Massachusetts Historical Commission - 2017 Preservation Award Winners
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Photo of U.S. Customs House, Barnstable

U.S. Customs House, Barnstable

Rehabilitation & Restoration

The United States Customs House in Barnstable was erected in 1855, but its history dates back to 1789, when the Port of Barnstable became the seventh United States Customs District, under the supervision of first collector General Joseph Otis. Customs activities took place in the collectors’ homes until the mid 19th century, when collector Sylvanus B. Phinney secured congressional funding to erect an official Customs House. Barnstable remained one of the busiest ports in Massachusetts until the Cape Cod Canal opened in 1913, after which the Customs House’s first floor became a post office and its second floor a museum for the collection of local historian Donald G. Trayser. The post office operated until 1958, when its space was turned over to the town to expand the museum. In 2005 the museum was repurposed for its current use as the Coast Guard Heritage Museum.

Designed by the first Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury Ammi B. Young, the Customs House was touted as Cape Cod’s first fireproof building, breaking with traditional wood-framed construction. The fireproof design came as a mandate from Washington for all new federal buildings, including houses, post offices, and courthouses. Young pioneered the use of iron, and designed an advanced cast-iron structural system with iron decorative elements for a more fire-resistant and stable structure. Young designed the square-plan, red-brick Customs House in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, a style popular during his tenure at the Treasury Department. The building features dentilated brick molding, a truncated hip roof, and cast-iron detailing.

Prior to its rehabilitation, the building was in fair condition, but there were significant areas of deterioration, including its wood windows, exterior masonry, and cast-iron details. A few of the original windows remained, with the rest being replacements from 1913 renovations. Both the original and replacement windows were deteriorated, with paint failure and missing sash and frame elements. The cast-iron molding details of the window surrounds were also in poor condition. In 2013, the town received a matching grant from the Massachusetts Historical Commission’s Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund, and the rehabilitation began. Original blueprints and specifications, obtained from the National Archives and the Barnstable Historical Commission, guided the accurate restoration effort. All the historic windows were removed, their paint carefully stripped, and the sash repaired or partially replaced and repainted. The glass was reinstalled and reglazed, and all hardware was cleaned and polished. Cast-iron molding details of the windows were repaired, primed, and painted. The original cast-iron balcony on the main façade’s second floor was in fair condition, but the paint had faded and the connections to the brick masonry were deteriorated and in danger of failure. The entire balcony was removed and sandblasted, and the metal was repaired and then painted to match the original. The balcony’s masonry connections were replaced with stainless-steel elements set into the brick. The brick masonry’s condition varied, with the lower half of the building in good condition but the upper half in poor shape due to insensitive paint treatment. The restoration team decided that the best course of action was to remove the paint, repoint and repair damaged bricks and mortar, and then repaint with a more breathable paint.

Customs operations have a history in Barnstable that extends back more than 200 years. The careful restoration of the exterior of the 1855 Customs House provides an appropriate tribute to the Customs Service and the United States Coast Guard, and guarantees the building’s continued architectural integrity into the future.

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