Sometimes you make a plan to see something, but don't get there for a long time. And sometimes you have no plan at all, and just find something worth seeing. The latter happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was left with time to kill in Lower Manhattan, and found the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House at Battery Park.
Not that I'd never seen it, or even been in it...but I hadn't really noticed it in its glorious details. Pictures and some research followed, and then the puzzle. And we have two almost simultaneous winners, submitted in e-mail: PortMoresby and Jonathan L. Norman's posting also shows he knew the answer.
Built to house the Federal government's customs and maritime functions at the nation's busiest port, the Customs House is located right at the tip of Manhattan, more or less where the legendary purchase of Manhattan for $24 took place. Today, it's far from the active port, and has become home to both the federal bankruptcy court and a branch of the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian, as well as some other federal offices.
What it's really best known for is not its tenants, but the building itself, and its creators. It was built just into the 20th century when the Beaux Art style, popularized at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, was big—and the architect was Cass Gilbert, a leading force in Amerian Beaux Art style. Among his other big-name buildings: the Supreme Court in Washington.
But it's not just the impressive exteriors; the government went big on design: Interior woodwork by the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany, better known for glass. Massive statuary across the entrance by Daniel Chester French, who also did the Lincoln Memorial. More sculpture by Louis Saint-Gaudens.
The Rotunda, where the paintings in the puzzle are located, is topped with a masterpiece skylight dome by Rafael Guastavino; at 140 tons it's one of the world's largest self-supporting domes.
The paintings are kind of the cherry on top of the sundae. Thirty years on, during the depression, new paintings for the rotunda were commissioned from Reginald Marsh, a key figure in 20th-c. American painting.
Marsh had to plan for a series that made sense in a series of panels with difficult shapes and curvature. The design includes vertical "niches" (quotes because they look like niches but are actually two-dimensional paintings) with world explorers.
The other painted panels that show ships arriving in New York Harbor, guided to a berth by tugs, passengers debarking (even Greta Garbo talking to waiting reporters), cargo being unloaded.
But all this glory almost came to a bad end. As the port changed, with less cargo coming to Manhattan piers and more to containerports around the harbor, the Customs House came to serve only as a headquarter, and by 1970, those offices had been moved to the new nearby World Trade Center. Empty buildings often don't fare well, even wonderful ones like this.
Historic preservationists began campaigning for the building almost right away, but it it was a close call; at one point the building was slated for demolition. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan made saving the building a priority, and by 1976 it was designated a national historic landmark, and over the next few years, the office spaces were renovated for use by the bankruptcy court. In 1994, the Heye Center of the Smithsonian's Indian museum opened in the building.
And here's a video with a lot more pictures and a lot of interesting history.
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