Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The 1881 5th Precinct Station House -- No. 19 Elizabeth Street

photo by Alice Lum
The New York City Police Department got its money’s worth in Sergeant Nathaniel Bush. From 1862 until 1895, when the sergeant was not capturing hooligans or arresting women of disrepute he was designing station houses.

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)
Costello went on to describe the progress the police had already made. “The ‘Bloody Sixth’ no longer exists…It was mainly a slum of the city, and some parts of the present district need purging. In old times its polyglot and parti-colored population huddled together in kennels, not fit for street curs, in the neighborhood of the Five Points.”

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
A reporter visited the second floor of 21 Pell Street where “Back of the fan-tan room was a place for smoking opium. Those who lost their money in the game sought consolation here, and every passing hour increased the number of prostrate figures that lay around the room.”

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
Again, in 1972, the Deputy Commissioner noted that one of the department's “top priorities” was a new 5th Precinct station house to replace the existing one, which he described as being in “decrepit condition.” And once again the community won out – saving the century-old structure.

Nathaniel Bush placed the date of construction prominently above the entrance -- photo by Alice Lum
Rather than being demolished, the 5th Precinct station house was modernized and renovated. While much of the interior detailing is gone, beautifully-carved oaken staircases and newel posts remain and touches of Nathaniel Bush’s original design survive.


  1. Fantastic post! I've always wanted to know more details about the goings-on in that precinct 'back in the day' (when the city was still split into wards). Im a NYC guide who started a very inexpensive Chinatown Food tour and I point out the precinct but didnt have too much to say about it-- you've just given me some great details. I have recently been interested in the Chinatown Tong Wars, and the oddly nick-named gangster, Mock Duck. (long before people were Vegan!)

    Anyway, thanks for this - and all your posts. I cant get enough of this stuff! I especially appreciate your architectural notes. Not too complicated for a layperson like me, but enough that I feel like I am learning about these amazing buildings around us, which all seem to have become Duane Reade or assorted retail stores. Thanks!

    1. I was a NYPD officer assigned to the 5th precinct from 1962 to 1979. Coal was delivered to the station house long after I retired in 1987.
      Long after the Ton wars ended, several factions of gangs arose and the homicide rate started to rise once again in an area that was noted to have a low crime profile.

    2. My dad, Joe Zielinski, was an officer working here from the early 60s to mid 70s. I have fond memories of being taught to jaywalk safely across Canal street in rush-hour traffic.


  2. Glad you're enjoying them! Look out though, I may be on the walking tour route myself someday!

  3. Does anyone know the time-line of this Precinct? Was it the "6th" Precinct, starting in 1881, then renamed the "5th" in or before 1911?

    1. Does anyone know the time-line of this Precinct?---YES I DO.... Was it the "6th" Precinct, starting in 1881,--I THINK IT WAS THE 6 SINCE 1845-I AM NOT 100% SURE BUT I THINK I MIGHT BE RIGHT. then renamed the "5th" in or before 1911?---NO IT WAS NUMBERED AS THE 5PCT IN 1929.......

      It was known as the 6th PCT..Originally there was a 6 PCT known as the "bloody sixth" that ( from my understanding) was abolished between 1/26-2/01/1877.. Then a few years later a brand new modern day 6 PCT was opened which is today's 5 PCT.. My personal opinion is basically that this is the same precinct. It was closed for maybe four years--I think... The infamous bloody 6 PCT- (Gangs of New York) is the same as today's 5 PCT. I know after the 6PCT was re-established around 1881 the brand new station house had the number 6 and it stayed with that number till 7/18/1924 which then it was re-numbered as the 3A PCT--I think the letter "A" is meant for annex. The Dept had this kind of numbering system for 5 years. Then on July 3,1929 the department changed all the precinct numbers again which resulted in this precinct being re-numbered as the 5PCT.

  4. Thank you so much, Richard! This is a great help!!

  5. Thank you so much for posting this info. My great grandfather was a NY Police Officer and he served from 1889 until his death in 1916. Before this post and some newspaper articles I found today I knew little about his career except the precinct numbers and some dates that the Police Museum had sent me. There was a note on that record saying the precinct numbers were changed Jan 1, 1908. My great grandfather George Willett was at the Bloody 6th for quite a few years and I have found some articles where he is mentioned as the officer handling these cases. I would love to send you a photo of Policeman Willett and a couple of the articles I found where he is named if you'd be interested. Thanks again for all this wonderful information!

    1. So glad you found the posting helpful in your research on your great grandfather. I would love to see your articles. You can send them to the email address in the left column.