MHT File Photo
United States Custom House
40, Gay St., S., Baltimore, Baltimore City
The United States Custom House in Baltimore is a granite structure measuring 252’ 8" (13-bay east front) by 139’ 6" (7-bay north and south elevations). The very thick exterior walls are bearing members, but the structural system also utilizes steel frame construction. Above a low base course, the three principal elevations are composed of a rusticated basement or ground floor carrying a three-story engaged colonnade of unfluted Roman Ionic order supporting a full entablature crowned by a balustrade. Visually, the ground floor acts as a podium for the order. The entablature and balustrade conceal an attic floor and low roof. The ground-floor windows are heavily barred. Those of the main floor are more elaborately composed than the others, suggesting a piano nobile, although there is little if any actual variation in the height of the floors above the ground floor. The main floor windows are fronted by balustrades having square balusters, as does the roof balustrade. Console-supported alternating segmental and triangular pediments crown the main floor windows, which are headed by Mannerist panels. The corners of the building are rusticated. Although the Custom House appears from three sides to be rectangular, it is actually U-shaped, having a rear courtyard flanked by north and south wings whose three-bay west ends are identical in design with the other elevations. The remarkable feature of the west, or rear, elevation is the pavilion which occupies most of the court. Above a rusticated basement, or ground floor, the pavilion rises the height of two full stories to enclose the lofty chamber within. The hip roof is copper sheathed and relatively high. The west wall has five bays, the end walls having three bays each. These walls are designed as arcades without any columnar order. The pavilion is attached to the west wall of the main block only by a ligature containing the passage from the main lobby, thus being, in effect, free standing. The exterior is ornamented by sea monsters, shells, and grotesque masks carved in the intractable granite of the window spandrels with great skill. As much care was taken with the design of the rear elevation as with those fronting the streets. The main entrance on Gay Street is centered and projects slightly from the façade plane. The sill is 8 steps above grade, the steps being flanked by plinths bearing iron lamp standards of Baroque design with lamps resembling 18th century ship’s stern lanterns. The doors are flanked by paneled pilasters headed by Roman Doric capitals ornamented by masks. The doors themselves have iron grille-work. There are minor entrances on Lombard and Water Streets.
The United States Custom House in Baltimore is an exceptionally distinguished example of Beaux-Arts architecture. Noteworthy for its handsome design, suave proportions, superb workmanship, and famous ceiling painting, the Baltimore Custom House was built from 1903 through late 1907 from plans by Hornblower and Marshall, a Washington, D.C. firm. The Custom House is not only a particularly refined and subtly restrained design, it is also a fine exemplar of the integral blending of art and architecture that flourished briefly in America around the turn of the 20th century. The ceiling of the Call Room, located in the pavilion, was painted by Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912), and is generally acknowledged to be the masterpiece of that important American artist. Millet’s decorative program for the Call Room represents not only an aesthetic success of major significance in the history of American mural painting, but also a carefully researched and accurately depicted visual history of the Evolution of Navigation. Ironically, Millet, who passionately loved ships, perished in the Titanic disaster in 1912. The Custom House is unaltered, except for the enclosure of the majestic staircases and lobby well, and magnificently illustrates the finest workmanship and building materials of its era. It stands on the site of Latrobe’s earlier Custom House and withstood the ravages of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. It has served as Baltimore’s Custom House from December 2, 1907 until 1953. Since that time Selective Service personnel have occupied the building.