|photo by Alice Lum|
As the official architect for the NYPD Bush was responsible for precinct houses across the city. On June 23, 1879, the groundwork was laid for yet one more.
On that date the Commissioners of the Sinking Fund appropriated land “on the west side of Elizabeth street, one hundred feet south of Canal street, being fifty feet front and rear by ninety-four feet deep, as a site for the erection of a new station-house for the police force of the Sixth Precinct.”
The Sixth Precinct was in dire need of a new station house. As the population of mostly poor immigrants crowded into the area, crime rose heavily. Gambling among the Chinese was rampant, especially a game known as fan-tan (in March of that year, Captain Brogan led 45 patrolmen and two detectives into Ah Wong’s grocery at 13 Mott where they raided a fan-tan operation in the back room); but gambling was the least of the problems.
A Times reporter surveyed the precinct on foot in 1880 and described the tenements “with filth hanging out of windows like icicles” and “filled with Germans, Jews and Italians” who worked menial jobs. A reporter from the New York Sun wrote “The lower end of Mott Street is an unsavory locality, disagreeably close to the associations of vice, crime, and poverty by reason of which the Chinese are unjustly but naturally compelled by mere proximity to bear a worse reputation than they deserve.”
Despite the urgency for a new station house, the gears of bureaucracy ground slowly. Nine months elapsed before the Sinking Fund took measurements to enable the project to go forward. Another year passed before, on April 8, 1881, the $39,951 construction contract aws awarded to builder Joseph Ross.
Finally on April 17, 1882 the new 6th Precinct station house was opened, under the command of Captain Jeremiah Petty. Bush designed a noble Italianate building five bays wide, its windows capped by Renaissaice-inspired pediments. A series of four pilasters rose the length of the four stories, sectioning the façade and providing verticality. On either side of the entrance stairs two cast iron gas lamps identified the police station.
An 1893 visit by a State Senate committee resulted in a mixed report. There were sixteen cells for women (4-1/2 by 7 feet with “low ceilings” and each with a water closet) with two matrons on duty. But the committee found them “without one particle of ventilation, not even from a window, light being admitted to the corridor through a sky-light which we were informed by those in attendance is never opened.”
The cells, along with the 12 cells for men, the corridors and rooms were “heated by ordinary stoves—still more vitiating the alleged atmosphere.”
Augustine Costello, in his 1885 “Our Police Protectors,” disagreed. “It is the finest in the city except the First Precinct Station House, and is a handsome roomy structure, admirably adopted to Police purposes,” he said.
|The 6th Precinct House as it appeared in 1885 -- print from "Our Police Protectors" (copyright expired)|
The 6th Precinct was plagued by the violent Chinese secret society known as the Gee Kon Tong, familiarly referred to simply as “The Tong.” In 1900 The New York Times called it the pool room syndicate of Chinatown, saying that “Under its rule fan-tan tables flourish along Mott and Pell Streets, and depots for lottery tickets, flanked by opium dens, do a thriving business.”
|The station house in 1900, the year The Times exposed the Tong to its readers -- photo NYPL Collection|
The reporter’s guide scoffed at the inaction of the 6th Precinct. “There are dozens of dens running in full blast now. The police know it as well as I do, and they can stop it whenever they wish. Most of the patrolmen and ward detectives of the precinct know exactly where the places are. They go in when they like. But the men who manage the games know they are safe, and that their $15 per week will be well used by the chief of the Gee Kon Tong.”
A violent gang war broke out among factions of the Tong that lasted for years. As late as 1909 the precinct captain was frustrated in his efforts to arrange a truce as the murder of Chinese gang members continued.
In 1911 the station house, by now renumbered as the 5th Precinct, was modernized with the installation of a police patrol telephone booth at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge with direct lines to Police Headquarters and the precinct desk.
Throughout the 20th century Chinatown gradually grew, pushing the German and Italian neighborhoods out and engulfing the 5th Precinct. In the 1960s the Police Department initiated efforts to replace the aging structure which were vigorously challenged by the community. In 1968 the residents won their first round in their fight to preserve the building.
|Despite the loss of the cast iron gas lamps, renovations to the "decrepit" station house brought it back to its 19th Century appearance -- photo by Alice Lum|
|Nathaniel Bush placed the date of construction prominently above the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum|