More About the 1861 Custom House
1886: The Stars and Stripes wave again over the Federal Custom House after the conclusion of the Civil War.
It has been called the “lucky landmark, and for good reason. The 1861 U.S. Custom House is lucky in that it has survived wars, storms, fires, an explosion, and countless attempts to remove or alter it. It is deserving of landmark status, as one of Galveston’s most sophisticated architectural statements and historically significant buildings.
Ammi B. Young, first supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury, borrowed from the famous hand of the 16th-century Italian designer Andrea Palladio in the initial designs for the three-story Custom House. While enclosed at the corners and decreased by one story in height when finally built, the building still speaks of its Renaissance Revival style.
The U.S. Custom House was the first federally owned building for civic purposes built in Texas. The significance of this fact should not be missed. Before the enactment of the federal income tax, tariffs collected from imported goods were the U.S. government’s only source of revenue. It was the duty of the Customs Service to collect this money, and such an important function demanded an important building in the largest seaport west of New Orleans and the gateway to the growing commerce of the Southwest and the Great Plains. The imposing classical design of the Custom House well reflects that importance.
Charles B. Cluskey, an Irish-born architect from Savannah, adapted Young’s initial designs for the building. Cluskey envisioned a Greek Revival building, similar to his own work in Georgia, with a dome and prominent principal elevation. Through clever negotiations he manipulated changes and then lost his bid as contractor for the building. In a reissue of bid specifications by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Blaisdell & Emerson of Boston won the contract.
Within two months, the contractors procured all materials and prefabricated sections of the building to be shipped more than 2,000 miles to Galveston. They finished the building in a remarkable 114 working days, spurred to such dispatch by the near-certainty that Texas would soon join in secession and war, and the unlikelihood that the U.S. government would accept delivery and pay for a building located in a state with which it was at war. Blaisdell & Emerson turned the building over to federal forces on March 17, 1861, just before Texas seceded.
The Union captured Galveston in 1862 and flew the stars and stripes from the Custom House, but the building had never been occupied with federal offices, and its role was largely ceremonial. In January of 1863, the Confederacy recaptured the town in the Battle of Galveston, during which a shell is said to have pierced a brick wall of the building but did not explode, doing little damage. The confederates used the building as a post office, with military headquarters on the second floor.
Following the war, the U.S. government resumed operation of several agencies out of the Custom House after completing extensive repairs of war and climate damage. In 1885, Galveston’s disastrous fire came within half a block of the building, but the iron and brick construction proved, as intended, to be resistant to the fire.
The Custom House was again threatened by fire during Hurricane Rita’s rampage in the Gulf in 2005. Three buildings across the street were consumed by fire as the city lay almost entirely evacuated. When fire broke out amid high winds (the eye of the storm had passed well to the northeast of Galveston), a heroic cadre of firefighters who had remained on the Island subdued the flames before an 1885-style catastrophe could take hold. The Custom House escaped with the loss of a second-story window facing the fire, and some relatively minor smoke and wind damage.
The building had not fared as well in the Great Storm of 1900. The roof and portions of the building were removed by the winds, while a reported eight feet of water flooded the ground floor. After some debate, Federal officials again restored the building to its previous design.
By 1917 (two years after yet another hurricane), the expanded presence and role of the Federal government had diminished the prominence of the Custom House, and the General Services Administration proposed new uses for the building. It was transformed into a U.S. Courthouse. A courtroom was created at the east end of the second floor, and a holding cell for prisoners on trial was installed off the second floor hall.
The former holding cell, or defendant’s waiting room, left from the building’s days as a courthouse,is used today as the office of GHF’s Director of Events.
The courthouse use continued through most of the 20th century, with various other government functions occupying sections of the building; Selective Service and armed services recruiting, for example. After World War II, the Custom House included a U.S. Post Office, named Stewart Station to honor Postmaster Raymond Stewart’s son who was killed in the war.
By the early 1960s and again after Hurricane Carla, extensive repairs were required for the building’s continued use. The U.S. District Judge and Mrs. James Noel spearheaded its restoration, with strong support from the General Services Administration. A formal rededication in 1967 was followed by a commemorative postcard and stamp again attracting attention to the landmark.
Despite the federal commitment to its preservation, the building, not well suited to the needs of a modern office, continued to lose occupants. In 1974, the post office closed, leaving the building largely unoccupied. And in what might have been the coup de grace, a boiler explosion in 1978 left a gaping hole in the east wall and caused extensive damage to the second-floor courtroom.
Still committed to the building’s preservation, the GSA engaged Houston preservation architect Graham Lund to oversee yet another rehabilitation of the Custom House completed in 1985. Galveston blacksmith Doug McLean restored the cast iron columns and balustrades, and the building persisted, an admired but unused landmark in a city becoming increasingly aware of its architectural heritage.
In June of 1999, after a six-month restoration, 1999, the Custom House reopened as the headquarters of Galveston Historical Foundation. In an unusual partnership with the General Services Administration, GHF assumed custody of the building and oversaw the replastering and painting of the walls, new lighting, plumbing and climate control systems, and the installation of new wooden floors in the downstairs lobby and the courtroom on the second floor. An elevator and fire exit were added to bring the building up to modern standards of functionality. On January 5, 2010, Galveston’s 1861 Custom House ownership was transferred to Galveston Historical Foundation from the federal government.
In addition to its administrative offices, GHF has devoted several rooms of the first floor of the Custom House to its Preservation Resource Center, offering assistance and research materials in the history of individual properties, information and maps concerning the historic neighborhoods of Galveston, and technical assistance for those engaged in rehabilitation of their historic homes.
The U.S. Custom House is Galveston’s oldest and one of its most magnificent public buildings. Its adaptive reuse as GHF headquarters and home of the Preservation Resource Center is an example of historic preservation at work for the present and the future of our community.