Press/Journalists

Open Dialogue on NY Custom House Sculptures December 7
Press Release · Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Washington, DC

Join us Monday, December 7, at 6 PM ET, as experts discuss the history, context, and symbolism of the “The Four Continents,” the famous Daniel Chester French sculptures adorning New York City’s landmark Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. Register to attend. Watch the program livestreamed on the National Archives YouTube channel.

We are at a moment in our national history when we are reckoning with the ways monuments hold public space and the ideas, ideologies, and values that they bring with them into those public spaces. Christine Baron, Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education at Columbia University, will moderate a discussion between Michele Cohen, Curator for the Architect of the Capitol, and Brent Leggs, Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. This is the second in a series examining these statues. See part one with historian and scholar Harold Holzer. This program is presented in partnership with the U.S. General Services Administration and tenants of the building: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the National Archives at New York City, as well as Chesterwood, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Four Continents Statues that flank the entry of the landmark Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, NY, located at One Bowling Green were designed as part of the City Beautiful movement. The statues are often cited as the best examples of architectural sculpture of this landmark building. The U.S. Custom House in New York City was once the busiest and most influential custom house in the world. The Customs Service agency amassed duties that made up roughly 75 percent of the revenue for the country.   

The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert, was constructed in the early 19th century. The National Archives at New York City is on the third floor of this majestic structure. In addition to the National Archives at NYC, the building houses the National Museum of the American Indian and the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York. The Four Continents Statues at the building’s entrance represent Asia, America, Europe, and Africa and are prime examples of the City Beautiful movement and national pride during the early 20th century.

The National Archives at New York City opened in 2013 on the third floor of the Custom House Building. National Archives at New York City Staff work in archives, education, and exhibits. Tours and programs include “Introduction to the Census,” “Passenger Arrival Records,” and “Student Hands-on Archives.” Exhibits have included Be it Remembered, which explored treaties with Native nations, New York on the Record, Remembering Vietnam, and Matthew Henson: From the North Pole to the Custom House, about the Arctic explorer turned customs clerk.

Christine Baron, Assistant Professor Social Studies and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is a former high school history teacher and museum educator. Prior to her academic post, Dr. Baron directed the development of educational and interpretation programs at the Old North Church, Boston. Her research focuses on using museums and historic sites as laboratories for history teacher education.

Brent Leggs is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Senior Advisor and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Preservation of Civil Rights Sites. He wrote Preserving African American Historic Places and led efforts to establish the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. He promotes the equitable interpretation of American history and advocates on behalf of African American historic places.

Michele Cohen is Curator for the Architect of the Capitol, where she oversees the Curator division and is responsible for the stewardship of heritage assets throughout the Capitol Campus. Her publications include The Art Commission and Municipal Art Society Guide to Manhattan’s Outdoor Sculpture (Prentice Hall Press, 1988) and  Public Art for Public Schools.

More information online:
National Archives at New York City website
The National Archives at New York, Pieces of History blog
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House and the National Archives at NYC, Google Arts and Culture online exhibit
GSA info on Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House including architectural description and construction history.  

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This page was last reviewed on December 1, 2020.
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