Thursday, October 11, 2012

1861 U. S. Custom House in Galveston!

One of the GREAT things (and there are many!) about Galveston is that it is home to so many historic homes and buildings, many of which were witnesses to the Civil War.  I have featured a few of these in previous posts, including the Hendley Building (here, probably the most important of the wartime building), Ashton Villa (here), the Menard Home (here), and others.

In my previous post (here) I described the surrender of Galveston to Union authorities on October 9, 1862.  As a symbol of restored (but short-lived) federal authority, the Stars and Stripes were raised again over the U. S. Custom House.  Fortunately, the Custom House is one of the wartime buildings people can see when they visit!  The building is now home to the offices of the Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF, here).  From the GHF website:

U. S. Custom House - Galveston, TX (Photo by Andrew W. Hall)
The U.S. Custom House was begun in 1860 and completed in 1861. The Boston firm of Blaisdell and Emerson built it in 114 days, an unprecedented accomplishment at the time. The extensive use of fireproof cast iron was revolutionary and likely accounted for the survival from the 1885 Galveston Fire. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army occupied the building. In 1865, the Custom House was the site of the ceremony officially ending the war in Galveston. The U.S. Government resumed occupancy that year after making extensive repairs.

Significant alterations were made in 1917 when the U.S. Custom House became the Federal Courthouse and a courtroom was created on the second floor. Continuing to serve as a courthouse and offices for federal agencies throughout the twentieth century, the U.S. Custom House was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

In 1998, the Galveston Historical Foundation signed a cooperative agreement with the U.S. General Services Administration that permitted the Foundation to lease and rehabilitate the building for its headquarters. On January 5, 2010, Galveston’s 1861 Custom House ownership was transferred to Galveston Historical Foundation from the federal government. Its Preservation Resource Center provides the public access to Galveston’s architectural history through historic property research, neighborhood information and technical rehabilitation guidance.

In addition to the surrender ceremony, The Custom House was the scene of several other thrilling episodes during the Civil War!  Confederate soldiers took shelter behind the building during to shield themselves from a fierce barrage by Union gunboats during the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863; it was the scene of a "bread riot" by starving women in the last months of the war; on June 5, 1865, it was the site of the final surrender of Confederate forces.

You can learn even more by visiting the GHF webpages on the building (visitor info here, architectural info here, and even more info here!).


You'll see photographs of other historic Galveston sites and buildings in my new book Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012)!

Period Engraving of U. S. Custom House - Galveston, TX

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