1980: The Old Custom House

In 1980 the Delaware Historical Society considered purchasing the Old Custom House at Sixth and King streets in Wilmington.  Although the Society decided not to buy the building because it didn’t have the resources, this decision provides an opportunity to remember this now-neglected architectural treasure.

Completed in 1855, the Wilmington Custom House and federal building was designed by Ammi B. Young in an Italianate style.  The building is extremely sturdy and secure: its walls are three feet thick and its supporting structural features are all of iron.  The building is important for its role in the development of fireproof construction and cast and wrought iron technology.  The customs offices and Wilmington post office were on the first floor and federal courts met upstairs until 1897, when a new federal building was erected.  Wilmington’s Water Department was there in the 1890s and the WPA used the building in the late 1930s.

As King Street became the focus of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, the fate of the Custom House became uncertain.  One Wilmington mayor thought the building was an impediment to future development and wanted to demolish it, but his successor saw its value. In 1966 it was envisioned as the centerpiece of a historic enclave (see blog for 1976), but this did not come to pass.  From 1981 to 2004 Wilmington University used the building for classes, but today the Old Custom House is vacant, awaiting its next life.

Custom House, 1890s
Custom House, 1890s

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