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President James Monroe Laid The Norfolk Custom House Cornerstone on April 2, 1819


By Anne Saba,
Customs Archives,
Office of Information & Technology

December, 2000

Norfolk Custom House Today

Customs returns to occupy the historic customhouse at

It's time for all of us to celebrate a monumental achievement: Customs has reclaimed another historic customhouse. The troubling losses that overshadowed the 1980s, which saw Customs locked out of historic customhouses in Boston, Providence, and New York City, have been balanced in recent years by successful wins in returning to our beautifully restored homes in Baltimore, San Francisco, and now . . . Norfolk.

The Norfolk Customhouse is the oldest extant building constructed for, and continuously occupied by, the Customs Service. [The Customhouses at New Orleans and Charleston were begun prior to 1858, however, they were not completed until after the Civil War.] Yet, considering this impressive lineage, it is all the more amazing to realize there was an earlier customhouse that served the port from 1820 through 1858, and least six earlier buildings known to have sheltered the offices of the Norfolk Collectors.

The earliest customhouses . . . 1789-1820
The Customs Collection District of Norfolk and Portsmouth was one of the first 59 collection districts established on July 31, 1789. On August 4, 1789, President George Washington appointed Maj. William Lindsey as Norfolk's first collector. Administrative processes must have been chaotic in the early days of the new federal bureaucracy, because it was March 21, 1791, before Major Lindsey and the other 58 collectors received their signed commissions!

An insurance policy dated April 22, 1796, was discovered in 1957 among the records of the Mutual Insurance Society. This policy insured for losses up to $1,800, a wood house owned by John Nivison on the south side of Main Street on Town Point. Nivison, a prominent attorney and landowner in the city, leased the house to Collector Lindsey for use as the earliest known federal customhouse in Norfolk.

Collector William Davies rented two large residences owned by John Nivison on the north side of West Main Street between 1800 and 1804; the collector lived in one house and used the adjacent dwelling as his customhouse. Between 1805-1807, Collector Col. Thomas Newton, Sr., used a building he owned at No. 15 Market Square as his customhouse. Collector Larkin Smith maintained his customhouse on Marsden's Lane, and later on Water Street, between 1807-1812.

The "old" Customhouse at Water and Church Streets . . .

Charles K. Mallory was appointed collector in 1814, and initially set up his customhouse in a warehouse located on the Town Point waterfront. It was obvious to Collector Mallory that the volume of revenue collected at Norfolk justified a large and impressive customhouse to reflect the importance of the federal presence in the city. Favorable response from Washington resulted in the Treasury Department purchasing a building site at the southeast corner of Water and Church Streets for the sum of $9,000 in 1817. "Government architect" Lovitt Fentress was selected to design the customhouse.

Construction eventually got underway, and completion of the building's foundation enabled the scheduling of a Masonic Rite cornerstone dedication on April 2, 1819. Indicative of the importance placed on this federal building, the official delegation from Washington attending the ceremony included President James Monroe, Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, as well as the French and Spanish Consuls. Representing the U.S. Navy: Commodore Stephen Decatur, Commodore Cassin, and Captains Warrington, Sinclair, Elliott, and Henley. Colonel McRae represented the U.S. Army.

Drawing of the Customshouse based on  H.B.  Bagnall's detailed description.

It could take 24 hours or more to travel from Washington to Norfolk, and after an overnight passage on board the steamboat Roanoke, President Monroe and accompanying dignitaries arrived at Newton's Wharf on March 31, 1819. After a tumultuous welcome, all retired to their accommodations in Mrs. Davis' boarding house � the city's most fashionable establishment. On the day of the dedication, a military procession assembled on Market Square and proceeded to the town hall, where they were joined by the mayor, city officials, and members of the judiciary. Then, on to Mrs. Davis' boarding house, where President Monroe, Secretary Calhoun, et al, were placed in carriages and joined in the procession behind a marching band. The revenue cutter James Monroe was anchored in the river, and fired a salute as the President approached the customhouse site.

The Norfolk Beacon effusively reported on April 3, 1819:
"We do not remember ever to have witnessed a more interesting public spectacle, than that to which the ceremonial of laying the Corner Stone of the NEW CUSTOM HOUSE, yesterday, gave birth. The avidity with which all classes of our Fellow Citizens seized upon the opportunity which the occasion presented to approach the Chief Magistrate of the Nation with renewed assurance of their respect and attachment, was indeed such a spectacle as is congenial with the most felicitous view of the tendencies of such a form of government as the American people are privileged to enjoy."

Unfortunately, there are no known drawings or photographs of this early customhouse, however, we are indebted to H.B. Bagnall for a description of the building: "[the customhouse] presented an imposing appearance because of its large size and solid construction." Three stories high, the exterior walls were of brick and stone. On the main facade, a double flight of stone steps with ornamental iron railings led from the sidewalk to the principal entrance on the second level. Sheltered by a large stone portico supported by two stone columns, the entrance doors opened into a spacious hallway. Office doors opened off the hallway, which also housed a staircase leading to the third floor. Public storerooms [appraisers stores] were located in the building. The third floor was not partitioned and the ceiling soared to the roofline, creating what was considered to be the largest room in the city.

The immortal Marquis de Lafayette arrived in Norfolk on October 22, 1824, setting off another rousing celebration that lasted for days. All of fashionable Norfolk gathered on the third floor of the customhouse on October 25, to dance the night away at a grand ball held in Lafayette's honor. H.B. Bagnall related:

"This has always been referred to as the greatest social event in Norfolk's history, and not to have been present was looked upon as a matter of regret for a life time."

Apparently the customhouse had not been as solidly built as described, because thirty years later Congress appropriated $50,000 "for a new custom house at Norfolk � a building greatly needed, in consequence of the dilapidated condition of the old one, and the anticipated increase in the commerce of the port." Eight years later the collector moved to the imposing new federal building at Main and Granby Streets. The old customhouse remained unoccupied until the early period of the Civil War, when the city demolished it as a safety measure. The Treasury Department sold the site for private development in 1874.

A new house for Customs at Main and Granby Streets . . . 1858
The need to build a larger and more suitable federal building at Norfolk was recognized as early as 1849, when Congress appropriated $12,000 for the acquisition of a site on which to construct a new customhouse, post office, and courthouse. By the time a site was purchased in 1852, the cost had escalated to $13,500. In that same year, the appropriation for the construction of the federal building was doubled to $100,000. However, by the time the building was completed in 1859, the final cost tallied $203,903.75!

In 1852, Treasury Secretary Thomas Corwin created the office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, and selected Ammi Burnham Young to be in charge of all federal architectural design. Well experienced in the design of customhouses, A.B. Young and his staff produced the drawings and specifications. Two hundred lithographic copies of the contract documents were made for the use of the construction superintendent and bidding contractors. Collector Mallory placed advertisements in local newspapers soliciting contractors� bids for the construction of the new federal edifice.

1905 postcard view  of the Customshouse.

1905 postcard view.

Boston � Charleston � and Norfolk
It is evident A.B. Young's design for Norfolk is a scaled down version of the Roman temple style he had successfully presented in his earlier designs for the customhouses at Boston and Charleston, South Carolina. However, at Boston and Charleston, only Customs functions had to be accommodated, whereas at Norfolk, a post office was to be placed at street level "to provide easy access to ladies and children," and the U.S. courts would be housed on the third floor "to provide some insulation from street noise."

The "fire-proof" mandate

Photo of exterior cast iron capitals. Photo from Virginia-Pilot issue of 9.17.2000

Exterior cast iron capitals. Architect Ammi B. Young's clever substitution of tobacco leaves was appropriate for a state that produced an abundance of the crop.

After a series of disastrous fires in early federal buildings, the language of the appropriation Acts required the Supervising Architect to design "fire-proof" customhouses. This meant Ammi B. Young's Norfolk design relied heavily on the use of masonry foundations, walls and vaulting, iron for structural beams, interior columns, vaults, interior stairways and railings. Heavy iron shutters were mounted on the interior side of the windows, floors and treads of stairways were marble, and the roofing material was galvanized metal. On the exterior, column capitals, fascia and pediments were cast iron painted to look like carved stone, which elicited uncomplimentary comments on the penurious approach to design taken by the federal architect.

John H. Sale, was appointed the federal construction superintendent, and work got underway in the summer of 1853. The first delivery of Blue Hill granite from Maine arrived in June 1853, and the Norfolk Argus commented the granite "is of a light cheerful color, far preferable to the frowning, dark kind often used in building." It would be June 1856 before the exterior walls were finally completed, and the fluted columns of the portico � three feet in diameter and twenty-four feet tall � raised into position.

The post office space was completed first, including "a commodious sleeping apartment for the (P.O.) clerks on the western side of the building." Again, the Argus of September 30, 1857, waxes rhapsodic over the interiors:

"All the arrangements are excellent, and will be generally admired. Under the superintendence of Mr. Sale, this part of the new building ... is being completed in a masterly manner - utility, convenience and durability being combined with neatness and good taste."

In reality, the low vaulted ceilings, and walls painted to look like granite, made the post office space the look somewhat like a dungeon, which indeed it later became when Union troops occupied Norfolk during the Civil War.

On October 22, 1858, the Southern Argus reported:

"The large, handsome and well-built Government structure is now completed and Dr. Simkins, the Collector, and other C.H. officers, clerks, etc., attached to the establishment, will take possession of the neat apartments on Monday. The rooms are large, airy, admirably planned and furnished with a view to good taste and convenience; indeed the arrangements are all in accordance with a superior plan, and the workmanship is faithfully executed and will no doubt prove to be very durable."

The Collector officially occupied his "apartments" on October 26, 1858, while the third floor remained unfinished, thus delaying the arrival of the U.S. courts until later in 1859.

Receiving the Ladies . . .
It would appear revenue collection operations were considered a tad rough for the tender sensibilities of Southern Ladies, leading the Southern Argus to report on October 26, 1858:

"The New Custom House is now open for business during the usual hours: from 9 - 3 o'clock. As many of our citizens may not have embraced the opportunity afforded on Saturday, to view the interior of this stately, substantial and well furnished edifice, we are authorized by the Collector to say that persons calling for that purpose � residents of the twin cities [Norfolk and Portsmouth] or strangers � will always find a courteous reception, and some one of the officersof the House at leisure, and most willing to show them around."

"The building will be kept open for the next two days (including this) from 4 to 6 o'clock P.M., for the especial accommodation of the ladies, who are invitedto walk in, without hesitancy, between those hours. An officer of the customs will be detailed on the very agreeable duty of conducting them through the spacious rooms."

The October 27, 1858, Southern Argus reported further on the ladies� activities:"The ladies' reception yesterday afternoon at the new Custom House, was really a pleasant affair. The fair visitors were very handsomely entertained, partook of the dainties plentifully provided, examined the various airy and beautiful apartments and were highly delighted. Ladies are expected again this afternoon between the hours of 4 and 6."

"The polite attentions of the gallant Doctor [this would be Collector of Customs, Dr. Jesse J. Simpkins] and his worthy assistants, seemed to be highly appreciated by all the happy party in attendance."

Space problems . . . again
Architect Alfred B. Mullett, noted in his 1873 Report of the Supervising Architect to the Secretary of the Treasury:

"The increase of the business of the post office at Norfolk, Va., has rendered it necessary to remove the United States public stores from the custom-house and post-office building in that city, in order to provide the additional space required; this has been done, and the entire building refitted and furnished, and it is now in better condition than when first completed."

The relief proved temporary, and by 1892 the Treasury Department had purchased a large site for a post office and courthouse at the southwest corner of Plume and Atlantic Streets. The postmaster and judges were finally relocated to their splendid new quarters in 1900, leaving Customs to occupy its own building for the next 96 years.

Relocation and demolition threats loom . . . 1955-1996

Photo of the granite Customhouse transformed when the cast iron capitals, fascia, and pediment were painted black. Customs Archives photo

The classic beauty of the granite Customhouse was transformed when the cast iron capitals, fascia, and pediment were painted black.

Before the Customhouse reached its 100th birthday, talk was already circulating around Norfolk and Washington that it was time to consider replacing the outdated and overcrowded building. In 1955, an editorial in the Ledger Dispatch condemned a proposal to demolish the customhouse in order to make way for a "modern" federal building. Local preservationists became involved, and the customhouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, thus affording some legal protection from the ominous wrecking ball. On October 30, 1975, Commissioner Acree designated the building an Historic Customhouse. That same year, a Customs Directive was issued indicating official preference for locating port activities in customhouses, whenever practicable. The directive went on to affirm that every effort was to be made to re-occupy previously vacated customhouses, even if the building did not accommodate the agency's total space needs. Compliance required that "no action to relocate from an existing customhouse shall be taken without prior approval of the Assistant Commissioner for Administration."

Then ensued years of uncertainty and wrangling, aggravated by the inability of the General Services Administration, Customs, and the City of Norfolk, to reach agreement on the occupancy, ownership, restoration, and maintenance of the historic customhouse. During this interlude, GSA deferred much needed repair and alteration projects, and ignored the increasing need for mechanical/electrical systems upgrades.

The City of Norfolk offered to assume ownership of the customhouse in June 1979, and pledged to undertake its restoration as part of the city's overall redevelopment of the downtown area. GSA thought this an excellent solution, and informed Customs it planned to relocate port operations and transfer the customhouse to city ownership. Later federal politicians would step into the fray, and in April 1985 they requested the General Accounting Office provide an analysis of the various alternatives proposed by GSA for housing Customs operations in Norfolk. In October 1985, GSA reversed its position before the GAO report was completed, and negotiated an agreement with Customs, "to finalize years of uncertainty regarding Customs continued occupancy of the customhouse."

Home at last!
It would take another ten years before the port was relocated to temporary quarters at 200 Granby Street in early 1996. Four more years would pass before the port director could reclaim the customhouse - which at last had been provided with the "luxury" of central air conditioning. The Ribbon Cutting Ceremony was held on September 18, 2000, and the following month Customs was able to resettle comfortably into its historic home.

Photo of the restored Customshouse on the Norfolk waterfront. James Tourtellotte

Customs resettled in its historic home.



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