100 years of history at Custom House

Ceremony notes historic building's role in Baltimore

December 04, 2007|By Katy O'Donnell | Katy O'Donnell,SUN REPORTER

A small crowd gathered yesterday morning below blue and green maritime-themed murals in the airy but stately Call Room, a two-story pavilion in the center wing of the U.S. Custom House in Baltimore, to celebrate the building's centennial.

The event, hosted by the U.S. General Services Administration and Barbara Shelton, the GSA regional administrator, brought several local and national government officials to speak about the importance of the national historic landmark and its contribution to Baltimore's port industry over the past 100 years.

Even before it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, the Custom House was recognized as a particularly beautiful and significant building. After prominent Washington architects Joseph Hornblower and John Rush Marshall secured the commission in a Treasury Department competition in 1900, they laid the cornerstone in 1903 before a crowd of several hundred. After setbacks posed by the Great Fire of 1904, which ravaged much its northwest corner, the Custom House opened in 1907 to rave reviews.

"The result achieved by the intelligent cooperation of architect and artist," declared American Architect and Building News in 1908, "stamps Baltimore's new Custom House as among the most successful public buildings erected in this country."

Until the 1930s, the Call Room - where murals depicting 125 ships throughout history rise to an impressive 63-foot-by-30-foot maritime mural - served as the central location for customs officials to collect paperwork and duties from those shipping cargo into Baltimore. Shipping lines still occasionally send agents to the Custom House to handle various fees and paperwork, but most of the business done in the Call Room is now conducted by phone or computer.

But technological advances and a waning shipping industry have not robbed the Custom House of importance, said several of the speakers.

"It talks to us about the history of America and the future of America," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin. "Baltimore was, and is, one of the great ports of our nation."

GSA Administrator Lurita Doan discussed the building's aesthetic and historical merits, saying that it houses the "single most beautiful ceiling in all of the properties that GSA holds in our portfolio."

John Breihan, a history professor at Loyola College, recalled the headlines the building made in 1967, when four people entered the building and dumped blood on Secret Service records to protest the draft and the war in Vietnam.

The Call Room has also been featured in several movies, Shelton noted, including Head of State and Live Free or Die Hard.

The building currently houses offices for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and Labor, and U.S. Federal Protective Services.

katy.o'donnell@baltsun.com

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