While similar in function to the featureless spaces you typically find when you arrive, jet-lagged, at the customs department in any international airport, Portland’s U.S. Custom House is of an entirely different aesthetic. Rebuilt in 1872 after the Great Fire of 1866 destroyed its previous home on Exchange Street, the structure was designed by architect Alfred B. Mullett to impress—and impress it did. The hall is laid with a checkerboard marble floor, the ceiling is ornamental and coffered, and the balcony features gold motifs of corn, clams, and wheat, all a testament to the city’s thriving maritime trade.
All along the waterfront, officials monitored ships’ arrivals and departures, immediately escorting in the captain, merchants, and the public, too, in order to declare their valuables. Up in the balcony, armed guards kept an eye out for theft—a particularly intimidating type of security system by today’s standards.
The Custom House was also the first and last stop for sailors. The seamen would be weighed and measured as a form of immigration control, comparable to a modern-day passport photo. (Where the sailors would head to next, after coming into port after weeks at sea, is another story altogether.)
Today, the building is maintained by the General Services Administration and serves as a multi-functional facility for many U.S. agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and Department of Homeland Security. It is also open for tours by private appointment.
After a two-million-dollar restoration in 2013, it’s easy to imagine this grand hall as a place where immigrants were reunited with family heirlooms, gingerly passed over carved marble counters, and where sailors glanced up anxiously at the walnut clock, before valiantly heading off to sea.