The U.S. Custom House

Custom House
The U.S. Custom House looms over Old City Philadelphia. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.; Forms part of the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.

Long before our Philadelphia football Eagles became Super Bowl champs in 2018, limestone eagles began guarding the U.S. Custom House on Chestnut Street in Old City.

Interestingly, there’s even a likely connection between the limestone and football birds. More on that later.

Look skyward, and you’ll see limestone eagles perched on the upper reaches of the 17-story Art Deco building. And what a remarkable building it is.

Constructed as part of a huge government stimulus project after the Great Depression of 1929 (and just before the Works Project Administration), the U.S. Custom House contains extraordinary details you won’t see in modern buildings today.

I was fortunate enough to get a tour from Tom Rufo, operations manager at the General Services Administration (GSA), and Mark Falter Jr., the onsite manager. They pointed out marvelous touches I simply would have missed.

Walk around the front of the building, look up and you’ll see statues, bas-reliefs, ornamental doors and more. And that’s just to prepare you for the amazing extravaganza to come.

Inside you’ll see a spectacular 3-story rotunda, 75 feet of murals almost 4-feet high, two magnificent staircases and much more. There’s even a federal-style courtroom on the third floor used for Tax Court.

You may also see travelers with suitcases in the lobby, says Falter. The passport office in the building provides expedited service for U.S. citizens, and can process even some same-day applications in emergency situations.

Be aware, though, that this is a U.S. Government building with security procedures similar to an airport’s.

Interesting Oddities:

  • While the beautiful 3-story, 32-foot-diameter rotunda appears to be in the center of the building, it actually is in the front part, disguising loading docks that take up nearly half of the first floor.
  • A large cooling tower, added to the roof for air conditioning in 1969, once was visible from New Jersey and I-95. Managers fixed that, Rufo says by cutting the ceiling below and dropping the unit down 12 feet. Now you can’t see it.
  • The building employed more than 4,000 workers for two years. That helped spur the Philadelphia economy after the disastrous stock market crash of 1929.
  • Some of the beautiful murals on the first floor “have darkened with age,” says the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. The cause: “application of an inappropriate superficial art conservation treatment that cannot be removed.” Too bad.
  • Ritter & Shay, the building’s architects, had to respond to fast-changing government demands. First, the building went from a planned eight stories to 17. Then the Economy Act of June 30, 1932 reduced the budget by 10 percent. The result: marble trim, which would have been more compatible with the historic neighborhood’s architecture, was replaced by limestone.

Working inside a historic building brings extra challenges, Rufo says. To repaint the rotunda ceiling, for example, colors of 40 paint chips had to be tested and verified before work could begin.

Now back to the birds for a minute. Reportedly, new team owners drew inspiration from the symbolic Blue Eagle of the National Recovery Act. So they named the franchise the Philadelphia Eagles in 1933 – while this building was being erected. That’s your local angle.

FAST FACTS

Name: U.S. Custom House

Address: 200 Chestnut St., Phila., PA 19106

Built: 1932 to 1934

Architects: Ritter & Shay

Cost: $3,500,000

Style: Art Deco

Amount of Space: 565,000 sq. ft.

Green Roof on Fourth Floor: 22,000 sq. ft.

Number of Employees Housed: 670

Honors: Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and first building in U.S. to receive Energy Star label in 1999.

Tenant Agencies: Homeland Security, Justice, Health and Human Services, Interior, State, Agriculture, U.S Tax Court and more.

Claim to Fame: The illuminated terra cotta lantern atop the building tower resembles the famous lighthouse at Rhodes, Greece.