsterdam (then known as Fort George) to build the Government House, which was intended to be the presidential residence but was never actually occupied by George Washington. Government House later became the Governor’s mansion, and from 1799 to 1815 was New York’s second custom house. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, customs taxes were the largest source of national income, since income tax and other federal taxes were vastly lower than they are today. Imports to New York Harbor were rapidly mounting, and the Custom House needed a larger home. In 1899, Cass Gilbert won the competition to design the new Custom House. The process was marked by some controversy; his former architectural partner, John Knox Taylor, was the Supervising Architect for the Department of the Treasury and hence on the selection committee. Work began in 1900 and was completed in 1907. As a measure of the Custom House’s importance, the entire land acquisition, design, and construction budget of $9 million was paid for in the first month with Custom income. Gilbert designed an immense, imposing seven-story edifice with 450,000 square feet of floor space. Unlike almost every other custom house, the entrance faced away from the sea – which at that time, before landfill, was immediately adjacent to the site – and up Broadway. Gilbert wanted the first glimpse of the United States to be not the inside of a government building, however magnificent, but the sweep of Broadway. The myriad offices needed to house 1,000 employees were grouped along corridors leading off from the central rotunda. To the left of the entrance was the cashier’s office, where ships’ officers and importers paid the tariffs that had been set by officials in other parts of the building. To the right was the wood-paneled Collector’s Office, where the Collector of Customs conducted official business. Gilbert’s attention to detail was legendary; he was involved in the design down to the smallest decoration. He also relied on numerous extraordinary collaborators. Exterior statues of figures personifying America, Asia, Europe, and Africa are by Daniel Chester French. The ceiling of the central rotunda was designed by famed master craftsman Rafael Guastavino, whose other credits in New York include the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, Grant’s Tomb, and Carnegie Hall. Guastavino was also involved in the construction of the Custom House’s stairs. Much of the paneling in the Collectors Room was done by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s woodworking studio, which he had not yet sold to focus on glass. Gilbert designed the decoration with two central themes: the sea and the U.S. Government. Marine animals and American eagles therefore dominate the ceiling decorations. In 1937, Reginald Marsh carried out a WPA commission to decorate the central rotunda with scenes of New York Harbor, adding to the nautical theme. As the Port of New York declined after World War II, so did the importance of the Custom House. The post of Collector was abolished in 1966, and in 1971 the Custom House, much reduced in size, moved its offices to 6 World Trade Center. The Hamilton Custom House was slated for demolition, but efforts led by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan saved it from the wrecking ball. In 1976, it was listed as a National Historic Landmark, but it remained unoccupied and deteriorated. In the early 1990s, renamed in Hamilton’s honor, it was restored and adapted to house the NMAI, which now occupies the building along with various other governmental agencies such as a divorce court and, once again, a small customs office. Our Archtober group couldn’t have been happier that this magnificent building escaped demolition and can be experienced in its full glory. Join us tomorrow at the New Lab in Brooklyn Navy Yard!
Posts tagged with "Cass Gilbert":
At this point, the record breaking sales of luxury apartments in Midtown are not really news. As the towers rise higher, so do the prices. This has been the trend for quite some time and it shows no signs of slowing down. With that said, did you hear about the one Downtown? Bloomberg reported that the nine-story penthouse at Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building is expected to be listed for $110 million. The top 30 floors of the tower are currently being converted into luxury apartments, but the penthouse is quite literally Woolworth's crown jewel—and it is priced as such. If the penthouse sells anywhere near its asking price, it will essentially double the current sales record for a downtown apartment. That record was set in January by a penthouse in the Walker Tower in Chelsea, which sold for $50.9 million. Obviously, the Woolworth penthouse is exceedingly expensive, but the space is about more than its nine-floors, 8,975-square-feet of living space, 584-square-foot terrace, and its views from some 50 stories up. The unit is about living inside the Woolworth’s iconic copper cupola. According to Bloomberg, "a great room and wine cellar make up the 53rd floor, and the 55th through 58th levels in the cupola include a library or media room and an observation deck at the top, the plan shows.” Despite the penthouse’s uniqueness, $110 million is still an undeniably ambitious price point for a building in Lower Manhattan—iconic or not. For those looking to spend a few million less, they can always pick up a unit a few levels down. CBS Sunday Morning recently got a look inside those under construction apartments (above video), and they don't look too bad either.
New York City's nouveau-tall skyscrapers, like the Christian de Portzamparc-designed One57 which recently topped out at 1,004 feet, have been wooing the world's richest residential buyers with unimaginable amenities and floor-to-ceiling glass. But if you interested in an address that redefined tall—one hundred years ago—your options are more limited. Now, developers Alchemy Properties have acquired the top 30 floors of the iconic Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan, the world's tallest structure when it opened in 1913, with plans to build 40 super-luxury residential units in the sky. The Cass Gilbert-designed Woolworth, dubbed the "Cathedral of Commerce," held the world's tallest designation at 792 feet for a whopping 17 years from 1913 to 1930 when the Chrysler Building took the reigns, and it still holds its own on skyline of Lower Manhattan. The New York Times reports that the first new condos will begin at 350 feet above Broadway and a five-story penthouse in the building's copper-clad crown—once a public observation area—will bring new meaning to majestic living. But then again, the only downside of living in the Woolworth Building might be not having a view of the Woolworth Building. With 40 units distributed over 30 floors, the project may not be increasing the city's density by any appreciable level considering a single luxury residence could hold quite a few micro-apartments currently in discussion for Manhattan's east side. (In fact, AN has estimated that in the same 30 floors, one could likely fit over 600 efficient 250-square foot micro-apartments.) Telescoping floors range in size from 8,000 to 3,500 square feet as the tower rises, but the height won't be the only soaring aspect of the building. According to the Times, unit prices will top $2,000 per square foot, up from a neighborhood average of $1,250 per foot last quarter. If this news is an indicator that the economy of Lower Manhattan has finally, once-and-for-all rebounded, it might not be long until another luxury building rises next door to the Woolworth in a pit slated for an even-taller Robert A.M. Stern-designed hotel and condo tower. Between 1977 and 1981, the Woolworth Building's glazed terra cotta facade underwent a restoration by the Ehrenkrantz Group, when 26,000 damaged pieces of terra cotta were replaced with architectural precast concrete and nearly 40 percent of the entire facade was touched up. While putting together a slideshow of the building past and present, AN uncovered this photo of two steeplejacks precariously clinging to one of the building's four turrets, which reminded us that those turrets have been covered over today. Take a look at more photos of the Woolworth Building in the slideshow below.