Completed in 1907, the US Customs House was built when the United States was becoming an economic world power - and the Port of New York one of the most prosperous trade centers. Duties extracted by the United States Customs Service yielded the greatest single source of revenue for the government before the imposition of the income tax in 1916. Speaking hundreds of languages, merchants came here daily, exchanging millions of dollars worth of currency. Just as Manhattan had once been a place of trade and cultural exchange for native Americans, it now became a rendezvous for people from all over the world.
The architecture of the US Customs House was planned to reflect the role of commerce in American life, an America in which Indians had little place. In 1899 the United States Department of the Treasury sponsored a design competition for the building. Cass Gilbert won for his Beaux-Arts design depicting a grand monument to trade. On top of each exterior column rests the head of Mercury, Roman god of commerce. Statues on the sixth-story cornice represent the world's most successful commercial city-states in history. In Daniel Chester French's sculpture of North American (on the left side of the staircase), the Native American is symbolically left behind, peering over the shoulder of "America," who sits
with ears of corn in her lap.