Following the Spanish-American War (April-August, 1898), the vast territorial empire that was the United States extended from Cuba to the Philippines. By the early 1900s, approximately three-quarters of all federal revenue came from customs duties, most of it through the bustling port of New York. Sited in lower Manhattan, the scale and splendor of the U.S. Custom House (1900-07) symbolized the nation’s burgeoning international influence. Like so many of the great projects of the American Renaissance, it told its story through the integration of classical forms, richly symbolic sculpture and grand architecture.
The winner of an architectural competition among twenty leading firms, Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) proposed a structure reminiscent of the grandeur of a European palace, but reinvented in an American form. Gilbert believed the government should take the lead in satisfying man’s “natural craving” for art, thereby promoting “patriotism and good citizenship.” Gilbert initially approached both Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French to create two sculptural groups each, representing the four continents Asia, America, Europe and Africa. However, Saint-Gaudens declined, leaving French to create all four works. The task of realizing these complex figures was indeed, as French remarked, “tremendous.” It took him four years to complete the project. He began with small scale models (commonly referred to as a “maquette”) , then quarter-size and, finally, half-size plaster models before arranging for the final figures to be carved from Tennessee marble by the Piccirilli family of stone-cutters located in the Bronx burrough of New York City.
The Continents were intended to make a striking impression on the hundreds of people who passed within the building’s shadow each day – from office workers and captains of industry to recent immigrants and sailors on leave. Each sculpture is a composite of images that evoke the continent’s past and present and sometimes its future. The face of Asia is contemplative; she holds a figure of the Buddha in her lap, and her throne rests upon the skulls of ancient humanity. Africa sleeps, draped against the mysterious sphinx and the lion. Europe is cast as a regal sovereign, surrounded by books, a globe, and the ships of explorers. America, in the words of Gilbert, is “young, vital, forceful and beautiful. The future is her own.”
Although it embodies the cultural bias and ethnic stereotypes shared by most Americans of French’s time, the Continents is a remarkable achievement and reflects both the aspirations of the United States at the dawn of the 20th century and life in the great port city of New York.
The Epoch Times recently profiled the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York, highlighting Cass Gilbert’s architectural design as well as Daniel Chester French’s group “The Continents,” located on the front steps. Read more here!