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Historic New Orleans Customhouse Rededicated After Devastation of Hurricane Katrina

Release Date: 
August 9, 2011

The New Orleans customhouse, a landmark in a city rich with history, was rededicated yesterday after years of effort to restore and revitalize it after the massive damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection joined the General Services Administration in a ceremony to commemorate the building's reopening yesterday. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, CBP Deputy Commissioner David V. Aguilar, Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), Rep. Cedric Richmond (La.), Assistant Commerce Secretary Suresh Kumar and GSA Regional Administrator J.D. Salinas took part in the event that recognized both the building and the people who work there.

"This building is a testament to the work, sustained commitment, and determination of those here today," said Napolitano. "We consider it an honor to be a part of this facility."

Napolitano and Landrieu both in their remarks led a round of applause with a "shout out" to the officers and agents of CBP for their dedication and commitment to securing the border and keeping the country safe.

In his remarks, Aguilar remembered his flight over the hurricane-ravaged land about a week after Katrina hit.

"During the height of the need after Hurricane Katrina, CBP deployed more than 700 employees from across the country to perform a range of duties - from search and rescue to law enforcement missions," he said. "CBP is proud to call this majestic American treasure home once again."

A large crowd took part in the ceremony, held in the massive Marble Hall.

A large crowd took part in the ceremony, held in the massive Marble Hall.

Photo Credit:Donna Burton

On Aug. 29, 2005, Katrina made landfall with 125-mph winds near New Orleans. The storm's surge led to breaches in the federally built levee systems, the failure of an important canal levee in the metropolitan area, and an indiscriminate path of destruction that the city will never forget.

The swirling waters that inundated so many structures after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were not just confined to personal property, businesses and residences of New Orleanians. Also impacted by Katrina was the gray granite structure that had been home to thousands of federal employees since the late 1800's, the New Orleans customhouse.

In the aftermath of the storm, the customhouse sustained serious damage and was declared unsuitable for occupancy. Employees were housed in various locations throughout the city, but that six-year hiatus ended in June of this year with the building's total renovation by the GSA and the relocation of CBP's field office and many of the port's staff. Plans have been finalized for the entire CBP Office of Field Operations staff in the area to be collocated here within the next 24 months.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke to attendees on the importance of the customhouse to the department's mission.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke to attendees on the importance of the customhouse to the department's mission.

Photo Credit:Donna Burton

The present pre-Civil War structure is the third to be built on the popular Canal Street site. Conceived 20 years before the Civil War, the customhouse is a monument not to anyone in particular, but to an age. At the time of its building, it was larger than the U.S. Capitol. Even today its size and scale are extraordinary, attracting many tourists and historians each year.

Construction began in 1848 and continued for more than 33 years. Eight more architects followed the first, and each modified the original design concept. However, the building's crowning glory was then and still is the mammoth 95-by-125 foot, 54-foot-high "great business room," Marble Hall. The 14 Italian marble Corinthian columns measure 41 feet tall and four feet in diameter. While those dimensions are staggering, picture a city block building that covers more than six million square feet and contains enough bricks, granite and marble to pave a path from New Orleans to Baton Rouge.

GSA's contractors and design staff have not just restored the building to its former glory and preserved all the architectural details, but have also ensured that its interior spaces provide a modern, state-of-the-art facility for employees.

CBP is woven into the fabric of New Orleans life, not only by the fact that the customhouse is the most imposing structure in the city, but through the successful implementation of the agency's mission, which has been vital to the success and growth of trade in the region.

Considered to be one of the most important buildings in New Orleans, both architecturally and historically, the customhouse also ranks as one of the most significant government-owned structures in the southern U.S. There are larger, more expensive buildings, but in the South, none are grander in concept, richer in history or more impressive to see.

-by Virginia Dabbs, Office of Public Affairs





Last modified: 
February 8, 2017