Fact Friday: The History of the New Orleans Custom House

The U.S. Custom House in New Orleans, LA., was one the largest federal buildings to be constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, its construction was similar in scale to the U.S. Capitol. However, the building faced challenges even before the cornerstone was laid on February 22, 1849. Because of the city’s unstable soil conditions, the builders were required to construct a strong foundation of beams laid crosswise in trenches with brick and concrete footings some of which were 18 feet wide.  Also, during the building process, New Orleans would fall victim to an epidemic of yellow fever, followed by the Civil War when Confederate and Union forces would occupy its unfinished halls. All of these events created delays in the building’s completion.

The New Orleans Customhouse today.
The New Orleans Customhouse today.

Alexander Thompson Wood, selected by the government in 1845 from a group of architects that included James Gallier and James Dakin, was the first architect to prepare designs for the building. Wood had come to New Orleans in the 1830s to build row houses. His appointment angered Gallier, a prominent New Orleans architect, who later noted in his autobiography that the government had selected a convicted killer as its architect. According to historian  Jr., Gallier’s statements were true. Wood had been convicted of the murder of his foreman and had served several years in prison prior to designing the Custom House. Dakin continued his criticism even after being named the Custom House’s superintendent of construction. In September of 1851, Dakin resigned after his ideas for the design of the building were not adopted.

During the Civil War, construction was halted and the half-complete structure was briefly occupied by Confederate troops and later the Federal Army, following the capture of New Orleans in 1862. Union General Benjamin Butler established his headquarters on the second floor and used the facility to house captured Confederate soldiers, as many as 2,000 at one time. As the Civil War drew to a close, construction commenced once again and was completed in 1881.

Today, the Egyptian Revival style building is an immense four-story structure occupying one full city block on Canal Street. The brick and gray granite construction support a cast iron entablature. The interior of the building is arranged around the Marble Hall, which is considered one of the finest Greek Revival interior rooms in the United States.