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Old Customs House

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Joined: 27 Nov 2007
Posts: 381
Location: Monterey County, California

PostPosted: Mon Apr 14, 2008 2:14 pm    Post subject: Old Customs House Reply with quote

ONE OF the chief sources of revenue in colonial California was the collection of duties at Monterey. Up to 1846, the capital was the only port of call in the department, as we have seen.

Undoubtedly, a temporary Customs House occupied the area that became the site of the present sandstone building, begun by the Spaniards about 1814. The Spanish construction consists of the center section and the adjoining south room.

As soon as the Mexican regime was fairly under way (after 1822), the north wing was built for offices for the suave and courteous gentlemen who gathered in the doubloons for the new government. Among them were such dignitaries as Pablo de la Guerra, Juan Bautista Alvarado, and Manuel Castro.

When the United States took over California, by capture and purchase, the south wing was built. What luck to have had so sagacious an individual on the job as to sense the propriety of duplicating the north wing. Blessings upon him!

The main room was without a ceiling—although possessing one now—rafters having been used for the obvious purpose of storage. The room is sixty feet long, the adjoining one, twenty. No door between them in the original plan. But Davis tells us in Seventy-five Years in California that he sampled his goods in the early '30s in the main room, on a table "eighty feet long," built by ship carpenters for the purpose. If correct in his measurements, and his memory played him no tricks, the wall between the main room and the south room was built at a later period. The theory is supportable, because of the chimney enclosed in the wall. Fireplaces were seldom, if ever, used as early as the date of the beginning of this part of the structure. The fireplace, incidentally, was originally in the smaller room, not in its present position. A photograph of the original, a charming example of New England colonial design, is an exhibit in the museum, the plate the gift of Mrs. Millie Birks, who lived in the building in her girlhood.

While the structure was planned for cold counting-house purposes, let it not be forgotten that it was in the hands of men of Latin blood to administer. And they loved life and its gay amenities.

So it came to pass that when ships from afar came into port to declare their duties (Davis says his had run as high as $10,000), bailes were staged in the big room, overflowing to the colonnade that stood then on the very edge of the water. And when governors came or went—which in the Mexican era was frequent—bailes were given in the Customs House, in celebration. And Chinese lanterns from visiting ships from the Far East were strung along the colonnade, and gave light to the cascaton bailes that made the Old Capital the gayest spot on the whole blue Pacific.

While the Customs House commends itself to our imagination as the oldest government building in California, its hold on the affections of Americans roots in the part it played in the capture of California by the Sloat forces. It was in and by the old Customs House that the United States officially began in the West.

Shortly before the discovery of gold, a branch Customs House was established in Yerba Buena, on the Plaza, The first blow! Then came a time when the older institution became the branch. But they did not—could not—take away the bailes, the songs, the guitars, nor the spirit that inspired them. Then, in the late 60s, came an order from the U. S, Treasury Department, removing the last customs officer from duty. Captain Thomas G, Lambert became custodian, in whose charge the famous old building remained for over two decades.

Restoration was begun in 1903-5 by the State of California, Accomplished by legislative appropriation —not by private funds, as is often stated.

The movement to salvage the historic shrine was originated by John J. Lermen of San Francisco, who, in 1901, introduced a resolution in the Grand Parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West, assembled in Oroville, seeking a lease of the property from the U, S, Government. The resolution passed, and a new dollar was coined at the San Francisco mint to pay for the first year's rental. An appropriation of $5000 was made by the legislature of 1901 under the guidance of Joseph R. Knowland, then in the legislature. Governor Stephens signed the bill.

The restoration was carried on under the general direction of the Monterey Parlor of Native Sons, who, when it was completed, took over the building as their headquarters.

For twenty-five years, the local group retained possession, paying the annual rental of one dollar to the Treasury Department at Washington. In 1929, Governor C. C. Young, through Assemblyman Ray C. DeYoe of Carmel, set up the machinery for the opening of the building to the public. On July 7th, the doors swung open, interested persons coming from remote parts of California to attend the simple ceremonies. Many came, whose grandparents had figured in its early history, covering the three dramatic periods of national ownership.

Soon after, the famous cypresses that stand guard over the old building on the water side were gaily christened. The plumed and gracious tree at the corner was named Don Gaspat de Pottola; its rather staid, solemn companion, Commodore Sloat. A good old bottle of Pommery Sec was broken on the sculptured trunk of Don Caspar, while a bottle of ginger ale, properly beribboned in the national colors, performed a like service for Commodore Sloat. There were regrets that such rare old wine should be so used. But who could suggest less for Don Gaspar?

A historical museum, following out the terms of the original lease, has been installed in the building, which, in the spring of 1930, was put back into what approximates its original appearance. The best under a limited appropriation. It has been the author's happy privilege to have installed the historical museum under the old roof, to which descendants of men and women of the beginnings of California have loaned or donated precious heirlooms.

The restoration was accomplished by the State Park Commission, under Colonel Charles B. Wing, director; and under the supervision of Myron Oliver, E. Charlton Fortune and Armin Hansen, representing Monterey's artists, and William O. Raiguel, architect. A happy accomplishment, as the historic gathering-place of the capital has again taken its place in the social life of the people.

It is registered officially as State Monument No. 1 and is administered under the State Park Commission of the State Department of Natural Resources (1934).

Its Plaza del Muelle (Plaza of the Pier), which formerly extended west to Olivier Street, north to the Presidio, and to the water, has been developed into a colorful garden, enclosed by a tile-topped stone wall. Here gather the old-timers and fishermen at rest, to sit amongst the flowers and watch the fishing boats dance on the waters; or to participate in a game of bocci, or horseshoe golf. Perhaps to watch a ship load or unload at the Municipal Wharf, and to wonder why the wharf should have been built there, bisecting the beautiful crescent bay, when obviously it should have been built in New Monterey, whose commercial activities it serves. No trucking, then, through town; and the bay would have been left to esthetic and recreational uses. Too late to weep over it now. How men can maltreat beneficent nature!
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