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U.S. Customs House

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1932, Ritter and Shay. 200 Chestnut St.
  • "Custom Examination" by George Harding

Like lower Market Street, lower Chestnut Street was absorbed into the activities of the port in the early nineteenth century, but unlike the rest of the area that turned toward the modern tourist trade, freight brokers, tugboat operators, and customs agents have held their ground so that this district still contains offices of the maritime trades. These offices survive because of their proximity to the Customs House.

The Customs House was designed in the depths of the Great Depression as a WPA project. It is a superbly massed skyscraper by the Philadelphia masters of the Moderne style, with a pilastered limestone base that corresponds to the height—though not the scale—of buildings in the area, while the brick cruciform tower and terra-cotta-clad crown are of an urban scale appropriate to the 1930s. The design was intended to provide the maximum light and air to the workers within. An immense lantern that re-creates in modern interpretation the antique lighthouse of Rhodes as a landmark for modern ships crowns the building.

The interior, particularly the main lobby, is perhaps Philadelphia's best Art Deco space. Aluminum, suddenly economical because of cheap hydro-powered production, ornaments elevators, railings, and the exterior doors and lamps. A great rotunda carried on black marble columns supports a shallow dome and gives the illusion of being located under the great tower. Murals depicting the various government services housed in the building by Brandywine School artist turned modernist George Harding are among the best WPA art works of the city.

Writing Credits

George E. Thomas


What's Nearby


George E. Thomas, "U.S. Customs House", [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Cover: Buildings of PA vol 2

Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania, George E. Thomas, with Patricia Likos Ricci, Richard J. Webster, Lawrence M. Newman, Robert Janosov, and Bruce Thomas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 63-64.

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