DerSimonian Anchors at Historic U.S. Custom House

If you appreciate history, architecture, and/or serendipity, this post is for you.

Soon after landing in Portland Maine in the Summer of 2012, I was immediately drawn to the stately presence of the U.S. Custom House, located in the heart of Downtown Portland’s Historic Old Port. At the time, I knew nothing about the building other than the sense of strength, opulence, cultural significance it silently radiated.

U.S. Custom House, 312 Fore Street, Portland, ME

U.S. Custom House, 312 Fore Street, Portland, ME

Cut to Winter of 2013, I was serving as Director of Marketing, Communications & Annual Fund at Maine College of Art (MECA) and ready to invest in my first piece of MECA art. It was a framed photo of the interior of the US Custom House by MECA Alum, Mark Marchesi ‘99, who had an exhibit on view in the executive leadership wing of the College. After walking by the exhibit multiple times a day for a few weeks, there was something about the symmetry and brilliance of this one particular image that spoke to me. I decided it would be a perfect piece to tie my office together and reached out to the artist and made acquisition arrangements. It soon hung in my office with prominent pride of place.

My first piece of MECA art, a framed photo of the interior of the U.S. Custom House by Mark Marchesi.

My first piece of MECA art, a framed photo of the interior of the U.S. Custom House by Mark Marchesi.

Fast forward to Summer of 2016. I’m engaged to the love of my life and in the early phases of planning a wedding. One morning, a colleague stops by office and inquires about my preliminary thoughts on potential wedding venues. I will never forget that ‘aha’ moment I experienced when she pointed above my desk at the framed photo and said, “…have you considered hosting at the Custom House?

I immediately searched online and learned that Portland Landmarks (an organization dedicated preserving and revitalizing greater Portland’s remarkable legacy of historic buildings) conducted guided tours throughout the Summer months. The next day, I met my then fiancé on our lunch break for a tour. The moment we set foot in the building, we both exchanged knowing glances that this was the exact place where we wanted to host our wedding reception. 

Our tour guide was fantastic and we were thrilled to gain a detailed glimpse into the building’s fascinating history. On the tour, we were introduced to Jeff Porter, one of the most knowledgeable people in Portland about the U.S. Custom House. As head of Maine’s International Trade Commission, Jeff enjoys the privilege of having an office in the building, along with being one of the building’s public ambassadors, never shying away from an opportunity to promote the building’s fascinating history.

We shared with Jeff our excitement about the potential of hosting our reception in the building, and he encouraged us to reach out to property manager, Tom Severance. We did so and hit if off with Tom immediately. It was clear to us that Tom was a dedicated and passionate steward for the building. Over the coming months, we had the good fortune of working together closely in planning all of the details around our special day, and through that experience, got to know Tom as a fantastic (and hilarious) human being.

Practicing our first dance to a song from New Basement Tapes:  When I Get My Hands On You

Practicing our first dance to a song from New Basement Tapes: When I Get My Hands On You

Just as everyone had warned, our wedding day was a complete blur. We felt so lucky to have had hosted in a space that we had so much respect and admiration for. It was incredible being able to show off Portland’s finest architectural gem to not only our guests from away, but also our local crew. A few highlights of the evening included live music from the Amarantos Classical Quartet and Emilia Dahlin, catering by Mami (Japanese Street Food located approximately 75 yards from Fore Street entrance of U.S. Custom House), and chateau DerSimonian (the fruits of my father’s wine-making sourcery).

Sept. 16, 2017, a night to remember.

Sept. 16, 2017, a night to remember.

Some of my best men and I on the steps to my future office.

Some of my best men and I on the steps to my future office.

In June of 2018, I made the ultimate professional leap, leaving a full-time position at MECA to pursue my dream of building a consulting practice dedicated to guiding institutions through strategic marketing, communications, and advancement initiatives.

They say timing is everything, and that certainly felt like the case in November of 2018 when I got a call from Tom asking if I had any interest in leasing office space at the U.S. Custom House. While I had a suitable office situation already established, I knew that the opportunity to grow my practice out of such a special space was one I could not pass up.

To this day, walking into 312 Fore Street every morning to achieve my professional aspirations feels like a true blessing. Reflecting on the circumstances that led to these unique series of events unfolding and rich inter-connectedness of life serves as a daily source of inspiration to continue putting building blocks in place.

First professional headshot as principal of DerSimonian LLC.

First professional headshot as principal of DerSimonian LLC.

(L - R) Tom Severance, Jeff Porter, myself, Merry Madness ‘18

(L - R) Tom Severance, Jeff Porter, myself, Merry Madness ‘18

Having an office under the same roof of a building that played such a critical role in fueling the City’s economic prosperity and municipal development motivates me each day to actualize my vision of growing a Portland, Maine-based practice that partners with talent and clients from around the country and world.


Building History (credit: gsa.gov)

The U.S. Customs Service was established by the First United States Congress in 1789, making it the oldest federal agency in the country. The functions of the Customs Service are to assess and collect duties and taxes on imported goods, to control carriers of imports and exports, and to combat smuggling and revenue fraud.

Historic Photo of U.S. Custom House    (credit: Maine Historical Society)

Historic Photo of U.S. Custom House (credit: Maine Historical Society)

Located near Portland's waterfront, the U.S. Custom House is a testament to the city's maritime history. It was built to accommodate the city's growing customs business, which, by 1866, was collecting $900,000 annually in customs duties - making Portland one of the most significant seaports in the country. The building is typical of the notable designs completed under the direction of Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury from 1865 to 1874. Constructed between 1867 and 1872, the U.S. Custom House combines elements of the Second Empire and Renaissance Revival styles. The need for the new U.S. Custom House was exacerbated by the Great Fire of July 4, 1866. The fire destroyed the Exchange Building -- which had previously housed the customs office, post office and courts -- as well as 1,800 other buildings in the center of the city.

Although federal funds for the construction of buildings were limited during the post-Civil War period, the importance of maintaining Portland's customs business and rebuilding the city mandated the construction of the new government facility. Plans for designing the new U.S. Custom House were completed in 1866. Mullett was commissioned to design the new building, as well as a new post office and courthouse (no longer extant). Construction took five years to complete amid delays in obtaining granite for the upper stories.

The U.S. Custom House is the best remaining example of Mullett's work in the state of Maine and continues to serve its original function. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Architecture

The U.S. Custom House is a skillful blend of the Renaissance Revival and Second Empire styles, which were popular in the United States during the mid- to late nineteenth century. It is highly intact to its original design. The three-story, free-standing, I-shaped structure is constructed of New Hampshire granite with a slate-shingled hipped roof. These fireproof materials were chosen in response to the 1866 fire.

The building rests on a sloping lot that forms an embankment along the sides and the Fore Street entrance of the building. A heavy cast-iron railing, designed of tangent ovals, rests on top of the embankment. The basement level is accented with a rusticated granite exterior finish.

The U.S. Custom House has a shallow I-shaped plan, with projecting pedimented entry pavilions on the Fore Street and Commercial Street facades. The entire building is dominated by large and handsome rhythmic, round-headed windows with simple keystones. The window openings are flanked by engaged Doric columns on the first and second stories. Square pilasters mark the corners of the pavilions and the facades. A cornice and balustrade surround the entire building. The cornice features ornamental triglyphs (three vertical bands separated by V-shaped grooves).

Distinctive twin, square cupolas rise above the pedimented pavilions. Double Corinthian pilasters flank arched Venetian windows, each of which is capped with a shallow pediment. The cupolas' distinctive mansard roofs are a defining feature of the Second Empire style.

The building is organized around the grand two-story customs hall, which is the building's public showplace and occupies the central portions of the first and second floors. The marble floor of the hall is laid with a sophisticated checkerboard pattern. Two counters run the length of the room and are fashioned of several different types of marble that were quarried on an island in Lake Champlain. These include a dark veined marble for the base; a red variegated marble for the pilasters, cornice and panels; a jet-black marble for the beading around the panels; and a dove-gray marble for the counters. Encircling the hall at the second floor is a narrow gallery with a decorative iron rail. The gallery is ornamented with symbols relating to commerce in the United States, including corn and tobacco leaf motifs and dolphins flanked by oak and olive leaves.

The ceiling of the customs hall is highly ornamented. A large plaster cove rises from the second-floor openings to an elaborate plaster cornice and coffered ceiling. Groin (cross) vaults over each second floor-opening extend from the cove, and the ceiling beams are decorated with a Greek key pattern and bosses (elaborate joints) at beam intersections.

An eight-foot, walnut, pedestal-mounted counter capped with a spherical clock stands at the center of the customs hall. The counter contains an octagonal writing surface decorated with flutes, bosses, a collar, and modified Ionic scrolls.

The original walnut woodwork is still intact throughout the building, as are the Italian marble fireplaces in the offices located at both ends of the building. The offices, which are more simply designed than the main hall, consist of plaster walls, and walnut baseboards, window surrounds, and doors.

The U.S. Custom House has experienced only minor changes since it was constructed, and therefore exhibits a high degree of architectural integrity. The most notable alteration to the structure has occurred in the interior customs hall, where the original gas chandeliers have been replaced with the current surface-mounted ceiling fixtures. The basement was converted into office and dormitory space for the U.S. Coast Guard in 1983. The majority of the building's distinctive elements, such as the marbled checkerboard floor and decorative staircases, remain in place. In 1998, the aluminum doors, which were installed during the 1960s at the main entrances, were replaced with wooden doors similar in design and color to the original doors to the building.

Significant Events

1866: Supervising Architect of the Treasury, Alfred B. Mullet, designs the U.S. Custom House.

1867-1872: The U.S. Custom House is constructed.

1950s: The U.S. General Services Administration acquires the building.

1973: The U.S. Custom House is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1983: The basement is converted into office and dormitory space for the U.S. Coast Guard.

1998: Restoration of the building begins with restoration of the entrance to replicate its original appearance.

2019: DerSimonian LLC. becomes the first non-federal entity to operate out of the US Custom House

Building Facts

Architect: Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect of the Treasury

Construction Dates: 1867-1872

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 312 Fore Street, Portland, Maine

Architectural Style: Second Empire/Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: New Hampshire granite and slate tile roof

Prominent Feature: Customs Hall