Did You Know... Rare Photograph Offers Glimpse into Oldest Building Owned and Occupied by Federal Government in Continental U.S.?
Constructed 1809-1810, the Robert C. McEwen U.S. Custom House in Ogdensburg, New York, is the oldest federal building in the General Services Administration (GSA) inventory. Commissioned by the landowner and financier David Parish as a store (warehouse) and wharf, the building was located on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.
Parish called upon master carpenter Daniel W. Church to oversee the construction. French Canadian masons were employed to erect the native limestone structure. Despite its utilitarian function, the warehouse's design included a number of embellishments, including segmental arches with vouissoirs above each masonry opening (the stone arches above the windows and doors) and quoining at the building's corners giving the impression of strength along the structure's edge. Many of these subtle but fine details appear in the interior.
Parish is credited with aiding in the development and shipping along the St. Lawrence River and the establishment of Ogdensburg as a U.S. Customs port of entry. Much of the goods that were brought to upper New York State via the St. Lawrence were warehoused at Parish's store, thus making the town a trade hub. The Ogdensburg Port of Entry was established by Congress on April 2, 1811.
Collector's office includes two small arched windows (one unseen flanks the fireplace), a band of picture rail and cove molding which meets an equally impressive ceiling, and a brick fireplace adorned with dentil molding. Church's delicate craftsmanship is perhaps best presented in the thin strips of wood trim finished with finial tops that ornament the window and fireplace corners.
At the time the photograph was taken in 1935, the U.S. Customs Service and U.S. Border Patrol (Ogdensburg Station) were leasing space in the building. The George Hall Corporation, a shipping company, owned the Parish Store since 1880, and sold the property to the U.S. government in 1936. This change in ownership brought in 1937 the first renovations to the building since its construction.
The exterior saw a one story addition on the south façade and along the roofline a modillion cornice was added. The interior underwent a complete remodeling, and many of Church's decorative details did not survive in the collector's office. Close examination of a contemporary photograph reveals the space stripped of the master carpenter's work. Undressed are the finely crafted details at the windows, fireplace crown molding and ceiling. The Ogdensburg customhouse would see minor alterations in the years following, namely the addition of the North Water Street entrance portico in 1958.
The Ogdensburg U.S. Custom House was listed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1974. It was renamed in 1982 in honor of the late U.S. Congressman Robert C. McEwen, and the building's bicentennial was celebrated in 2009. Today, the historic property is home to U.S. Border Patrol Ogdensburg Station. Discussions of future renovations by GSA are currently underway.
For questions, comments, and story contributions, contact the CBP History Program at CBPhistory@dhs.gov.