Friday, December 7, 2012

The 1916 Children's Courthouse -- 137 E. 22d Street

photo by Alice Lum
The New-York Tribune, in 1912, was clear on its opinion of the Children’s Courthouse at 11th Street at Third Avenue.   The old, two-story stone building with its elegant mansard roof was the pinnacle of architectural taste when constructed in 1868; but by now it was out of date and decrepit.  On March 17 the newspaper condemned it.

It remarked that when the young criminals were brought “big-eyed and trembling before the justice” they were met with “desolation ad decay.”   “The air has a dusty smell.  The atmosphere of the prison pen is very much in evidence.  An old woodshed and a new strap would be far less depressing.”

The old Department of Public Charities Building served as the Children's Courthouse until 1916 -- photo Museum of the City of New York
“Let sympathetic justice smile as kindly as he may,” said the article, “the conditions are atrocious.  Upstairs the windows are barred.  In a gloomy, echoing hallway boys and girls, arranged indiscriminately, there await their turn in court.  The health of even the big policeman is menaced.”

But the Tribune had good news to report.  “And all this is to be changed!  The Board of Alderman has just appropriated the money required to enable Borough President McAneny to erect a model children’s court, in 22d street, between Lexington and Third avenues.” 

Already the City had commissioned architect Luther H. Lewis of the firm Crow, Lewis & Wickenhoefer to design an up-to-date building.  The budget for the impressive new structure was set at $150,000—about $2.5 million today. 

photo Museum of the City of New York
The replacement structure was, indeed, necessary.  At the time of the Tribune’s article the old courthouse had fallen into miserable disrepair.  In the Justice’s Chambers, large sections of the plaster wall had fallen away, leaving exposed lath.   The half-century old furniture was abused and the rooms were unclean.

The Sun, on January 7, 1912, echoed the Tribune’s sentiments.  “The upstairs rooms, one for boys and the other for girls, are bare and barren, dark and gloomy…There is nothing for the child to do to take his mind off plotting further mischief if he is a wild lad, or brooding over his trouble if he is a sensitive boy.  The atmosphere of the prison pen is very much in evidence.”

The New-York Tribune offered a sketch of some of "New York's Tiny Evil-doers" in 1915  (copyright expired)
Before 1902 children accused of crimes were treated as adults, with no regard for their age or family circumstances.    With the establishment of the Children’s Court in the old Department of Public Charities Building, the first step had been taken in treating children as children.

By 1912 Justice Franklin C. Hoyt adjudicated 10,000 juvenile cases a year from the old building, most brought by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.   His case load included “grand larceny, highway robbery, burglary and petit larceny.”  Court records that year show, by 21st century perspective, that the root of the problem in many cases was the family environment.  

One father, intoxicated in the courtroom, held a three-year old girl and sobbed how he desired to reform so as to be permitted to care for her.  The girl’s mother was incarcerated for drunkenness.  Another woman, a German immigrant with three children, four, six and eight years old, told the court that “her husband has quit beating her now, at least he is more intermittent than he was, and that he gave her out of his wages $1.50 last week, which shows he means to do better.”  The woman pleaded with the justice that “she would like to keep on trying to keep the family together.”

Whatever the causes, the Children’s Court had to make decisions on incorrigible little thieves and hooligans and the environment of the old courthouse was an impediment.   The proposed new structure would “embody all the features that go to make up a model building for the purpose,” said the Tribune.  “The waiting rooms and courtrooms will be so arranged as to give as little as possible a judicial air to the building, and so far as possible the children will not be subjected to the gaze of the curious onlooker.”

Rather than having the intimidating adult courtroom appearance, the courtrooms would be designed more like conference rooms.   When completed in January 1915 the new four-story limestone building was stately and classical; a stark contrast to its austere Victorian predecessor.   Above a rusticated base, a row of two-story Ionic engaged columns were separated by festooned panels.  The top story sat behind a tidy stone cornice, creating the proportions and illusion of a shorter structure.

photo by Alice Lum
It was not only the physical environment of the Children’s Court that was changing.   A 1916 report by the Commissioner of Accounts regarding juvenile delinquency in New York revealed more progressive thinking.  “The first object of the court is properly to preserve the home life of the boy, correcting conditions there if possible.  Institutional life is regarded as a last resort in the work of reformation.” 

The concept of “short term commitment” was introduced.  It maintained that young violators, especially first-time offenders, were better served by short terms in Training Schools than by incarceration in the city asylums.

Throughout the years the courtrooms would see a stream of young offenders—pickpockets, gang members, thieves, fallen girls, and truants.   Authorities tended to group the juveniles into three classes:  those first offenders who needed disciplining, those who required terms in reformatories, and incorrigibles who were often involved in gangs or under the influence of adult criminals.   Shortly after the new building opened, Justice Hoyt commented on the offenders.  “It must be borne in mind that all this large throng of 15,000 children [per year] are not delinquents.  About one-half are neglected and are brought before this court because their parents have sinned either actively or passively thus denying them of that which should be the heritage of each and every child brought into the world, namely, a normal and decent home.”

Hoyt told The Sun in March 1916, “The one thought which permeates the whole administration of the Children’s Court is ‘What is best for the child?’ It is, of course, axiomatic that what is best for the child is best for the community.”

The Courthouse (right) was conveniently located to the New York Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the United Charities Building and the nearly-adjoining Boys Training School (left) -- photo NYPL Collection

What was best for the child was often the new “probation system”—by which youngsters were temporarily held, then kept under supervision or observation to prevent falling back into bad practices or influences.  The probation system also allowed the Court to observe the situation at home.  Court clerk Dennis A. Lambert, in explaining the system to The Evening World in August 1919, spoke of environmental influences.  “Mr. Lambert discards the theory that some children are just naturally imps of Satan and take pleasure in killing babies, murdering old gentlemen, holding up good citizens and plundering houses.  He insists they are just what environment makes them.”

The Children’s Courthouse was the venue for another socially ground-breaking concept: female justices.  In December 1922 two candidates vied for the seat being vacated by Justice Cornelius F. Collins, Anna Moskowitz Kross and Jean Norris.  “Something more than the personal ambition of the two women are at stake,” reported The Evening World on December 28, “for it is felt that the strength of the woman movement in general is to be tested…The time has now come, women politicians declare, for a woman lawyer to be seated in a higher court than the City Magistrate’s.  The Children’s Court, they say, is a post for which women are especially adapted and to which it is most appropriate that a women be appointed.”

The appointment would bring one of the women an enviable salary of $10,000 per year.

Above the imposing bronze doors, the building's new name is announced -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1959 the Children’s Court left its imposing building.  It was purchased by Baruch College and renovated for educational use.  Today the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute is housed in what is now called the Steven L. Newman Hall.    While the college made substantial renovations to the interior, the Classic Revival façade remained unchanged—an dignified reminder of a time when public attitude towards young offenders and the cause of their problems was drastically changing.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

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