Monday, April 26, 2010

The 1897 Charles Street Police Station

For Theodore Roosevelt, the newly planned police station in Greenwich Village would be the first built under his command as New York Police Commissioner.  It would also be the first station designed in over 30 years by someone other than Nathaniel D. Bush who had retired just a year earlier.   Bush's long-term position as architect for the NYPD resulted in several carbon-copy precinct houses built between 1862 and 1895.

The new project was given to architect John DuFais, although not without considerable and sometimes heated debate.  The New York Times on January 23, 1896 reported of a stormy meeting "of the Sinking Fund Commissioners" in the mayor's office.  While DuFais had worked on the State Capitol building under Edwin Wheelright and from 1879 to 1885 was head of design for Tiffany Glass and Decorative Co., the members of the board were unfamiliar with his work.  The new station house had a projected budget of $100,000 and Controller Finch insisted on a second consulting architect to oversee the job.

Referring to the additional cost of a second architect, the Controller argued "We intend to oversee the building of that station, even if it cost $10,000 more.  Mr. Dufais may be a very good architect, but, unfortunately, he is not known to us."  After the Commissioner and the Controller embroiled themselves in what The Times called a "war of words," DuFais was given the commission without a partner.

Completed in 1897 the station was a grand edifice; surprising for its location in a non-affluent neighborhood and only blocks from the waterfront.  DuFais created a reserved, stately Beaux Arts edifice for what was then the 9th Precinct -- a building worthy of wealthier neighborhoods like Murray Hill.  Grand polished granite columns flank the entrance supporting a balcony above a wide staircase from the street.  Above, the Seal of New York stands out in full relief.

With perfect symmetry, the main station house rises from two floors of coursed stone to three additional stories of yellow brick trimmed with white stone.  The central section is recessed approximately six feet for visual appeal.  Connected to the house were a stables and a prison.

Over the years the precinct was renumbered several times, becoming the 14th Precinct in 1908, the 5th Precinct in 1924 and finally the 6th Precinct in 1929.  As the decades progressed, the Village changed and the station house became the scene of much action.
Photograph Dan Russo

Detectives form the 6th Precinct disguised themselves as "beatniks" in 1959 to catch marijuana smokers.  It worked.  Thirteen pot smokers were herded in to the station house and the ploy made local headlines.  The Village Voice reported "The men booked at the Charles Street station apparently took their arrests in the prevailing spirit of good fun and put on an impromptu bongo party."  According to one of "The Bleecker Street leather jackets," said the newspaper "the cops put on a real cool show -- I didn't know it was in them."

Less positive press came with the infamous Stonewall Riots in 1969.  On Friday June 27, plainclothes police and detectives had been sent to the Stonewall Inn to confiscate cases of liquor.  According to Deputy Inspector Seymour Pines at the time, the bar, a known gay establishment, was operating without a liquor license.  Ask any of the 200 men who were expelled from the bar and they would tell you it was police harassement. 

Whatever the case, within an hour the number grew to around 400 angry gay men who fought the police in what was the beginning of the Gay Rights Movement.  Four policemen were injured and thirteen civilians arrested that night; however the raids and the protests continued for weeks.

On March 7, 1970 an illegal immigrant, Diego Vinales, was arrested with 166 other patrons of a gay club, The Snake Pit.  Vinales was so terrified of being deported that he threw himself out a second story window at the Charles Street Station House, impaling himself on the cast iron fencing below.  The fence was cut away with a blow torch so he could be transported to the hospital.  Vinales survived and was not deported.

In 1969 the 6th Precinct left the Charles Street Station for a new, uninspired yellow brick box on West 10th Street.  It sat empty for nine years until being sold at public auction in November 1976.  Yugoslavian-born contractor Slavko Bernic purchased the old station house for $215,000 and restored the facade the following year.

The complex was gutted and redesigned by architects Hurley & Farinella into an apartment house with the tongue-in-cheek name "Le Gendarme."

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