You’ve probably noticed the building that occupies the southwest corner of 2nd & Chestnut. It’s kind of huge. The U.S. Custom House cuts an imposing figure both at street level and from afar, eclipsing all other structures in its Old City neighborhood. But long before the federal building was erected, this was a far more inconspicuous corner. During the mid-19th Century, 2nd & Chestnut was occupied by just one of countless small shops lining the busy intersection. The 1854 photo below shows that the corner then belonged to John McAllister and Brother, whom the Free Library Company of Philadelphia describes as photographers and sellers of mathematical and optical instruments.
For the next several decades, the corner would move through a variety of incarnations, as would the buildings surrounding it. Before the large chunk of real estate had been unified into a single, gargantuan structure, a mix of stores, private residences and business offices marked the location. The image here below, taken from G.M. Hopkins’ 1875 Philadelphia Atlas shows that the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company was among these short-term occupants.
Like every other major city in the U.S., Philadelphia hit on dramatically hard times during the Great Depression. As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Works Progress Administration designated federal moneys for job creation. One designee was the corner of 2nd and Chestnut, where the program called for the construction of a massive, elaborately designed, art deco government building. Listed at 200 Chestnut St., the building would come to occupy the entire block between Chestnut and Sansom Streets.
In many ways, this grand structure would be the first urban renewal project in 20th century Philadelphia. According to Wikipedia, the $3.5M project would help to kickstart the long-term rehabilitation of Old City and the adjacent Independence National Historic Park. The U.S. Customs service would begin operating in the building upon its opening in 1934. The newly opened building is seen from street level in this Department of Records photo from 1935.
Over the next several decades, The Custom House would go through ebbs and flows in its rate of occupancy and the building’s condition. The photo below, taken from the Department of Record, shows the structure towering above all others in 1962.
The photo below, also taken from the Department of Records, shows the Custom House in 1982, with the sign for the Silver Dollar Saloon across the street (now Rotten Ralph’s) pictured.
According to the U.S. General Services Administration, the Custom House would be subjected to an extensive restoration project during the 1990s and subsequently named to the National Registry of Historic places in 2011. Today, the Custom House is occupied by divisions of the FDA, Passport and Customs services.