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Plans Submitted for New Orleans Custom House (1847)

New Orleans Custom House
New Orleans Custom House

On this day in 1847, plans for the New Orleans Custom House were submitted. This structure is the third Custom House in the city, as a growing city meant that a larger building was needed to house all of the Federal Government Offices. Alexander Thomson Wood’s plans were selected over those drawn by James Gallier Sr, James Dakin and other well-known New Orleans architects. Construction on the building started in 1848 and lasted until 1881.

This building is a unique blend of Egyptian and Greek Revival elements. The Egyptian Revival elements are most recognized in the enormous columns on all sides of the façade. Where Greek Revival columns feature acanthus and sometimes palm leaves, Egyptian Revival columns seen on this structure display the lotus flower and papyrus leaves. The entablature features Greek Revival elements such as triglyphs and dentils. Continuing this theme, each side of the building is topped with a triangular pediment common to many buildings built in America during this period.

As the building is built on a trapezoidal block, its walls were built in concordance with the diagonal lines present. Due to this strange shape the angles of the building are not square, but instead the corner of Canal and North Peters streets is a rounded acute angle, while the corner of North Peters and Iberville is an obtuse angle. Curiously, the other two angles are set at 90 degrees. All four sides are almost identical in design, but for the variances in lengths due to the block shape. Each side has six niches that were designed to create a space to add statues depicting America’s heroes. This plan was abandoned and these niches stand empty.

New Orleans Custom House
New Orleans Custom House side entrance

In a departure from a foundation made with upright pilings, this structure is supported by horizontal cypress timbers. The first story exterior walls are five feet thick, of which 18 inches made up of granite imported from Quincy, Massachusetts. Design for the upper levels focused on decreasing the weight of the building, so the cornice at the top was created out of much lighter cast iron and weightier decorative features such as a dome and cupola were stricken from the plan. With all of these considerations the building is still very heavy and has sunk into the ground at a noticeable degree to pedestrians. Modern efforts to prevent cracking in the foundation have led engineers to place iron bars in the lower levels.

Uses for this building included: (obviously) custom duties, post office, courts, and a holding area for as many as 2,000 captured Confederates by the Federal forces during the Civil War. Damage during Katrina included a drain blockage which resulted in a partial roof collapse. Repairs complete, in 2008 the building reopened as the Audubon Insectarium.