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NYC - Bowling Green: Alexander Hamilton Custom House - The Continents - Asia

The Alexander Hamilton Custom House is one of New York's finest examples of Beaux Arts architecture, incorporating City Beautiful Movement planning principles with architecture, engineering, and fine arts. The seven story structure with 450,000 square feet sits on three city block in Bowling Green.


It is here, at the southern terminus of the old Algonquin trade route, Wiechquaekeck Trail, that Peter Minuet purchased the island of Manhattes for trinkets valued at 60 guilders, or about $24, from the Lenape Indians in 1626. Soon thereafter the Dutch West India Company built Fort Amsterdam on this site, which came to be the nucleus for the New Amsterdam settlement. After the American Revolution the fort was replaced by the brick Government House, which was intended to be but never used as a residence for the President. Instead it became the residence of New York Governors DeWitt Clinton and John Jay. The building served briefly as the Custom House from 1799 and 1815 before being torn down and replaced with rowhouses.


Before a federal income tax was imposed in 1916, a primary source of revenue for the federal government was custom duty. New York City, as the country's most active port, has had a Custom House since the country's founding in in 1781. In 1899, the United States Department of the Treasury acquired the Bowling Green property and sponsored a competition to build a new U.S. Custom House. Minnesotan Cass Gilbert, who later designed the Woolworth Building, won the competition by designing a building that was not just a functional building for commerce, but exuded a palatial grandeur. Construction began in 1900 and completed in 1907.


The interior of the building is dominated by the huge rotunda, which survives as one of the largest public spaces in New York. Commissioned In 1936 as part of the Treasury Relief Art Project, Reginald Marsh was commissioned to paint the elliptical space around the 140-ton skylight with sixteen frescoes. The larger sections portray eight successive stages of the arrival of an ocean liner in the harbor. Eight smaller panels, painted in grisaille to simulate statuary, depict famous explorers like Amerigo Vespucci, Christopher Columbus, Giovanni da Verrazano and Henry Hudson.


Above the main cornice on the sixth story are standing sculptures representing the great commercial sea-faring nations, from the Phoenicians to the Americans.


Central to Gilbert's design of the Custom House were four separate sculptures to be placed at the front entrance of the Custom House, representing four continents (from left to right) - Asia (pictured), America, Europe and Africa. Gilbert asked both Daniel Chester French and August Saint-Gaudens both to submit designs for the sculptures. Saint-Gaudens declined the invitation, citing other work he was occupied with, so French received the commission. French began designing the sculptures of "Continents" in 1903 and they were completed and installed in 1907. Art scholars consider French's "Continents" to be perhaps the best examples of architecture sculpture in the United States. Each of the four "Continents" represent a view of the continents through French's early 20th century lens: Asia and Africa are still cloaked in mystery, Europe is in the waning years of its colonial conquests, and America is emerging as a new, vibrant society.


The building was subsequently abandoned in the 1970's and was scheduled for demolition before being saved and restored in the early 1980's. In 1987, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York occupied the building and in 1994, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian took over two floors of the Old Custom House.


The United States Custom House was designated a landmark by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965. Its interior was designated separately in 1979.


National Historic Register #72000889


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Taken on December 23, 2006