May 17, 2013

'Magnificent' Portland landmark reopens

The Custom House, where merchants paid taxes 140 years ago, shows off its $2 million renovation

By Tom Bell
Staff Writer

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The U.S. Custom House in Portland held an open house Thursday following an extensive renovation. The public will now have limited access to the building, which had been closed to the public for security reasons since the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Tom Severance, property manager at the Custom House, stands inside one of the large vaults in the historic building. Long ago in the building’s Customs Hall, merchants paid taxes on imports and exports under the watchful eye of armed guards.

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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:


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