Long before the Alexander Hamilton Custom House was constructed in the early 1900s, the area served as an important trading place for Native Americans living in the region. The ornate building’s ode to commerce is not only a fitting home for the National Museum of the American Indian’s New York outpost—its exhibits and open-to-the public offerings have occupied parts of the building’s first and most of the second floor since 1994—it also offers visitors who make the trek to Manhattan’s far south a two-for-one: the historic Beau Arts building is an attraction in itself.
Across from Battery Park, the finely detailed trapezoidal exterior sits squarely in a city block. Forty-four carved-out columns adorning its façade are topped with images of Mercury, the Roman God representing commerce, a reminder of the building’s original tenants who collected taxes on imported goods from the Port of New York, then the country’s most prosperous trading post. Seated sculptures representing America, Asia, Europe and Africa, were carved by the same sculptor who carved the statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. An equally elaborate marble interior culminates in colorful mosaics leading up to the domed rotunda, with its spectacular and light-infusing glass top.
All of this was almost lost to time—its exterior granite covered in algae and plants and interior crumbling from disuse—but a complete restoration in the 1980s revitalized the building. The structure is listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places, and tours detailing the building’s architecture and history take place throughout the week (check in with the Visitor’s desk at the museum for times).
The Alexander Hamilton Custom House is located at 1 Bowling Green in Manhattan. The entrance of the Bowling Green Subway Station (4 and 5 trains) is across from the building’s north side, and buses M5, M15 and M20 service the area. The building itself does not have parking, but there are several nearby garages.
The National Museum of the American Indian, the George Gustav Heye Center, is open daily from 10am til 5pm (except Thursdays when it remains open until 8pm). Admission and tours are free. The museum houses permanent and temporary exhibitions, and a regular slate of public programming.