The U.S. Custom House, that somber-looking four-story gray granite Modified Greek and Egyptian Revival behemoth standing as 423 Canal St., ranks among the oldest Federal buildings in the South. Once the second largest building in the United States behind the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., the history of its construction is filled with intrigue and corruption, including an ex-con.
By the 1840s, the Port of New Orleans had become so important the U.S. Treasury Department decided it needed a larger custom house in the city. In 1847 treasury officials chose a design by architect Alexander Thompson Wood over other applicants, including well-known local architects James Gallier Sr., James Dakin, and J.N.B. de Pouilly. Many were shocked when Wood, who had moved from New York to New Orleans, got the commission. As the story goes, Wood was a convicted felon who went to prison in 1835 for killing his job foreman on an earlier building project. As to Gallier, Dakin and de Pouilly, the Treasury Secretary said their designs had too many ornamental frills. Construction began in 1848.
Historians Karen Kingsley and Lake Douglas, writing for the society of Architectural Historians, describe this engineering feat: “The Custom House sits on a horizontal grillage of cypress planking, rather than vertical piles. Above it is a continuous series of inverted brick arches, which help distribute the building’s weight. The building is faced with Quincy, Massachusetts, granite; its upper three stories are raised over a massive rusticated base articulated with arched niches. At the center of each façade are engaged porticoes with lotus-blossom capitals on fluted columns supporting a pediment.”
Not everyone was impressed by the design. Kingsley and Douglas continue: “The building’s intimidating scale, the powerful and complex relationship between walls and windows, the stylized rustication, sense of enclosure, and Egyptian Revival exterior detailing inspired Dakin to describe it as fit only for a ‘Mausoleum or Tomb for an Egyptian king.’ Mark Twain thought it looked like a ‘state prison.’”
In 1850 the Treasury Department fired Wood, which began a rancorous succession of eight architects hired to complete the building. After Wood’s departure, Dakin briefly held the job but resigned when the Treasury Department rejected his design changes. Another local, West Point graduate Major P.G.T. Beauregard also briefly held the job as superintendent of construction.
Although still unfinished by 1860, various federal offices moved in anyway, including the city’s main post office. During the Civil War, Confederates used the building to make ammunition and, after the city fell to Union forces in 1862, it served as one of several prisons in the city for Confederate prisoners. Finally, the building was completed in 1881. In late 1915 the post office moved to the new and more elaborate Italian Renaissance building at 600 Camp Street that still faces Lafayette Square. The following year, the Federal government renovated the custom house, and in 1974 the National Park Service designated it a National Historical Landmark. In 1993, the Government Services Administration restored the interior to its pre-1916 condition. And from 2008 to 2020, the building housed the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, which is scheduled to reopen in 2023 in its new home at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
Although the building’s exterior is rather drab, its interior contains superb architectural and artistic details that include the great Marble Hall, intricate cast iron grillwork, stain glass windows, and bas relief sculptures of early New Orleans historical figures.
Today, the old Custom House is still home to U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as other federal agencies.