Portland’s U.S. Custom House is a rarity: a landmark building that is still being used for its intended purpose.

Portland has a bakery that used to be a firehouse and a restaurant that once was a bank. Aside from City Hall and the courthouses, many historic buildings have been adapted for other uses, but the time may have come to repurpose another local landmark.

Since the 1870s, the Custom House has been the headquarters of the federal government’s customs department, which made sense when most of the people who came to Maine from foreign countries stepped off a ship.

Now people enter the state and the country by car, through border crossings far from Portland. Today, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is part of the Department of Homeland Security, which requires that the Custom House be closed to the public except people on official business, and the ornate interior is something few Portlanders will ever see.

The U.S. General Services Administration is re-evaluating the building to determine if it meets the department’s space needs. If not, it would require customs to move somewhere other than the Custom House. Let’s hope that’s what the re-evaluation finds.

In the heart of the Old Port, the Custom House could be valuable as a hotel, restaurant, retail store, commercial office space, housing or some combination of the above. Most of all, it could be a building that is open to the public and a place visitors can go to see 19th-century architecture from the inside as well as the outside.

Old customs houses in Boston and Portland, Ore., have been turned over to other uses, and it may be time for that to happen in this Portland as well. If it’s time for the customs operations to move, the federal government should do what it can to keep this handsome building from sitting vacant too long.

 


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