Wilmington's Custom House will undergo a $76.7 million construction project.

Wilmington’s historic Custom House: From vacant to showpiece

Jarek RutzHeadlines, Government

Wilmington's Custom House will undergo a $76.7 million construction project.

Wilmington’s Custom House will undergo a $76.7 million construction project.

The 19th century Custom House that’s sat vacant in downtown Wilmington for 15 years is about to be turned into a showpiece with renovations and an expansion.

Located in front of the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center, the Custom House was built in 1855, serving as one of the first federal buildings outside Washington, D.C. or New York –  and the first federal building in Delaware.

The $76.7 million project will add a 51,650-square foot wrap-around addition to the 15,000-square-foot building. 

The result: a 66,650-square-foot-facility with a restored second-floor courtroom. It will be used for ceremonial functions and non-jury legal proceedings. 

“The Custom House was the home to the first federal courtroom in Delaware and it played a consequential role in Delaware and Wilmington history,”  said Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. Monday during a ground-breaking ceremony.

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“It is a unique and important architectural landmark in the First State but, in recent years, has become an eyesore with broken windows and a crumbling exterior,” he said.

The Custom House will also become the new home for the branch’s Community Resource Center, which provides access to treatment services and employment resources and is currently located in the Justice Center’s law library.

Construction is expected to be completed sometime in 2026. 

“This project will not only restore the Custom House to public use but also turn it into a showpiece for the city of Wilmington and the Delaware Judiciary,” Seitz Jr. said.

History of Custom House

The first floor of the building, which was built before the widespread use of indoor plumbing and electrification, was the primary post office for Delaware and offices for the Custom Service.

The second-floor courtroom was host to the U.S. District Court for Delaware and the Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The federal court would also occasionally sit in admiralty in that courtroom to adjudicate maritime matters including mutiny and piracy. 

When the court was sitting in admiralty, a small model of a ship would be placed above the bench.

During prohibition, the basement of the Custom House – where there were bars on the windows – was used to store alcohol seized from “rum runners” on the Delaware River.

In its later years, the building was home to a number of different federal offices, including military recruiting, before being vacated by the federal government in 1973. 

The city of Wilmington later saved the building from demolition and it was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1974. 

It was home to developers’ offices for a time and from 1988 to 2004, it was home to Wilmington College (now Wilmington University). 

The building was vacant from 2004 until the courts acquired the property in 2018.

In becoming a part of the Delaware Judiciary, the 1855 Custom House will be the second-oldest court building in the state, behind the Sussex County Courthouse in Georgetown (1840).

It is older than the original portion of Kent County Courthouse (1874), and the Supreme Court building in Dover that was built in 1910. 

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