Friday, March 16, 2012

More than Decorative: Portland's U.S. Custom House Symbols

The second-half of the nineteenth-century was a prosperous time for architectural development in Oregon. This period saw the establishment of professional architects in Oregon, allowing the state to be comparable with eastern architectural development of the same era in the United States.[1] Portland was the center of economic growth and abundance in Oregon, and the U.S. Custom House was built to promote and accommodate Portland’s economic prosperity. Originally U.S. Customs Services was housed in one of Oregon’s earliest public buildings, the Pioneer Courthouse, which was constructed in stages between 1869 and 1903. However, the U.S. Customs Services quickly outgrew this building, and by 1898 construction began on the present U.S. Custom House.
The present U.S. Custom House is a testament to the Italian Renaissance Revival style, popular in the late nineteenth-century architectural vernacular of Oregon. The building was designed in the office of James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department, and supervised under noted Portland architect Edgar Lazarus.[2]  Portland’s U.S. Custom House is a symmetrical four-story building, H-shaped in plan, and encompasses a full city block. Joint efforts by Taylor and Lazarus resulted in a fusion of style that references Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque features that are showcased on the exterior and interior of the building. 

This fusion of style begins on the first-story walls which are composed of brick masonry enclosed in light gray granite, with window and door openings that feature semicircular arches. The first and second floors are separated by a balustrade and a granite stringcourse carved with Vitruvian scroll details. The two upper stories are composed of Roman brick and use terra-cotta to display dentil cornice molding and scrolled consoles detailing.[3] The most distinctive Italian Renaissance Revival style is found in the architectural ornamentation of the exterior fenestration, and is most prominently featured around the second and third-story windows.
The architectural ornamentation or “Gibbs-surround” of the second and third story windows of Portland’s Custom House borrow directly from Italian Palazzos and include several allegorical symbols: a key and a balance, a symbol of the God of Mercury, a hand with two extended fingers, a laurel wreath, a palm branch, and a flaming torch. At the time of completion the Oregonian ran an article that focused on the obscure nature of these allegorical symbols.[4] Lazarus was questioned on the purpose of the symbols, and he commented on how the allegorical symbols held no significance except for their use as decorations. In agreement with the author of the 1901 article in The Morning Oregonian, “Merely Allegorical and Without Special Significance,”  it does not follow that a building in the Italian Renaissance Revival style would showcase allegorical symbols solely for their ornamentation. Allegorical ornamentation is purposeful, with every symbol representing to the public a function or aspect of the intended purposes of the building on which they are represented.

The balance is the most recognizable symbol, symbolizing justice. It follows that since the U.S. Custom House was built for the U.S. Custom Services, which played a significant role in the economic growth of the area, architectural ornamentation of the symbol of justice would be included. This symbol tells the audience that all services by its governing body will be conducted justly. The key is borrowed from a Christian symbol which references the bureaucratic nature of Saint Peter’s ability to grant or withhold salvation. This symbol was common in architectural ornamentation in the sixteenth-century, when politics and religion were heavily and most complicatedly intertwined. Perhaps the keys are meant to remind those within to repent, but more likely serve as an emblem of time and removers of obstacles- which are also emblems of the Roman God Janis. The symbol of two extended fingers references religious symbols for blessing and benediction. It could also be referencing classical antiquity, more specifically the Augustas of Prima Porta that depicts the roman emperor addressing or blessing his people through a gesture of a raised arm and two extended fingures.

Two other classical symbols are those of the God of Mercury and the flaming torch. The God of Mercury is represented by a staff with serpents entwined. While the symbol of the God of Mercury is often noted as a representation of speed, it is also a representation of opportunity and commerce, which is fitting for its inclusion among the architectural ornamentation of the building. The flaming torch is often related to the God of Eros, who is commonly depicted with bow and arrow and a flaming torch. However, the flaming torch represented on the U.S. Custom House building is more likely an emblem of both enlightenment and hope, similar to the function of the flaming torch in the hand of Lady Liberty. The final two symbols are the palm branch and the laurel wreath, both of which represent victory and glory.
Portland’s U.S. Custom House is unquestionably one of Portland’s finest historic structures.  It is an exquisite display of the Italian Renaissance Revival style of architecture with a symmetrical organization, use of terra-cotta, Roman brick, and granite materials, classically engaged Doric, Iconic, and Corinthian Columns, and displays of richly detailed architectural ornamentation found throughout the  Gibbs-Surround. While it has been said the allegorical symbolic ornamentation used on U.S. Custom House is without significance and merely decorative, the explanation of each symbol has led to the credible reason for the inclusion of all these symbols. For the architecture of Portland’s U.S. Custom House is in the Italian Renaissance style, a style that uses symbolic ornamentation to signify both emotion and reason.  

[1] Ross, Marion D. “Architecture in Oregon, 1845-1895.” Oregon Historical Quarterly. (1956) 32-64.
[2] GSA. U.S. General Services Administration, U.S. Custom House, Portland, OR <
/html/site/hb/category/25431/actionParameter/exploreByBuilding/buildingId/350#> [Accessed March 12, 2012].
3 [Refer to above footnote]

[4]Custom-House Symbols. Merely Allegorical and Without Special Significance.” The Morning Oregoninan, Aug 5 1901, 5- NewsBank and/or the American Antiquarian Society. 2004.