Look Up! An imposing presence on the eastern skyline

The U.S. Custom House is a blend of governmental authority and Art Deco power.


“Look Up!” is a PlanPhilly feature that encourages appreciation of our architectural and historical environment. The photo essays focus on different Philadelphia areas and their distinctive building styles and details, all of which make up the physical fabric of the city and region.


Often overlooked on the Philadelphia skyline and by passersby at street level is the U.S. Custom House, 200 Chestnut St. in Old City. It has always been a utilitarian federal building – erected by the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations to oversee one of the nation’s largest ports – but it also boasts an imposing character and strong Art Deco lines and details.


The building was designed by the firm of Verus T. Ritter and Howell L. Shay, whose previous projects included the Packard Building, the Drake Apartment Hotel, and the former Market Street National Bank, the colorful Deco neighbor of City Hall.


Planning and construction of the U.S. Custom House took seven years and was completed in 1934. The four-story base of the building supports a 14-story, brick and limestone Deco tower. The building is topped with a symbolic lighthouse lantern overlooking the Delaware River port. The seafaring theme is picked up in the carvings of Neptune on the exterior and interior and the decorative steel lanterns at each entrance. Above each door is a molded metal paean to trade and commerce.


Now serving as the offices of the U.S. General Services Administration, the building was renovated in 1993 by Ueland Junker McCauley Nicholson. It was restored again recently and last month the project received a Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. Honored for the restoration were Berlin Steel, Carotenuto Brown LLC, Dan Lepore & Sons Company, Greenman-Pedersen Inc., Grenald Waldron Associates, Grunley Construction Company Inc., Thornton Tomasetti, TranSystems, Universal Builders Supply Inc., and URS Corporation.

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