Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on July 29, 2005 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact the author directly through the Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, MA, either this phone number or address:


Reginald Marsh, U.S. Custom House Murals: Reframed and Reseen

By Lisa Leavitt



The fate of Reginald Marsh's mural series created in 1937 for the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House of New York City, and considered "one of the most impressive creations in the history of American mural art," [1] was uncertain in 1968. The Customs offices were relocated from their home in architect Cass Gilbert's federal-style edifice, down the street to the modernist twin spires of the World Trade Center. Despite the plea of Francis O'Connor, an art historian noted for his extensive study of Roosevelt-era government-sponsored art projects in New York, to "save what is threatened" [2] of these powerful visual documents, Marsh's murals were neglected and unseen for almost twenty-five years.

With the relocation and opening of the new Smithsonian-owned National Museum of the American Indian in the Custom House last October, these murals are once again displayed in all their glory.

But, perhaps, "glory" is not the best term. The murals, depicting such appropriate subject matter for a custom house as the dynamic spectacle of a thriving shipping and trade industry, countless American flags, and larger-than-life size portraits of explorers like Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus, is decidedly inappropriate for the building's new mission: to house one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of Native American art in the Western Hemisphere. Reframed by a contemporary federal art project concerned with multiculturalism, the murals' new context reflects not only our early "colonialist" attitudes, but it speaks to the Smithsonian Institution's present strivings toward egalitarianism.

In 1899, the U.S. government chose to build a new custom house on a site which was once the southern end of the Wiechquaekeck Trail, an old Algonquin trade route. New York's custom duties were the most lucrative in the country and Cass Gilbert created a structure attesting to that fact. Seven stories high, the building's exterior features forty-four Corinthian columns topped with the heads of Mercury, the Roman god of commerce.

Ascending the outside steps of this National Landmark building, visitors encounter a monument by sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), most recognized for his statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. Here, French personified the continent of North America as an imposing female figure, comfortably enthroned and adorned with all the classical accoutrements of scepter, cape and mercurial wings. From behind her shoulder peers an American Indian, donned in elaborate ceremonial headdress; beneath her arm kneels an unclothed man of European descent. Both enclosed within her large, flowing cape, the fragile co-existence of the indigenous and the immigrant, not only belies the nation's beginnings, but foreshadows the building's function of commemorating both these peoples.

Entering the building, visitors step into a magnificent rotunda. Marble lines the oval room's walls, classical moldings grace arches and doorways, and fifty feet above is a circular spectacle, breathtaking in its splendor. Surrounding a 140-ton skylight are sixteen frescoes by the New York painter Reginald Marsh (1898-1954). In 1936, the Treasury Relief Art Project's Section of Painting and Sculpture -- a New Deal-era program employing well-known artists, regardless of their financial status, to decorate government buildings -- chose Marsh to paint the difficult elliptical spaces of the rotunda.

Designated as "one of the most challenging mural possibilities in the country,"[3] and left unpainted during the building of the edifice in 1907 due to the enormous expense and difficulty of the job, Marsh was "keen as hell to paint them at any price."[4] Upon receiving the commission, he wrote Olin Dows, one of the project's leaders, "I feel very proud that the honor to paint these walls has fallen to me. It's a man-sized job, with many problems -- all those curves, ete., ete. Here is a chance to paint contemporary shipping with a rich and real power neither like the storytelling or propagandist painting which everybody does. I have in the past painted dozens of watercolors around N.Y. harbor, and would like to get at it with some of this knowledge." [5]

A member of the Fourteenth Street School, a 1930s movement associated with social-realist depictions of New York City, Reginald Marsh found his niche documenting various urban spectacles with an uncritical, yet observant reportorial eye and quick wit. He captured the seedy burlesque houses of 42nd Street, the glamorous movie-starlet-wannabees who roamed 14th Street, the degraded bums of the Bowery, and the grotesques of the Coney Island sideshow. However, none of these subjects appealed to Marsh as did the New York City harbor, evidenced by his numerous sketches of longshoremen, dock workers, tugboats, ocean liners, and cargo vessels in this vibrant port.


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