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Interpreting the Evidence

Custom House, New York City, c. 1910

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Lower Elementary
    Upper Elementary
    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Colonial America

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York City
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Custom House, New York City, c. 1910 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
Alexander Hamilton United States Custom House in New York City. Photograph taken circa 1910.
Historical Context
The Alexander Hamilton United States Custom House was completed in 1907.  It is an impressive building, soaring seven stories and covering 450,000 square feet over three blocks of lower Manhattan.

The purpose of a custom house was to collect taxes and regulate commerce coming into the United States.  This was before income tax was collected, so the custom tax was a very important form of revenue for the country.  The original Custom House at Bowling Green in New York City was built in the late 1700s and destroyed by fire in 1815.  When the federal government decided to erect a new Custom House at Bowling Green in the 1890s, the United States Department of Treasury sponsored a competition for the best architectural design.  The winning design by Cass Gilbert represented New York and the United States as leading commercial powers.  

The building has numerous carvings of historical and philosophical images. Four large sculptures at the entrance, known as “The Continents,” represent Asia, North America, Europe, and Africa.  On the sixth story of the building's exterior are twelve carved figures representing twelve great shipping powers of the ancient and modern world: Greece, Rome, Phoenicia, Genoa, Venice, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Denmark, Germany, France, and England.

Essential Question
How is architecture influenced by culture and economy?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the influence of culture and economy on this structure.
Historical Challenges
Why aren’t all the continents represented in this building? What happened to the carving of Germany during World War II?
Interdisciplinary Connections
Math: How old is the Alexander Hamilton United States Custom House?
Math: The Alexander Hamilton United States Custom House has approximately 450,000 square feet of space. How many square feet are in a square yard? How many square yards are in an acre? How many acres of space does the Custom House have?
English Language Arts: What does "commercial" mean in the phrase "leading commercial powers"? Why do you think television advertisements are called commercials?