Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Jefferson Market Courthouse

Some years ago a family of tourists turned a corner in Greenwich Village.  The small boy, perhaps seven years old, exclaimed "Oh, Father!  Look!  A guild hall!"

He was close.  What he mistook for a European guild hall was the Jefferson Market Courthouse.  Clearly the most fanciful Victorian structure in Manhattan.

Finished in 1877 on designs by Frederick Withers and Calvert Vaux (of Central Park fame) the courthouse was the product of one of Boss Tweed's graft schemes.  The New York Times, a consistent adversary of Tweed, grumbled that a suitable building could have been built for half the price -- variously reported from $360,000 to $550,000.  Referring to the seedy area in which it was located, The Times called it "a jewel in a swine's snout."

photo NYPL Collection
The completed project was actually a combination of buildings filling the odd triangle of land:  the courthouse to the north, a jail complex to the south and the Jefferson Market buildings to the west.  The site had been, since 1833, a group of sheds serving the market and a tall wooden fire lookout and bell.  The lookout was incorporated into the clock tower and the resulting assemblage was pronounced one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America by a poll of architects in 1885.

A riot of Victorian Gothic design, the courthouse is a medley of materials and shapes.  Red brick, ochre colored Ohio stone, cast iron, colored stone, and stained glass work together in creating the arches, pinnacles and gables.  The clock tower starts out as an octagon, becomes a cylinder, then a square.  It is a feast for the eyes.

The facade is decorated all over with sculptures, from the huge stone New York Seal near the eaveline, to small, unexpected owl heads.  Gruesome gargoyles spew from the clock tower.  One medallion is of a resting man, reflecting on nature and looking very much like John Ruskin.  Another depicts a stork eating a frog.

In 1896 author Stephen Crane testified here in defense of a prostitute -- Crane said he had seen the girl in the Tenderloin District while he was there "studying human nature."  In 1906 Harry Thaw was tried for the murder of Stanford White who was having an affair with Thaw's wife, Evelyn Nesbit.

By 1927 the jail and courthouse was used only for trials of women, becoming locally known as "the lady's courthouse."  It was here, on February 9, 1927 that Mae West and her entire cast of the Broadway play "Sex" was tried and jailed on obscenity charges.

photo NYPL Collection
In 1929 the market buildings and the jail were razed and the Women's House of Detention, a hulking Art Deco monster rose, nearly dwarfing the courthouse.

Because of redistricting, the courthouse ceased operation in 1945, was used for various uses by the police department and other agencies, but by 1958 it was abandoned.  Home to rats and pigeons, it was slated for demolition by the city in favor of an apartment building.

Fate stepped in when Margot Gayle, Democratic district leader, attended a Christmas time cocktail party at 51 5th Avenue in 1959.  Conversation turned to the courthouse and it was agreed that it should be saved.

There were no landmarks laws, no preservation movements, and recycling vintage buildings for new purposes was essentially unheard of.  Saving the courthouse would be a momumental undertaking.  The group started with the clock.  According to Ms. Gayle, "it had been stuck at 3:20 for several years."  A telegram was sent to mayor Robert F. Wagner saying "What we want for Christmas is to get the clock started."

Wagner jumped on the cause and, eventually, other politicians, celebrities and literary figures joined in.  The clock was restored.  A new use was now needed for the building.  Although the New York Public Library was initially not receptive to the idea of having a branch in an old court building, the mayor swayed them by threatening to withhold capital funding.

By 1967 the renovation, designed by Giorgio Cavaglieri, was complete.  It was the first real example of historic preservation in the city.  In 1974 the Women's Detention Center was demolished and replaced by a beautiful community garden that perfectly compliments the renewed building.

photo by Alice Lum

Today the Jefferson Market Courthouse is not only one of the most distinctive buildings in Manhattan, it is one of the most beloved by New Yorkers.

non-credited photographs taken by the author

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful building. So glad it was saved.