Portland, Maine, is a charming seacoast city with a funky vibe and rich architectural context. One of its gems is the U.S. Customs House. During my recent stay, Visit Portland Maine arranged for me to tour this fabulous building.
Until the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1913, Americans (with a few exceptions) did not pay federal income taxes. Instead, the country made its money by charging tariffs and fees on goods coming in from other nations.
Established in 1789 by Congress, the U.S. Customs Service is the oldest federal agency in the country.
International merchants delivered their goods on boats, the only means of transportation available at the time. They docked at flourishing harbor communities like New York City; New Orleans; and Portland, Maine, where they were required to declare their cargoes and pay up at the local customs house. Inspections and seizures filtered out smugglers.
After the Civil War, Portland was one of the busiest seaports in the country. The Great Fire of July 4, 1866, destroyed 1,800 buildings, including the U.S. Customs House. It was rebuilt on the waterfront between 1868 and 1872 in a style that combines elements of the then-popular Second Empire and Renaissance Revival styles. The three-story customs house was constructed with New Hampshire granite and a slate-shingled hipped roof capped with twin square cupolas. The architect was Alfred B. Mullet, then the supervising architect for the U.S. Treasury. The building cost $485,000 to build at the time.
The showpiece of the customs house is the two-story Customs Hall, ornately decked out in walnut millwork and nine different types and colors of marble.
In the center of the black-and-white checkerboard marble floor is a massive mahogany 8-day spherical clock with four faces. It is with skirted an octagonal writing desk. Early merchants filled out declaration forms–using quill and ink, and then took them to the red-and-gray marble-paneled counters that line two sides of the hall for processing. Horology at the time required most clocks to be wound daily. This one had to be wound only once every 8 days–a sophisticated advancement in technology.
Circling Customs Hall on the second floor is a narrow balcony with ornamental railings, where armed guards once watched over the comings and goings. The coffered ceiling and the arches wreathing the doorways and windows are embellished with 22-karat gold leaf.
Symbolic details are lavished throughout the decor, many of them representative of the country’s history, commerce and power. The face of Mercury, god of shopkeepers and merchants, peers over Customs Hall from atop an arched doorway. Door knobs are imprinted with the scales of justice and a star for each of the 13 founding colonies. Sheaves of arrows banded by stars are the central motifs on the balusters of the granite staircase. The many “T’s” stand for “Treasury.”
Portland’s U.S. Customs House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Over the decades, the building has been altered little from its original grandeur. The gaslight chandeliers in Customs Hall were replaced with electric cylindrical pendants, and the windows were fitted with blast-proof glass. Still, weather and age took their toll. A $2.3 million rehabilitation project completed in 2013 extended its lifespan for decades to come while leaving its impressive architectural features intact.
Today, most customs declarations are done electronically, eliminating the need for customs houses. Many have been sold or adapted to other uses. The Portland customs house today provides offices for a dozen federal agencies.
Portland’s customs house was closed to the after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. You can still see it by booking a guided tour with Greater Portland Landmarks. Customs Hall also is available for private functions.
U.S. Customs House, 312 Fore St., Portland, Maine