Old Customs House Remake

16 03 2011

Today I am showcasing a conceptual project that Hue Architecture has been involved with, off and on, for 2+ years.  The project, in Wilmington, Delaware, is known as The Old Customs House.

As downtown Wilmington continues to evolve from an 8 to 5-and-escape-to-the-suburbs-area this property was envisioned to create a mixed-use urban center that could include office, dining, shopping and residential components.  The site, adjacent to the new Federal Court House, offers potential residents many options regarding employment, entertainment, religious, recreational, and educational venues, all with walking distance of the property; not to mention the fact that parking and other support facilities exist and are increasing rapidly.

Building as it currently appears.

The existing building, a splendid example of Greek revival, was completed in 1855 and, in addition to its Customs House function, also contained a Federal Court and Post Office.  Prior to being purchase by our client, the building had also functioned as a bank and satellite college campus.  Through its history, the building had also remained intact with many of its original features, such as a gorgeous cast iron staircase, brick groin vaults, fireplaces, wood treatments, etc. providing many examples of the quality craftsmanship of that era.  An additional feature is that of a site that slopes down, from front to rear, affording exterior access to lower level.

So, with this beautiful structure as a starting point, our solution was rather simple; create a complimentary structure the “kisses” the rear facade and ever-so-lightly embraces the sides.  This approach allows the front facade to maintain its regal, street-side appearance and also allows the side facades to remain visible while creating private and public plazas in between.  The existing main entrance becomes more ceremonial with the primary entrance to offices and residential units occurring at the rear facade, along a secondary street and walkway; entrances to eating and shopping venues would be at plaza and perimeter locations.  The new structure is designed with a flat roof, no higher than the existing eave to again maintain the prominence of the historic structure.

For Hue Architecture, this was an exciting project and a chance to juxtapose the original architect’s approach to public architecture with our modern approach to mixed-use design.  Though the project has been on hold, a large body of design work and research make it a great candidate for further development at a future date.  So, stay tuned, you may just see this project coming to life in beautiful downtown Wilmington, Delaware.

From an aerial perspective one sees the new building gently wrapping around the existing Customs House as well as providing glimpses of plazas between existing and new.  The new building follows the irregular shape of the property and allows for open views of the historic buildings side facades.  The new wings are designed to be either office floors or residential, dependent on demand, though the wing to the right supports a double loaded corridor which is ideal for residential while the wing on the left offers wide open floor plates for creative office arrangements.


The street level view of the right facade indicates the complimentary massing of the new compared to the existing as well as the new buildings respectful homage to the historic Customs House.  Wide pedestrian ways along the main facade also provide an open feeling in the urban fabric of downtown.

Moving up the street and looking at the left wing addition, one again sees the new building opening up to allow the historic structure  to maintain its prominence on the site without sacrifice to the major expansion.

A closer view of the left wing highlights the saw-toothed wall which maximized floor area, provides significant, focused views to the street-scape, and creates an interesting rhythm.  A landscaping wall, along the pedestrian way, gives a level of privacy to the garden court that opens to the lower levels.

A close-up view of the right wing focuses on the transitional stairway that moves down into the public court offering access to shopping and eating venues as well as access to the primary entrance lobby.  Again, one also sees the new facades nod to the historic gem.




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