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Ocean Liner Murals in the Alexander Hamilton Custom House
Bowling Green at the Foot of Broadway

Text & Photographs by Theodore W. Scull

The Beaux Arts-style Alexander Hamilton Custom House was constructed in 1907 to the specifications of architect Cass Gilbert who was also responsible for the Woolworth Building, 90 West Street, originally a prestigious office building located directly on the Hudson River, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal on the border of Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

When the Customs Department was moved to the World Trade Center, the building was largely abandoned and was once slated to be torn down. It was declared a landmark in 1965 and the interior received the same designation in 1979. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York moved into part of the building in 1987, and the National Museum of the American Indian followed in 1994.

In 1936 during the Great Depression, the Work Progress Administration and the Treasury Relief Art Project commissioned Reginald Marsh to design and paint eight large murals depicting ocean liners at various stages of arriving in the Port of New York. There was some controversy about what liners should be depicted, and in the end, they were United States Lines‘ S.S. Manhattan and S.S. Washington, then the largest passenger liners under the America flag; Cunard‘s flagship R.M.S. Queen Mary; and the French Line‘s flagship S.S. Normandie. In between the murals are eight smaller panels of depicting explorers. Marsh and his assistants, working fourteen-hour days, completed the murals on December 27, 1937. The project cost the federal government $1,560.
In front of the Custom House are four elaborate statues representing four continents – Asia, America, Europe and Africa, and they represent strong points of view in the early years of the 20th century. Some aspects would be considered politically incorrect today. Have a look before entering the former Custom House.

The rotunda may be accessed during the same hours as the museum and at no cost. Open daily 10am-5pm, extended to 8pm on Thursday. Closed Christmas Day. Because this is a federal building, when you enter via climbing the main central staircase or at ground level by a door to the right, there are airport-style security barriers. The personnel are often very strict about passing through the detectors.

Once cleared, walk straight ahead into the magnificent elliptical rotunda. There are information panels, and the lighting is generally just about adequate for photographs.

Clerks in this elliptical rotunda of the U.S. Custom House tabulated the customs duty in the Port of New York, and the receipts were the primary source of revenue to operate the federal government before the income tax law was established in 1916.
United States Lines‘ Manhattan or Washington passes Ambrose Lightship marking the beginning
of the shipping channel via the Narrows into the Port of New York.

The Sandy Hook Pilot boards a liner via a rope ladder and through a shell door.
The harbor tug Calumet approaches the U.S. Lines‘ Washington in the channel off Staten Island.
Note the painter Reginald Marsh‘s signature lower right and the year "1937."

Officials boarding a liner from a tug in Upper New York Bay.

R.M.S Queen Mary passes the Statue of Liberty and is about to enter the busy North River opposite the Lower Manhattan skyline.

Screen actress Greta Garbo is being interviewed and photographed aboard R.M.S. Queen Mary.
Note the doves being released to the left side, and one prominent photographer in the foreground is a woman,
who is believed to be the noted photographer Ethel Kurland, while the rest are all rather faceless men.

Tugs belonging to five different firms are helping maneuver French Line‘s S.S. Normandie into her West Side berth.

A 1936 or 1937 Packard 7 passenger Touring Sedan is being pushed off Normandie while a sling containing the mail is being offloaded.
Note the netting to prevent objects from falling in the water and that only one gangway appears to be in place.

Thank you to Dave Hyman for identifying the motor car.

We wish to thank Branch member Phyllis Poda who identified the woman photographer in the Queen Mary mural as Ethel Kurland.