The murals by artist Reginald Marsh in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House’s rotunda are impressive. The social realist paintings from 1937 tell the story of immigration in New York, depicting the “tired, poor, huddled masses” stepping off of crowded cargo ships and onto the southern tip of Manhattan, not far from the building itself. The paintings were commissioned by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal program that sought to fight economic stagnation with federal spending on infrastructure, architecture, and the arts.
Today, the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House is at the center of a somewhat similar federal initiative. The Biden/Harris administration approved $11 million in federal funding as part of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to provide much needed green improvements to the Cass Gilbert building completed in 1907. The investment’s goal is to “repair, modernize, and enhance the sustainability of the historic building” an official press release stated.
Today, customs taxes are no longer a staple of New York’s economy, and the building is only a “Customs House” in name. The National Historic Landmark hosts the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the New York office of the National Archives and Records Administration. The $11 million investment approved in Fiscal Year 2023 is part of a broader $68 million project within the IRA “that will preserve historic architecture and art, repair damage from water infiltration, and implement other structural repairs.”
To fend off stagnation, the IRA seeks to fuel job creation vis-a-vis federal spending on building improvement projects like this one that use building materials “made in America,” according to Robin Carnahan, Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). “In government, we often don’t have momentum and money at the same time,” Carnahan told AN. “This project is about the government putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to sustainability projects.”
“I’m proud to support these major investments in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, made possible by the Inflation Reduction Act, that I fought hard to pass in the Senate,” said Senator Charles Schumer in the press release. “This project, under the able leadership of GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan, will use clean construction and American-made materials to repair and modernize the glorious and historic building, ensuring the long-term occupancy of its tenants, including federal agencies and a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian. With historic legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act, and President Biden’s commitment to investing in America’s communities, we are bolstering our infrastructure, including improving the longevity and sustainability of the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in downtown Manhattan.”
Today, the federal government owns 300,000 buildings and over 600,000 vehicles; assets that demand a total $630 billion a year for maintenance. In December 2021, President Biden signed Executive Order 14057 which seeks to make those assets net zero by 2050, including a 50 percent reduction by 2032.
The deep energy retrofit underway at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, set to take place over the next 39 months, is among several rehabs at federal buildings to reach those goals. It also puts laborers to work at building material factories around the country. The GSA’s Green Proving Ground program is working to develop sustainable technologies that can be applied along the way. “These investments are a triple win,” Carnahan continued. “It’s not just about sustainability but about cost saving for tax payers and creating jobs.”
Carnahan noted that there’s been “a lot of deferred maintenance at federal buildings in the last ten years,” increasing costs for tax payers and putting the public at risk she said. The GSA’s Federal Buildings Fund, a program started by the government in the 1970s to maintain federal properties, has seen budget cuts this past decade, a trend the Biden/Harris administration has set out to correct. “We’re trying to get money back into federal buildings,” Carnahan said. “Once that happens we can get more predictability.”
Renovation work at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House comes amid an election cycle where pundits on both sides of the aisle are debating the merits of “Bidenomics,” a relatively new shorthand phrase economists use to describe the Biden/Harris administration’s strategy to tackle inflation with federal investment in multiple sectors.
Bidenomics has been compared with other historic federal stimulus programs like the U.S. federal interstate project in the 1950s under Eisenhower, and the Kennedy administration’s “race to the moon” a decade later. The Inflation Reduction Act, along with the Chips and Science Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, each form the basic tenets of Bidenomics.
Since passing the three bills in Congress in 2022, the White House says that “Bidenomics is already delivering for the American people.” The current administration touts it has added more than 13 million jobs, 800,000 of which are manufacturing jobs, and stimulated industrial sectors through clean energy investment. In New York alone, the Inflation Reduction Act will bring $34 billion in green energy investments, Senator Charles Schumer’s office says.
Construction at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House will commence this fall.