The extravagant structure that now houses the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian once served as as the center for duty collection operations for the Port of New York. As the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs house, the building was an epicenter of commerce until 1974 when operations were moved to the World Trade Center. The building is a giant Beaux-Arts treasure trove of artistic and architectural work that was completed in 1907. In addition to the museum that inhabits the building today, you will also find offices of the naval coast guard, a U.S. bankruptcy Court, the east coast National Archives, and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office. Standing now as a national landmark, the structure has come to embody over 400 years of New York City history.
10. It was Built on the Site of a Colonial Fort
Image from Library of Congress. Bowling Green before the Customs House was built.
The Museum of the American Indian is located directly across from Bowling Green in lower Manhattan on top of what was once the site of Fort Amsterdam. The fort was built in 1626 to defend the Dutch controlled city of New Amsterdam. After the Revolutionary War, the fort was demolished. In 1790, a structure intended to serve as the executive mansion of President George Washington was built at the site, but Washington never lived there. Instead, when the federal government moved to Philadelphia, the Government House became the home of the state governor. This structure was demolished in 1815 when the land was sold to the public. Before construction of the Customs House began in 1902, steamship offices occupied the land.
It is a fitting turn of events that a museum celebrating and honoring the history of Native American cultures now occupies the space where colonial rule in New York began. The Museum of the Native American is free and open to the public daily. Exhibits currently on display include Transformer, an art exhibit featuring the work of ten artist who all use electricity and a variety of new media to explore “their place in and between traditional and dominant cultures,” and Taíno, a look at native heritage and identity in the Caribbean.
Learn more about New York City’s colonial history on our Remnants of Dutch New Amsterdam Walking Tour!