|photo by Alice Lum|
On New Year’s Day, 1883, newly-elected mayor Franklin Edsen set out on a campaign of civic improvement. Among his proposals was the demolition of outdated, rundown police station houses and the erection of new ones. Only eight months later, on August 11, The Record and Guide announced that “The work of driving piles for the foundation of the new First Precinct Station House has been completed; the building will occupy the site of the old Franklin Market in Old Slip.” The paper said the cost of the new building would be about $47,000—a considerable $1 million today.
The pilings mentioned by The Record and Guide were necessary because of the site’s proximity to the East River. However the location between Water Street and South Street on Old Slip was well chosen. The waterfront bustled with activity as ships were loaded and unloaded. The sailors from these vessels came ashore looking for entertainment—and they found it.
In 1882 James D. McCabe described Water Street. “Strains of music float out into the night air, and about the doors and along the sidewalks stand groups of hideous women, waiting to entice sailors into these hells, where they are made drunk with drugged liquors, robbed of their money and valuables, and turned helpless into the streets. Groups of drunken and foul-mouthed men and boys lounge about the street, bandying vile jests with the women, and often insulting respectable passers-by.”
At the time architects of police buildings and schools were less concerned about functionality and working conditions than the structures' outward appearance. The new 1st Precinct, most likely designed by Nathaniel Bush, attempted to correct those problems—but according to some critics it missed the mark regarding handsome architecture. On March 15, 1884 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide spit its criticism of the new 1st Precinct Station House.
“Some injudicious praises in the daily papers of a station house lately finished in Old Slip for the headquarters of the First Precinct induced the hope that this might constitute an exception to the rule Unhappily it is an unusually atrocious example of the rule, being in fact more offensive than the ordinary station house in the degree in which it is bigger and more pretentious. The internal disposition and the arrangements for ventilation and sanitation are fondly dwelt upon by the reporters. We are willing to believe that the station house is all that can be desired in these respects, and that practically it serves its purpose admirable. But our business is with its architecture, which is worse than a minus quantity being positively offensive.”
The building survived almost a quarter of a century before architects Hunt & Hunt were called in to design a replacement. If critics had panned the previous building; they would have nothing to complain about in the Hunt brothers’ design.
|The new building commanded attention The American Architect, September 24, 1913 (copyright expired)|
Completed in 1911 after two years of construction, it was a four-story Italian palazzo. Three floors of smooth limestone blocks contrasted with the planar top story, capped by a striking cornice trimmed with copper antefixae. High above the entrance the architects placed a large carved cartouche containing the Seal of the City of New York and the date of construction.
|Hunt & Hunt laid out the station house based on functionality -- The American Architect, September 24, 1913 (copyright expired)|
The men of the 1st Precinct found themselves not only fighting waterfront crime; but a myriad of problems related to its location. Officer William J. McKeever attempted to stop a runaway horse in April 1919, succeeding only after being dragged. But many of the precinct’s responses would be more dire.
The Socialist Movement had already grown roots in America by the time the station house was completed; but the 1917 Russian Revolution added fire to the passion of the working class who organized unions and strikes to make their voices heard.
On July 18, 1919, just as the workforce was preparing to go home for the day, the crews of the Municipal ferryboats to Staten Island walked off the job in a bid for increased pay. Then, as now, New Yorkers depended on public transportation and a near riot ensued.
The New-York Tribune reported the following morning “thousands of Staten Islanders stood in the rain outside the slips, looking longingly at the far-away bulk of their homeland and wondering more and more audibly how they were ever going to get to it. The crowd increased so rapidly in size and exasperation that reserves from the First Precinct were called to handle it.”
The newspaper described the chaos faced by the policemen. “These held the crowd back and kept shouting advice to the would-be passengers, urging them to go to Staten Island by way of Brooklyn or New Jersey. A few took the counsel. Most of them remained.”
It was a tense time in New York. Anarchist groups like the Black Hand terrorized civilians with letter and package bombs on an almost weekly basis. Only two months before the ferry strike, the First Precinct detectives examined a suspicious package, thought to be a bomb.
The package was taken by detectives to the First Precinct on May 1, “and there, in the presence of numerous photographers, reporters and policemen, cautiously proceeded to open it,” reported the New-York Tribune. This time it was a false alarm. “It proved to be legislative manual sent to Judge Philbin from the office of the Secretary of State of New York.”
Prohibition would not officially take effect until January 17, 1920; but bootleggers were busy months before in preparation. During the first week of January Officer Emil Zipf “discovered Gus Eronson, a sailor on a ship from Brockton, Mass., who was found in the Cortlandt Street terminal station in a peculiar condition,” recounted The Evening World on January 6.
Zipf immediately identified the problem: “wood alcohol.”
It took a doctor, Zipf, and four special policemen to get the belligerent drunk into an ambulance. In court he complained to Assistant District Attorney McGuire “I’d be all right if they left me alone and didn’t beat me up.”
He insisted “But I only had three drinks of one-half of one percent beer.”
As the sailor had been fingerprinted, Captain Lee sarcastically asked him, “How do you take your beer? Straight or with seltzer.”
“Out of the bottle,” was the reply.
On the night of May 15, 1928 at around 11:30 Patrolman Edward M. Lee jumped into the East River off Coenties Slip to save a man from drowning. He earned a commendation for his bravery. Another officer, Ferdinand A. Berthold, would gain even more attention for his actions that year.
On the same day that Lee plunged into the river, five gunmen held up Needham Sweets Shops and made off with $2,785. Berthold pursued them in a patrol car. The robbers fired their guns at the officer, but he fired back only once because, he told reporters later “the streets were so crowded.”
Berthold was correct in his assessing the danger. The single bullet he fired “hit the robbers’ car, ricocheted and struck [Stephen J.] Porter as he came out of his building,” reported The New York Times. The businessman was struck in the leg and although his wound was superficial, he was taken to the Broad Street Hospital for treatment.
When the chase reached Washington Street, the gunmen abandoned their car and fled in separate directions. Four of the robbers escaped, but Officer Berthold arrested 24-year old Horatio Sjambati, alias James Moreno. The Times said “The prisoner has a police record as a burglar, according to the police.”
Within a month Berthold was back in the newspapers. Like Officer Lee, he jumped into the East River to save a drowning man—except this rescue seems to have been a bit more troublesome. The New York Times reported “Patrolman Ferdinand A. Berthold, who weighs 140 pounds, dived into the East River off Old Slip last night and rescued a drowning man, six feet tall and weighing 225 pounds.”
The heavy-set man had fallen off Pier 9 and the screams of passersby caught the officer’s attention. “Berthold discarded his cap, coat and shoes, jumped into the water and was soon pulling the victim to shore,” said the newspaper.
But it was not all that simple. While he waited for the Police Emergency Squad to arrive, Berthold hung onto the piling of the dock with one hand and onto the semi-conscious “burden” with the other. Finally the squad lowered a rope ladder and pulled the men to safety. Bernard Thornton, 53-years old, was taken to Bellevue Hospital. He was the captain of a coal barge currently in dry dock.
“Berthold went home after being treated for submersion,” said the newspaper.
Obviously, not all the responses by 1st Precinct police would end so positively. At 10:50 on the morning of September 23, 1937, Patrolman John H. A. Wilson attempted to apprehend three armed hold-up men at No. 65 Fulton Street. The heroic officer was shot and died two days later.
In 1973 Chief Inspector Michael J. Codd “shut a chapter of police history,” according to David W. Dunlap of The New York Times, when he gave the order “Close Old Slip.” Once called “the most important police district in the world” by A. E. Costello in his 1885 Out Police Protectors, the 62-year old station house had completed its service.
The closing came after a regrettable period of corruption was discovered in 1972. Suspected of taking bribes from street vendors and construction contractors, 97 of the 110 officers in the 1st Precinct were transferred. The 1st Precinct was moved to the old 4th Precinct station house on Ericsson Place (coincidentally a similar Italian Renaissance building constructed a year after the 1st Precinct).
Two decades later, in 1993, the vacant building was taken over as headquarters of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The Commission remained in the building for eight years; when a $4 million renovation transformed it to the New York City Police Museum.
A private, non-profit organization, the museum offers the public a window into the history of the police department. In addition to countless historic articles; visitors are given a chance to test their skills in a virtual firing range and to sit in a jail cell.
|photo by Alice Lum|
Dwarfed by the modern skyscrapers that have risen around it, Hunt & Hunt’s magnificent and monumental 1st Precinct Station House survives handsomely intact.