PORTLAND – The federal customs office in Portland, which has occupied the United States Custom House on Fore Street since the ornate building opened in 1872, may be moving to another location in the Portland area.

The U.S. General Services Administration, the branch of the federal government that manages federal buildings, is reviewing space requirements for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and examining whether any other federal agencies could be moved into the building in its place, said Cathy Menzies, a GSA spokesperson.

Designed by architect Alfred Mullett, the building is one of Portland’s most elegant landmarks and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

It was built in the wake of the Great Fire of 1866, which had destroyed the previous customs office on Exchange Street along with 1,800 other buildings. The new Customs House was built with fireproof New Hampshire granite and features a slate-shingled hip roof.

The building’s second floor gallery is decorated with a variety of symbols, including corn and tobacco leaf motifs and dolphins flanked by oak and olive leaves, many relating to commerce in the United States.

During the 1960s, a rear office on the second floor was occupied by the Selective Service System, and draftees reported there to be conscripted into the military.

Today, Customs and Border Protection is the only agency occupying the building, and its doors are locked to the public.

The building serves as the agency’s administrative headquarters in Maine. The agency, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is made up of two units.

The Office of Field Operations controls the ports of entry in Maine, including seaports like Portland, and also the land border crossings along the Canada-Maine border, such as those in Calais and Jackman.

The second unit is the Border Patrol, charged with preventing people from crossing into the United States illegally.

While the Custom House contains a lot of history, it’s vital that the Customs and Border Protection be located in facilities that allow staff to access modern technology and to do their jobs safely and effectively, said Ted Woo, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.

In Boston, after the U.S. Customs Service moved out of the Custom House Tower and into the Thomas P. O’Neill building in 1986, the General Services Administration declared the 496-foot-tall skyscraper “surplus property.”

It remained unoccupied for 14 years, but is now a Marriott time-share hotel.

In Portland, Oregon, the GSA has had such trouble finding a buyer for the city’s Victorian-era custom house that it now plans to auction it off on the Internet. Deals to develop it have fallen though because the building needs $20 million in repairs.

Earle Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said he met with GSA officials earlier this year to talk about repairs to the Fore Street building. He said the roof is leaking and there are problems with the wall plaster.

He said the officials never discussed moving out of the building.

Because the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is located in a historic district, a new owner would have to maintain its historic features, he said.

Moreover, because of it’s desirable location in the Old Port, he said, a new owner should be able to generate enough income from tenants to maintain the building. 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at

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