A New Life for Old Wood

The front door of the New London Custom House

The front door of the New London Custom House, ostensibly fashioned from wood removed from USS Constitution in the early 1830s.

Visitors to the Maritime Museum in New London's Custom House pass through a set of heavy wooden doors. These doors, made of live oak, have long been thought to have been constructed from wood removed from USS Constitution in the 1830s.

As the account in Frances Manwaring Caulkins’ History of New London explains, “the door has a peculiar value on account of its historical associations. It was once part of the old frigate Constitution. When that vessel was broken up in New York, the portions that remained sound were reserved for special purposes in public works, and a plank was obtained to be used for the door of this custom-house.”

Caulkins’ account isn’t quite right; at the time of the Custom House’s construction in 1833, USS Constitution was in dry-dock at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, not New York, and she (thankfully!) was never broken up entirely, instead undergoing a significant refit from 1833-1834. Caulkins is correct, however, in that material removed from Constitution has long been repurposed for a variety of uses.

The tradition began in 1833, when Isaac Hull, Constitution’s erstwhile captain and then Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard, issued a directive to send what wood and copper as could be salvaged to Washington for reuse. Some of that material was fashioned into gifts for Hull’s friends and political contacts, including coins, canes, boxes, and other souvenirs, while others went to building projects - including the doors that now welcome visitors into New London’s Custom House Maritime Museum.

A New Life for Old Wood