U.S. Customs House History

The Coast Guard Heritage Museum was founded on Cape Cod in 2005. In that same year, it occupied what was known as the U.S. Custom House on Route 6A in Barnstable Village as the base of its operations and as the site for its historic displays. Today, existing displays have been enhanced and new ones created but the Custom House still remains the heart of all of the museum activities.

The Custom House building itself dates back to the mid-1800s. In 1789, the Town of Barnstable was established as the administrative center for the Seventh U.S. Customs District. Initially, customs activities took place in the home of the individual who held the position as collector. In the mid 1800’s, however, when the Port of Barnstable became one of the busiest ports in Massachusetts, collector Sylvanus Phinney—for whom Phinney’s Lane is named—convinced Congress to build the current building which was completed in 1855.

The new building was two-stories high, nearly square, and built of brick. The style was established by the U.S. Treasury Department and was somewhat unusual for Cape Cod buildings, both then and now. That style was what was described as Renaissance Rival or more specifically Italianate. It also included a structural system that was rather advanced for the time and made of cast-iron.

The Custom House building has had various uses over its long history. The first floor from 1855 to 1958 was the local post office. The second floor from 1855 to 1913 was the center of Customs activities but, from 1924 to 1957, that floor housed the County Extension Service. 

In 1960, the Federal Government turned over the Custom House building to the Town of Barnstable. The building was then made the home of the Barnstable Historical Society and Museum and dedicated to Donald J. Trayser, a local Barnstable Historian. When the Barnstable Historical Society moved to another nearby facility in 2005, the Coast Guard Heritage Museum took over the Custom House and made it the base of its activities. 

The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.

Photo courtesy of Barnstable Patriot & photographer Alan Belkanich

Photo courtesy of Barnstable Patriot & photographer Alan Belkanich


Early photo U.S. Customs House and Post Office on Cobb's Hill, Barnstable 


Early depiction of similar Customs House in Waldoboro, ME


Picture showing the Customs House with brick carriage house behind it, and the old Barnstable jail in the foreground