Feed of

Agnieszka Gugala, Anthony Margulies

Prof. Judith Jablonka



Personal Response’s to Architecture Project

The National Museum of the American Indian

We chose to examine the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House because it is not only a landmark for the country, but home to the National Museum of the American Indian. This meant that we could get a chance to examine architecture while simultaneously checking out the exhibits of the museum, which was quite appealing. Secondly, through some preliminary research, we were able to find out that Cass Gilbert, the same man who designed the Woolworth Building we visited as a class, also designed the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. Judging by the beauty of the Woolworth Building, we could tell in advance that the Custom House would be a work of art. Making our decision even easier was the fact that the Bowling Green street fair was to be held on the day we planned on visiting the building, which made the decision a no brainer.

Upon first sight of the building, both of us were a little confused. Here we were in downtown Manhattan, surrounded by the financial district’s skyscrapers, and suddenly there was open space surrounding a relatively short building. Even its color was different from everything else around it. Whereas the skyscrapers feature a modern black or silver, this building was a classic white color. The second thing we both noticed was the total difference in architecture of the building compared to the look of the buildings in Lower Manhattan. The grandness of the building, with the fresh green space before it, made for an oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle found in the busiest district of America’s busiest city.

We spent at least half an hour marveling at the four main statues guarding the entrance to the House. These statues are riddled with symbolism and clues to the values of this commerce-driven city one hundred years ago. Every time we stepped back to reexamine a statue, we would find yet another symbol or figure that was hidden from our eyes before. It was fun to interpret these figures; each statue was a puzzle waiting to be cracked.

The front of the building itself gave us a whole new trove of images to decipher. From the heads of Mercury that appear periodically to the row of mysterious but familiar representatives of the seafaring nations, everything on the building offers up something interesting for the eyes. In this sense the design of the building makes its admiration an interactive experience, rather than a flat, passive kind of beauty.  The building is alive and imposing with all its intricacy.

The sense of awe is not diminished in the least upon entrance to the building’s interior. We had trouble paying attention to the security checkpoint’s requests for all that we had to take in. The famous rotunda was especially impressive. There’s a feeling of wonder that we simply could not capture on camera, no matter how hard we tried. The space is strong and impressive, but seems celestial and weightless at the same time. Perhaps this is exactly what Gilbert was attempting to accomplish through his design, and what the federal government wanted the wining design to reflect. If this building was meant to display the power of a democracy and the power of a firm yet righteous godly hand, that is exactly what it does.

Over the years, this jewel of Lower Manhattan has stood testament to the power of our nation. Changes in architecture and culture since the building’s era have impacted the way we interpret everything around us. But in the fashion typical of a timeless work of art, the House’s meaning has not been diminished by external factors. We had high expectations for Gilbert’s premiere work in New York City, and we can safely say those expectations were greatly exceeded. This building has all the qualities of a masterful work of art – excellent execution, engaging themes, and room for interpretation, all while maintaining a strong message. One hundred years after its completion, this message remains and rings clearly over the everyday activities occurring under its watch down Broadway. As we explored the street fair stretching before the House that day, we kept turning back to look at the building. And it silently looked back every time, a relic from another era, observing the city as it forever grows above and around the building’s foundations.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.