Customshouse, Providence, RI

Looking down Weybosset Street from Westminster Street in Providence in 1868, with the U.S. Customshouse in the background. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The scene in 2016:

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In the first photo, this scene is dominated by the U.S. Customshouse, a domed, three-story granite building that had been completed just 11 years earlier, in 1857. It was designed by Ammi B. Young, during his time as Supervising Architect of the Treasury. His works included many prominent buildings, such as the old Vermont State House, part of the Treasury Building in Washington, DC, and the Custom House in Boston.

Young designed the custom houses in Boston and Providence about 20 years apart, and the two buildings reflect a shift in architectural tastes during the time. Although both were constructed of granite, Boston’s earlier building was Greek Revival, but by the time Providence’s Customshouse was built, Italianate architecture was far more common. Gone were the massive columns and triangular pediments, replaced instead with design elements such as arches, window cornices, and quoins on the corners.

When the first photo was taken, the Customshouse was surrounded by an assortment of low-rise commercial buildings, many of which were wood and probably dated back to the early 19th century. However, over time these buildings disappeared, and were replaced by much taller skyscrapers, dwarfing the old Customshouse. The first of these skyscrapers was the Banigan Building, built in 1896 on the left side of the present-day scene. It was followed in 1913 by the even taller Turk’s Head Building on the right side of the photo, which was constructed on a triangular lot and bears some resemblance to New York’s Flatiron Building.

Because Providence was a major port in New England, the Customshouse served an important function housing the offices of the city’s Collector of Customs. However, despite its name, the building also included the city’s main post office, a federal courtroom, and the offices of the federal District Attorney. Consequently, while Providence’s skyline was growing, so was the need for space in the old building.

The problem was solved in 1908, with the completion of a new Federal Building at Exchange Plaza. Even this new building was not enough, though. After sitting vacant for more than a decade, the old Customshouse was reopened in 1921 to provide additional space for federal offices. It remained in use until 1989, and was later sold to the State of Rhode Island. Today, it is used as offices for the State Courts System. Along with the turn-of-the-century skyscrapers around it, the 160 year old building is now part of the Customshouse Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

Worcester County Courthouse, Worcester, Mass

The old Worcester County Courthouse at the corner of Main and Highland Streets in Worcester, around 1908. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2016:

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Geographically, Worcester County is the largest of the 14 counties in Massachusetts, and for many years this building served as the county courthouse. It has been expanded several times over the years, but the original section is the left side of the building. Completed in 1845, it was designed by architect Ammi B. Young, a Greek Revival architect whose other works included the old Vermont State House, the Custom House in Boston, and part of the US Treasury Building in Washington, DC.

When it was first built, the courthouse had a different front, with a typical portico supported by six granite pillars. These were removed in 1897, during a major addition that included remodeling the facade of the original building and expanding it north, to the right from this view. The current front entrance was added at this point, with its four pillars and the phrase “Obedience to Law is Liberty” carved above them. On the right side of the building, this section matches the design of the reconstructed 1845 building, giving the building a symmetrical Main Street facade.

The courthouse remained in use for nearly a century after the first photo was taken, but by the early 2000s it was replaced with the current courthouse several blocks south of here on Main Street. After years on the market, the building was sold to a private developer in 2015, who plans to preserve it and put it to a new use. From the exterior, not much has changed with the building itself from this angle, although some of its surroundings have. The statue in the first photo, honoring Civil War general Charles Devens, is missing in the 2016 scene, but it is still at the courthouse, having been moved just around the corner and out of view to the right.

Aside from the statue, the only other significant change is the structure in the foreground. Part of the Ernest A. Johnson Tunnel, it was built in the 1950s by prominent Norwegian civil engineer Ole Singstad, who at this point in his career has already been responsible for such projects as the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels in New York City. Substantially easier than building under the Hudson River, this project involved bypassing the congested Lincoln Square to provide a direct underground connection between Main and Salisbury Streets. It is still used today, carrying southbound traffic into downtown Worcester and merging onto Main Street just south of the old courthouse.

Custom House, Boston

Boston’s Custom House, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2014:

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Although no longer used as a US Customs office, the Custom House still looks much the same as it did when it was completed in 1849, aside from the addition of a 32-story skyscraper on top of it.  When it was built, it was on the waterfront, roughly level with Quincy Market, which was also located along the water.  It was a convenient location, as it facilitated the inspection of ship cargoes.  Today it is several blocks away from Long Wharf, but it continued to be used by Customs for many years.

By the time the first photo was taken, the increase in shipping to Boston necessitated expanding the Custom House, which led to the construction of the Custom House Tower in 1915. At the time, Boston  restricted the height of buildings to 125 feet, but as a federal building it was exempt from these restrictions.  As a result, it was the tallest building in Boston until the completion of the Prudential Tower in 1964.  US Customs left the building in 1986, and it is now a Mariott hotel.