For more than twenty years, Waggonner & Ball was the architect for multiple projects in this National Historic Landmark structure. Beginning with a complex set of Fire Safety Improvements in 1986; recapturing of ground floor space for office use in 1991; a 1996 building master plan; Repairs and Alterations in 2000; and most recently with Repairs and Alterations following damage sustained during Hurricane Katrina, we have been restorer, caretaker, and systems designer for this important structure in the Vieux Carré National Historic Landmark District. The Custom House is the third highest rated historic building on GSA’s registry of public buildings.
Maximizing leasable space in the Custom House, a key charge of the project, not only included the recapturing of space on the third floor, but also necessitated code upgrades to egress and building compartmentalization. A fire stair and sprinker system added in 1986 did much to improve building fire safety, but a new stair was added to connect the fourth floor to the Iberville Street stair. This new stair replaced a stair in the corridor that had prevented proper fire separation between the floors. After the stair was moved, the old penetration was glassed in to keep legible the original stair location. A number of glass and steel partitions were also installed to ensure that the monumental stair leading to the Marble Hall was compliant with fire code. The minimal partitions maintain the feel and scale of the corridors by providing visual transparency. These and other modern insertions into the building are intentionally designed as background elements which serve to enhance the function and architectural character of the historic building.
Along with removal of non-original elements that subdivided, covered or otherwise marred the volumes and ornament of the original space, Waggonner & Ball worked to restore significant spaces in the building to their original state. For the restoration of the Marble Hall – the jewel of the Custom House and sometimes listed in the ten most important rooms in America – we worked closely with specialists to complete thorough historic finish and paint color analyses to inform design decisions. Cleaning of the stone and an ambitious lighting project including cleaning and restoration of the skylights rejuvenated and enlivened the grand space. Throughout the building, partitions and dropped ceilings were removed to once again make visible the full volume of the spaces. Masonry groin vaults in the first floor carriageway and arched brick openings on the fourth floor make legible the building’s masonry structure. Renovations also restored the natural daylighting and other passive systems integral to the building’s original design – improving the quality of the space and lowering the electrical lighting loads. Through an understanding of elements essential to the architecture – proportion, volume, light – we maintain the historic relevance of the building while making it viable, efficient, and flexible for current and future use.