On August 3, 1854, the 33rd Congress of the United States made Cairo a
Port of Delivery. This act made Cairo a part of the collection district of
New Orleans. A Surveyor of Customs was appointed to inspect and collect fees
after goods had passed the point of entry.
It wasn't until 1859 that it was decided that Cairo needed a Custom House. Before money could be appropriated for the building, the Civil War took place. It is said that Stephen A. Douglas picked the sight for the building, Block 39 in the city of Cairo. It was donated to the United States government by Trustees of the Cairo City Trust Property.
Alfred Bult Mullett, a newly appointed Supervising Architect for the Treasury Department was selected to design the building. Mr. Mullett is best known as the architect of the San Francisco Mint, the United States Treasury building and the old State Department in Washington, D. C. The Cairo building was built to house the U.S. Post Office on the first floor (at this time the Post Office in Cairo was ranked third in importance in the U.S.); the second floor to have offices for the government agencies scattered throughout the town; and the third floor to be the Federal Court Room. Mullett constructed his buildings to last.
It was in 1866, after John A. Logan had returned to Congress, that the first $50,000 was appropriated for the building. The construction was started in 1867 and was not completed until 1872. Appropriations were hard to come by and so were deliveries of materials. On the evening of June 16, 11872, glowing from gas lights, the building was proudly shown to the public. The Post Office was moved in, the offices occupied and the Court Room used.
By 1888 the hard white plaster in the building had become dingy and needed painting. In late 1890, there was money appropriated for a complete renovation of the Custom House. A new furnace with two new chimneys was put in, the elevator was installed, the roof and guttering was repaired and the exterior steps and grounds upgraded. Due to politics, the Cairo Custom House had been closed in 1885, all the business was directed to Paducah, but again it was reinstated and the renovation completed by 1892.
It is interesting that the fireplaces in each room throughout the building were not for heat, but intended for ventilation. The wood used in the interior of the building is of black and white walnut. The floors in the hallways are squares of white marble and black slate, the slate being also used on the inside stairway steps. The uprights of the banisters are iron with the railings of black walnut. Much of the original glass in the windows has been replaced with plexiglass for security reasons.
The building has been used for many purposes since the Pot Office was moved into its new building in 1942. In 1956 the Cairo Police Department took over the building for its headquarters only to move across the street into their new building in 1975. A Federal Grant in late 1975, extending into 1976, aided in doing some restoration work on the building, primarily in the Court Room. Though many attempts were made to follow up on the work started then, nothing was ever accomplished. Since 1984, the presnt Commission, appointed by Mayor Moss, have been working in various capacities along with some very dedicated volunteers to turn the building into a museum. The first floor is a reality and work will continue, as funds are available, on the second and third floors to include them in the Museum.
Contributed 12 & 27 Aug 2019, by Deborah McGee Cox, as a part of the McGee Collection. "My father, William Julius McGee, was a docent at the Custom House for several years after retirement."
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