The National Archives at New York City is located in one of
the most acclaimed buildings and most historic locations in Manhattan. Situated
at the southern tip of the island overlooking the Hudson River, and next to the
site of the oldest public park in the city, the National Archives at New York
City resides in the architecturally renowned Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom
House. This exhibit explores that historic building and the National Archives
at New York’s place in it.
The National Archives at New York City
The National Archives at New York City is part of the National Archives' nationwide network of archives. Its permanent records include those created by Federal agencies and courts in New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition to numerous records of genealogical interest, among its holdings are also the first Batman comic and records for the Titanic!
The National Archives at New York City occupies a remarkable and historic building in downtown Manhattan. It also shares this space with the National Museum of the American Indian and the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. Situated at Bowling Green, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is an ornate structure that is rich in history and culture. Completed early in the 20th century, the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in New York City celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2007, and this Beaux-Arts treasure is one of the nation’s most significant and renowned edifices.
Its latitude is 40 Degrees 47’10,” longitude 73 degrees 57’19.” Its official tax map designation is Manhattan block 12, lot 1. Located in the center of one of the earliest colonial settlements at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, and facing the first parade ground and public park, now referred to as Bowling Green, the Custom House is bordered by Bowling Green on the north, State Street on the west, Bridge Street on the south, and Whitehall Street on the east.
In its earliest days, the Custom House was a bustling place of activity as brokers and customer agents worked on establishing the economic foundations of the United States. Although the building’s importance declined in the early 1970s, when the Customs Service was relocated to the newly constructed World Trade Center, a major renovation and restoration project was undertaken to bring back the architectural beauty that is now seen today.
The building was saved from demolition in 1979 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Because the Custom House was one of the earliest designations of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the completion of its preservation in 1987 attracted considerable public attention. Exterior and interior spaces were cleaned, restored, and conserved while old office space was renovated for Federal courtrooms and accompanying offices. A 350-seat auditorium was also improved with modernized audiovisual facilities. Upgrades were also made to fire-safety, security, telecommunications, and heating, air conditioning, and ventilating systems.
A traditional example of the Beaux- Arts style, the building was designed by Cass Gilbert (1859-1934). Gilbert envisioned the building as an awe-inspiring tribute to maritime trade, and he was awarded the contract through an 1892 competition conducted by the U.S. Treasury. He purposefully situated the building’s back to the harbor in a gesture of courtesy to Bowling Green and Broadway yet still incorporated nautical themes about its facade.
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934)
"Cass Gilbert stated that the ideal for a public building like the Custom House was that it serves as an inspiration toward patriotism and good citizenship. It should encourage just pride in the state, and (be) an education to oncoming generations to see these things, imponderable elements of life and character, set before the people for their enjoyment and betterment. The education value alone is worth to the state far more than it cost--it supplements the education furnished by the public school for the university (and) is a symbol of the civilization, culture, and ideals of our country." ~ National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013-2017
Gilbert’s attention to detail was widely recognized and celebrated; he was involved in the design down to the smallest decorations and details. He also relied on a number of extraordinary designers who would collaborate with him.
View across the 3rd floor landing.
Second Floor Rotunda
The major architectural feature of the second floor is the Rotunda, which is oval in shape and measures 135 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 48 feet high. The domed ceiling of the Rotunda is a tile-and-plaster vaulted showpiece. It weighs 140 tons and contains no steel. In the center of the dome is an oval ceiling sash surrounded by painted murals with a skylight above.
The ceiling of the central Rotunda was designed by master craftsman Rafael Guastavino, whose other work in New York include the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal, Grant’s Tomb, and Carnegie Hall. He was responsible for tile in parts of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, and was also involved in the design and construction of the Custom House’s stairways.
In 1937, acclaimed New York painter Reginald Marsh was commissioned by the Treasury Department to create murals for the Rotunda dome. Marsh and eight young assistants depicted early explorers of the Americas in one series of paintings and followed the course of a ship entering New York's harbor in the other.
Shells, marine creatures, and sea imagery are prevalent throughout the interior, reflecting New York’s significance as a seaport. Here we have the fireplace detail in the Collector's Room as an example of this nautical theme.
The Collector's Room at the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House
The Collector's Room (as it is now known) was planned with great detail and grandiose design and is located in the north west corner of the Custom House. The most ornate room in the Custom House, it was designed as the main office for the Collector of the Port of New York. It is fully paneled in oak from floor to ceiling and is divided by a beautifully carved screen, which is further accented by a doorway marked by an arched hood.
Much of the paneling in the Collector's Room was done by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s woodworking studio.
The four enormous white limestone sculptures that rest on pedestals emerging from the ground-floor level of the building are the work of Daniel Chester French, known and celebrated for his even more immense statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The sculptures, known collectively as "The Continents," represent Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa, and they represent some of the finest examples of Beaux-Arts sculpture produced by an American artist.
The main figure in this sculpture representing Europe sits on a throne with a relief on the side referencing an ancient frieze from the Parthenon. She sits up straight, her crowned head held high, as she looks pensively ahead. She wears a draping cloak, in the style of the ancient Greeks, with a hem adorned with coats of arms. Her left arm rests on a large book that sits on a globe. Behind her, the throne turns in to the front of a ship with a Roman Imperial Eagle perched above it. Behind the main figure sits an elderly woman shrouded in a long cape reading from a book.
The sculpture of America is represented as a young, stoic woman, sitting at the edge of the chair as if ready to spring forward. She holds a torch in one hand and a sheaf of corn lies on her lap. Her right foot, extended forward, leans on the head of an image of the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl. In the background over her right shoulder is a Native American man wearing a warrior’s headdress. Another man kneels at her side, in the protection of her arm and flowing cape. He holds tools in one hand and a small winged wheel with his other.
Asia is represented as a figure backed by crouching masses of oppressed peoples. The central figure of this group is a seated woman with closed eyes, her hands resting on her knees. On her lap sits a small Buddha, and in one hand she holds a lotus flower with a serpent wrapped around the stem. The bare feet of the main figure rest on a platform held up by a series of skulls. To her right is a tiger, sitting with its back to the viewer and its head turned toward her. To her left are three additional figures; a boy kneeling with his head down in prayer, an emaciated elderly man with his hands tied behind his back in bondage, and a woman with a baby strapped to her back. The man and the woman stand bent over, leaning against the woman for support.
Africa is located to the far right of the main entrance of the building. The main figure is shown sleeping on a chair of rocks. She is half nude with fabric draped across her lower body. One elbow rests on the head of a lion while the other rests on a sphinx. Her hair is in a long braid and drapes over her shoulder. Another figure is behind her and is almost completely covered in a long flowing cloak. The figure’s gender is not clearly defined as only the eyes are visible.
At either end of the Main Hall are curved staircases rising through the full seven stories of the building.
Two curved staircases are finished with ornate plaster work, decorative bronze railings, and marble treads and risers.
On the broad stone sill of the sixth-story cornice there are 12 large limestone figures, representing 12 of the most successful commercial nations and city-states in history: Greece, Rome, Phoenicia, Genoa, Venice, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, England, and France.
The National Archives at New York City occupies much of the third floor of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. In the hallway leading to the office is information about the space and introductory exhibits.
Inside is the National Archives at New York City Learning Center. There visitors can discover and explore the records of the American people preserved by the National Archives. Staff offer free public programs such as genealogy programs, author lectures, educational professional development opportunities, and tours.
Considering that the National Archives at New York City is located in an area that was once a major hub of immigration, it is no surprise that some of the most requested records include court records, naturalization records, and passenger arrival records.
The National Archives at New York City also offers student field trips and educator professional development opportunities. Through challenging performance and collaboration opportunities, scavenger hunts, and other educational activities, students can see connections between their lives and the experiences of those who came before them. Educators can capitalize on the National Archives at New York’s holdings with hands-on document analysis workshops to help incorporate original records into their curriculum and make professional connections. Educators also have an opportunity to use this space to engage in activities that use Smart Board technologies, see demonstrations of DocsTeach.org, explore document facsimiles, and familiarize themselves with other NARA resources.
Students have an opportunity to use magnifying glasses, white gloves, archival boxes, specially selected National Archives document facsimiles, and other historical records in a variety of media to participate in onsite collaborative research experience.
The National Archives at New York City offers public programs that encourage exploration into NARA records and allowing visitors to make personal connections to events and individuals of the past and with other visitors. Visitors can engage in activities such as Finding Family genealogy workshops, Know Your Records historical workshops, author lectures, panel discussions, short films, and symposia.
The National Archives at New York City is one of the fourteen National Archives field offices outside of the Washington, DC, area. First located at the “Federal Office Building” at 641 Washington Street in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, the National Archives at New York later moved to the Military Ocean Terminal at Bayonne, NJ. and then on to a facility on Varick Street in downtown Manhattan. Upon it's opening in its current home in 2012, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero stated, “This exciting new venture will bring the records of American history to life through exhibitions, educational and research opportunities, an expanded research room, and public programs for hundreds of thousands of new visitors each year. We are thrilled to bring the National Archives to New York City – a location close to my heart.”
Researcher: Michael J. Hancock, History Intern at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Curator: Michael J. Hancock, History Intern at the National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Project Manager: Jessie Kratz, Historian National Archives, Washington, D.C.
Special thanks to:
Meredith Doviak, National Archives, College Park, MD
Jeff Reed, National Archives, Washington, DC
Chris Gushman, National Archives at New York City
Dorothy Dougherty, National Archives at New York City
Angela Tudico, National Archives at New York City