In the Custom House, fronting on Bowling Green, New York possesses the largest and most beautiful custom house in the world. The building was designed by Cass Gilbert; it is of Maine granite, seven stories in height. It is embellished with a wealth of exterior decoration, the motives of which are found in the world-wide commerce of the United States, of which seventy-five per cent. enters through the port of New York. Dolphin masks, rudders, tridents, the caduceus of Mercury, the winged wheel, the conventionalized wave and other suggestions are of the sea and ships and transportation. A series of forty-four Corinthian columns surrounding the building are crowned with capitals from which look out the head of Mercury, ancient god of commerce; and in the keystones of the window arches are carved heads typical of the eight types of mankind—the Caucasian, with accessory of oak branches; Hindu, lotus leaves; Latin and Celt, grapes; Mongol, poppy; Eskimo, fur hood; coureur de bois, pine cones; African.
Extending across the sixth floor of the Bowling Green facade is a series of twelve statues carved from Tennessee marble. The figures are of heroic size and represent twelve sea-faring powers, ancient and modern, which have had part in the commerce of the globe. The subjects from left to right are:
GREECE (by F. E. Elwell) is typified by Pallas-Athene, with cuirass and shield. Rome (by F. E. Elwell) is a soldier of the Empire, bearing the mace, and crushing to his knees a barbarian captive.
GENOA (by Augustus Lukeman) is represented by Columbus; the Great Discoverer is clad in armor, with two-handed sword, and at his feet crouches an open-jawed dragon, typifying the triumph of Columbus over ignorance, superstition and bigotry.
VENICE (by F. M. L. Tonetti) is represented by the Doge Mariano Faller', In magnificently embroidered robe, and holding the prow of a gondola.
SPAIN (by F. M. L. Tonetti) is represented by Isabella the Catholic, wearing the regal crown and royal robe, on which are embroidered the castles and lions of Castile and Arragon, and the Collar of the Golden Fleece. Her right hand rests on a globe, the left on sculptured arms, with the little Santa Maria of Columbus's fleet.
HOLLAND (by Louis St. Gaudens) is represented by Admiral van Tromp, with characteristic broad-brimmed and plumed hat, heavy boots and long sword. PORTUGAL (by Louis St. Gaudens) is represented by Prince Henry the Navigator, clad in medieval armor.
DENMARK (by Johannes Gelert) is a woman Viking carrying a boarding pike. Other suggestions are rope and tackle.
BELGIUM wears a trench helmet; on her cuirass is the Belgian lion, and the shield bears the name Belgium.
FRANCE (by Charles Graby), wearing the liberty cap, holds a statue to indicate pre-eminence in the fine arts, and a crowing cock proclaims the Frenchman's challenge to the world.
ENGLAND (by Charles Graby) is personified as Britannia with hand on steering wheel, and bearing a shield embossed with the image of St. George.
On pedestals advanced from the building, to the right and left of the main entrance, are sculptured marble groups by Daniel Chester French, representing the four continents. Each is personified as a woman, and the allegory is an epitome of the development of the racial type.
ASIA holds the lotus flower, and in her lap is a figure of the Buddha. Beneath her feet are the skulls of the victims of oppression. Her eyes are closed; with passive countenance she is heedless of the prayers of the kneeling Hindu, the Chinese coolie, whose arms are bound, and the suppliant women bound by the injustice of the ages. A tiger glares into her face. Behind her shines the illuminating cross of the Christian religion.
AFRICA, reclining against an Egyptian pillar, is seated between a lion and a sphinx. Her attitude is of drowsiness and hopelessness.
EUROPE is seated on a throne carved with the emblems of achievement. The open book is of the mighty past, the globe is the sphere of empire, the ships' prows stand for daring exploration.
AMERICA, seated on a stone covered with barbaric inscriptions, holds in one hand the lighted torch of progress; the ether is extended protectingly above a figure signifying labor. An Indian peers over her shoulder; the eagle is by her side, on her knees rest sheaves of grain. The attitude is alert, energetic, and expectant.
In the center of the attic of the Bowling Green front is a cartouche by Karl Bitter, displaying the shield of the United States, supported by two female figures and surmounted by an American eagle with outstretched wings. The sheathed sword typifies power and the security of peace; the bound bundle of reeds is emblematic of the strength of the States united. A female head is carved above the entrance arch by Alfano, and under the arch are the Arms of the City by the same sculptor.
The Custom House occupies an historic site. In the reception room of the Collector's office a memorial inscription reads: "On this site Fort Amsterdam was erected in 1626. Government House was built in 1790, for President Washington. Here George Clinton and John Jay lived. Used as Custom House from 1733 to 1875."
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