Saturday, March 13, 2010

U.S. Custom House

The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is a building in New York City, built from 1902 to 1907 by the federal government to house the duty collection operations for the port of New York. It is located near the southern tip of Manhattan, next to Battery Park, at 1 Bowling Green. The building is now the home of the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian as well as the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. The building was designed by Minnesotan Cass Gilbert, who later designed the Woolworth Building, which is visible from the building's front steps. It is a masterpiece of the Beaux-Arts style, where public transactions were conducted under a noble Roman dome.

Sculptures of four of the continents, Africa, Asia, Europe, and America, by Daniel Chester French, flank the Bowling Green entrance and above the sixth story, there are sculptures representing the great commercial and seafaring powers of world history:


Daniel Chester French's sculpture of "Africa" shows the continent to be mysterious, shrouded in unknowns and a rich past. The "sleeping continent" was just beginning to emerge in the early 1900's when French made his sculptures of the "Continents." Africa" is seen as the only nude of the four continents, in keeping with the stereotype of tribal peoples who did not wear much clothing. "Africa's" right arm rests upon Sphinx of Egypt, her left arm on a sleeping African lion.


Daniel Chester French's sculpture of "Asia" shows the continent sitting motionlessly, representing the place where so many religions were born. She holds a scepter of a poppy bloom (at the time, parts of Asia were well known for their opium trade) and a statue of an eastern deity in her lap. Behind her right shoulder, a cross is emerging, representing the beginning of the Christian missionary effort in Asia. While it is not possible to see in this photo due to the angle they were taken, "Asia's" feet rest upon a stool which sits on human skulls, indicative of the many people killed in slavery and through forced labor.


Daniel Chester French's sculpture of "Europe" shows both its ancient history, noble past and colonial conquests. "Europe" strikes a noble pose, seated on a throne decorated with a frieze from the Parthenon in Athens, representing the history of ancient Greece. "Europe's" right hand is resting on the bow of a ship with a lion's head, symbolizing the conquests of Europe during the age of discovery.


Daniel Chester French's sculpture of "America" is rich in imagery reflecting both North and South / Central America. The striking figure of "America" is the most active of French's "Continents," seeming ready to leap out of her chair, hair blowing in the wind. "America" is seated on a throne, her right foot on the head of Quetzelcoatl, the plumed serpent from Central and South American Indian cultures. A torch in hand, her left arm is pulling her cloak over an image of "Labor" which is rolling a wheel of progress. Peering over "America's" right shoulder is an American Indian in head dress, and sheaves of corn, symbolizing, in French's words, "the American idea of Plenty," are across "America's" right knee.

Looking at Frenchs beautiful sculptures, we can infer his beliefs regarding the four continents of the world Africa, dead asleep with an glorious past forgotten long ago; Asia, sitting motionlessly in a meditative state - waiting to be awoken perhaps; Europe, noble and regal, but her right hand holding tightly to her throne; and finally America young filled with energy and idealism ready to take the new century by storm.

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