Throwback Thursday: Charleston Custom House

Charleston, SC Custom House under construction
Charleston, SC Custom House

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War draws to a close in 2015, historians often look to the battles, politics and social changes that accompany that period, but there are also the multitude of individual stories of those affected by the conflict. Take, for example, the story of Edward Brickell White, a prominent Charleston architect on the eve of the War. White had entered the competition to design the Charleston Custom House, but lost to New Englander Ammi B. Young. In 1853, however, White was retained by the Department of the Treasury to supervise the construction of the building, a difficult task made more so due to the site’s marshy conditions.

Construction continued until Northern concerns about Southern secession halted the project in 1859, and Congress appropriated only enough funds to protect the unfinished building from the elements.  By February 1861, two months after South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union, White, seemingly trying to make the honorable choice and keep his reputation intact, wrote Secretary of the Treasury John Dix attempting for the third time to officially tender his resignation to the U.S. Government. White asked the Secretary to “please inform me to whom I shall turn over the Building, premises and moveable property appended thereto, or what disposition shall be made of them.”  It appears White never got an answer, and within the week received a letter from F.W. Pickens, Governor of South Carolina authorizing him to “continue in charge of the new Custom House…until further orders from me or the President of the Confederate States of America.”

During the War White rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, eventually settling in New York City where he died in 1882.  Construction of the Custom House did not restart until 1870, and the grand building on Bay Street was finally completed in 1879.  It still serves much the same purpose today as then, and remains the home of U.S. Customs and Border Protection in downtown Charleston.