Tucked within the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S Custom House at One Bowling Green in Manhattan, the National Museum of the American Indian features the lives, history and art of American Natives throughout North and South America. While the artifacts are magnificent, this visit was more about the architectural wonder of the building.
Before there was ever a building, this location was a port established by the Dutch in 1629, and the start of a trading route that extended up to Albany – managed by the Dutch and the Lenape Indian Tribe. Soon this location became the center of business of New Amsterdam and later New York City.
Our delightful guide Bob explained that by 1899, the U.S. Treasury wished to have a “Temple” of Commerce. Cass Gilbert (1859 – 1934) a prominent American architect known for the beauty of his masterworks was chosen for the project.
With $6 million dollars to spend, Gilbert’s vision for the interior was an extravagance in marble. He traveled through America and Europe, bringing back marble from Georgia, Alaska, Virginia and Italy. He loved Switzerland’s green marble whose veins reminded him of moving water. He used this green marble for 14 columns throughout the building.
With his wonderful sense of humor, Bob confessed the 2-foot thick solid marble walls never get warm, so teeth-chattering often accompanies his stories.
Opulence abounds in the second-level Rotunda. An oval ceiling dome, outlined in brilliant bulbs, has oil paintings underneath: tugboats with customs agents, the Statue of Liberty welcoming European ships, and the great French liner, Normandy.
Ironically, the exterior has little to do with American style since it is French Beaux Arts in design. Built in 1900, it was almost finished by 1907, when Gilbert was lured away by F.W. Woolworth to design a building for him.
Our last stop was the Museum Store and Cashier’s Offices. The art and artifacts for sale are colorful, joyful, whimsical – a wide representation of Native Groups.
Do not miss this architectural gem which houses astonishing collections of Native American art. Call 212-514-3794 or visit their website at americanindian.si.edu/visit/newyork/