PORTLAND – When its doors first opened in 1872, the U.S. Custom House became the gateway to one of the nation’s busiest ports and a symbol of the federal government’s role in promoting commerce.

It was designed to be awe-inspiring.

Today, 141 years later, it still is.

On Thursday, federal officials opened the Custom House to the public to show off the results of a $2 million renovation project. It’s clear that the old building still has the power to impress.

“It’s magnificent,” said Alex Jaegerman, director of Portland’s planning division, who had never before stepped inside.

The Custom House has been closed to the public for security reasons since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and it has been empty since U.S. Customs and Border Protection moved to the Maine Mall area at the beginning of last year.

With the renovation complete, the public will have access to the building again, but only under escort and only if visitors have appointments with the federal agencies that are moving into the building, said Patrick Sclafani, spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administration, which manages the building.

Federal officials still are unsure about what to do with the grand, two-story Customs Hall. It would be a shame to fill the historic room with office cubicles, said Robert Zarnetske, the GSA’s administrator for New England.

One idea, he said, is to make it available as a meeting space for city and nonprofit groups,

The building’s fate could have been different, with the public losing all access.

There was concern last year that the General Services Administration might declare the building “surplus property” and auction it off to the highest bidder.

That’s what happened when U.S. Customs and Border Protection moved out of the Custom House Tower in Boston. The building is now a Marriott time-share hotel.

In Portland, the GSA decided to renovate the Custom House and fill it with federal agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was the first to move in, last fall.

Other recent tenants include the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, the Department of Labor and the GSA.

The Federal Protective Service and the Department of Homeland Security will move in soon, and there’s still room for other federal tenants, officials say.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection will stay at its new location, on Gannett Drive in South Portland, because of the agency’s technology needs, Zarnetske said. He said the decision to renovate the building and use it for office space was the “responsible decision,” for historic, fiscal and civic reasons.

Zarnetske said the building is among the most historically significant structures in the GSA’s national inventory. “We have an obligation to preserve this architectural treasure for future generations,” he said.

The building was erected on Fore Street in the wake of the Great Fire of 1866, which destroyed the previous customs office, on Middle Street, along with 1,800 other buildings.

It was built with fireproof New Hampshire granite and a slate-shingled hip roof.

At the time, Portland was the nation’s fourth- or fifth-busiest port. In 1866, the year construction began on the new Custom House, the federal government collected $900,000 in tariffs from the port.

Completed under the supervision of Alfred Mullett, supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury, the three-story building combines elements of Renaissance Revival and Second Empire styles.

It is organized around its public showplace, the Customs Hall, where merchants paid taxes on imports and exports under the watchful eye of armed guards who stood on the narrow second-story balcony that encircles the hall.

The balcony is decorated with various symbols relating to commerce in the United States, such as corn and tobacco leaf motifs and dolphins flanked by oak and olive leaves.

The hall’s marble floor is laid in a checkerboard pattern. A walnut counter capped with a spherical clock commands the center of the room.

The Customs Hall was a busy place. Merchant sailors visited, and measurements of their height and weight were taken and recorded to ensure that those who left the port on ships were the same sailors who returned, Zarnetske said.

The building’s grandiose style reflects the growing wealth and optimism that the nation had in the post-Civil War period, as well as Portland’s national stature at the time, according to a GSA-funded assessment of the building.

The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

For many Maine men who came of age during the Vietnam War, the building was a turning point in their lives. In 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.

The restoration project included repointing and cleaning the granite; restoring 112 windows, cast iron railings, the slate shingles and copper flashing; upgrading the wiring; and installing a new waterproof membrane and insulated roof system.

The building was carefully restored by talented craftsmen, said Hilary Bassett, executive director of Greater Portland Landmarks.

“It’s absolutely first rate,” she said “They have done a wonderful job.” 

Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com