Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Lost 1838 Egyptian Revival "The Tombs"

J. Bornet's 1850 engraving depicts The Tombs in a bucholic setting -- NYPL Collection

As the population of Manhattan grew, so did the crime.  In 1833 the City of New York took the first steps toward a structure that would house not only the civil courts, but a place of detention for prisoners awaiting hearings.
During the 18th Century the area that would become known as Five Points was a 48-acre fresh water lake called Collect Pond.  It was, in some spots, up to 60 feet deep.  The idyllic spot popular for picnics and ice skating became polluted and odorous when tanneries, slaughterhouses and other businesses dumped their waste here.  Derided by the end of the 18th Century as “a very sink and common sewer,” it was filled in.  By 1813 the entire lake was undetectable.

It was here that the city fathers decided to built The Halls of Justice.  Architect John Haviland was inspired by a recently published and popular travel book “Stephen’s Travels” by John Lloyd Stephens that contained an etching of an monumental Egyptian tomb.  Haviland’s gargantuan prison would be one of America’s first, and certainly largest, Egyptian Revival buildings.
When excavation for the foundation began in 1835 the builders knew they were in trouble.  While Collect Pond, on the surface, appeared gone, it was very much in evidence below ground.  Quicksand and water that rose and fell with the tides threatened to derail the project.

The engineers devised a system of pilings – large hemlock trees lashed together – and a “raft.”  As The New York Times explained it in 1902, the building “was built upon a raft, inasmuch as the underlying foundation consisted of ranging planks imbedded or floated in the quicksand mud.”
The solution worked.  For a while.

When completed in 1838, John Haviland’s Egyptian mausoleum was a wonder.   Constructed of grey Maine granite, it was 253 feet long by 200 feet deep, consuming the entire block bounded by Centre, Elm, Franklin and Leonard Streets.   The main entrance, on Centre Street, was reached by a broad flight of steps that led to massive portico supported by giant Egyptian columns with lotus capitals.   The windows ran nearly the entire height of the structure, giving it the appearance of just one story.

Not everyone appreciated the design.  William Thackeray and George Augustus Sala derided it and Charles Dickens wrote “What is this dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama?”  Dickens complained that the cells had no hooks so the prisoners could hang their clothing and he “disliked the odors.”
Despite its remarkable architectural integrity, it was described as “gloomy,” “dark,” and “foreboding.”   Its striking appearance earned it the immediate nickname “The Tombs,” and its official name would rarely be heard again.

The Tombs as it appeared in 1882 -- NYPL Collection

Unfortunately Haviland was more interested in the architectural appearance of his design than in its function.  From its opening it was unhealthy, dank, dark and poorly ventilated.  Windows, mere slits, provided such little light that gas jets were required during the day.
When a visitor passed through the entrance doors, he found himself in a large courtyard.  In the center was the male prison containing 150 cells.  It was connected to the main building by a covered passage – which became known as The Bridge of Sighs because the prisoners condemned to death passed over it on their way to the gallows.

An 1865 stereopticon view of the courtyard where the gallows was erected for hangings -- author's collection

The male prison was segregated by floors – prisoners already convicted were on the ground floor; those charged with serious offences such as murder or arson were housed on the second; those charged with lesser offenses such as burglary or grand larceny were on the third; and the top level was devoted to those accused of lighter offenses.

A hearing takes place on a Sunday morning in The Police Court, which opened every morning "at an early hour" and at 6 am on Sundays -- author's collection

However, according to Jonathan Harrington Green in 1850, having been incarcerated here for a few days, there was further delineation of accommodations depending on one’s social station. 
“It was wrong to place me on the corridor with the miserable, petty larceny thieves and vagrants, who are usually found there in swarms, and to put me with the poor, diseased and filthy drunkards, was still worse, so he finally concluded that I should enjoy my own society, without coming in contact with any other prisoners, although confined within the same walls.”

Green, however, found his cell disagreeable.  “I found it difficult to sleep, but a word from Mr. Edmonds disposed of all these annoyances, by placing me on the next corridor, among the 'aristocratic criminals,' who are under the care of that excellent and efficient officer, Mr. Alexander Jackson (whose disinterested kindness I shall every gratefully remember,) who gave me the only cell at the time vacant, which singularly enough was the identical one in which several murderers had been confined.”

Although Jackson finally found a comfortable cell, few others did.  The cells, 10 feet by 6 feet, were designed for one prisoner.  They contained one cot with a straw mattress and a “water closet” – with “a water-pipe coming out of the wall several feet over it, from which cold water can be turned on to flush the closet.”  There was no table, no chair.   

But within a few years overcrowding was a major problem and most cells had two prisoners and a few, three.
Prisoners sharing the single cot would sleep feet-to-head.  If there were a third, he would sleep on the stone floor.   There was no exercise area so prisoners were confined to their tiny cells for 22 hours a day – being let out to walk, closely supervised, around the cast iron walkway one hour in the morning and one in the afternoon.

An 1865 stereopticon view of the entrance during the Civil War when prisoners of war were held here -- author's collection

There were also a women’s prison and a boys’ prison, run by the Sisters of Charity who attempted to minister to the spiritual needs of these groups.  The boys were given all the janitorial, maintenance and kitchen work.
The Tombs was the scene of several suicides; none so dramatic as that of John C. Colt, brother of the revolver inventor.   On the morning of November 18, 1842, the day he was to be hanged for the grisly murder of Samuel Adams a year earlier, Colt was married in his cell to Caroline Henshaw by the Rev. Dr. Anthon.  After the ceremony, Colt asked to be left alone.

When the preparations for the execution were completed, the Sheriff went to Colt’s cell.  The prisoner was dead, having stabbed himself in the heart with a bowie knife 16 inches long, smuggled in by his fiancé.
Collect Pond, in the meantime, continued to cause havoc.  By the end of the Civil War the prison was considered one of the worst in the country and in 1874 James B. McCabe, Jr. noted “The foundations have settled in some places to a considerable extent, owing to the marshy character of the ground, and the building has been pronounced unsafe.”

In 1895, nearly two decades after McCabe’s mention of “unsafe” conditions, The State Senate launched an investigation.   It concluded that The Tombs “its design and arrangement is radically and irremediably bad.”

Another problem was that only a few of the prisoners had been convicted of a crime – most were being detained awaiting hearings.  But because of the crowded court system, some remained imprisoned for up to 10 months in the hellish conditions only to be found innocent of the charges.  “And in such a cell they remain, in some instances for months, day and night, in the cold of winter, and the sweltering heat of summer, breathing the foul air of the prison and the fouler exhalations from the closets in the cells,” reported the Senate report.
It continued, “If that man was, in fact, guilty, his punishment, unless there were no extenuating circumstances, was severe; if he were innocent he is the victim of a horrible injustice.  Such treatment of dogs would be gross cruelty;  and when it is considered that the men so treated have not been convicted, and in many instances never are convicted of any crime…no language which can be employed can be too severe in denunciation of such an infamy.”

It ended with a death sentence:  “The Tombs prison, as it has existed for years past, is a disgrace to the city of New York.  It ought to be immediately demolished.  It cannot be made decent.”
Two years later the prison was slated for demolition.  Newspapers suddenly became nostalgic.  “In the fifty-eighth year of its existence,” reported The Times, “this prison has housed more notorious criminals than any in the country;” and it continued with a romantic retelling of stories of escape, recapture, suicides and hangings.

In another article the paper reminisced “…it has harbored nearly a half-million prisoners.  Hundreds of marriages have taken place within its walls.  Innumerable babies, some of them now grown to respectable manhood and womanhood, and others – criminals like their unhappy mothers—first saw the light of day behind its heavy bars of iron.”
Before the wrecking ball would arrive, the famous stage actress and singer Lillian Russell did.  On February 7, 1897, she moved from the women’s prison to the men’s and finally to the chapel where she sang for the boys.   The entertainer, more at home in the fashionable Delmonico’s restaurant than the putrid prison, commented afterwards, “That audience of boys was the best gallery I ever had, but I do not think I care to repeat the experience.”
The Tombs, shortly before demolition -- NYPL Collection

Although the historic preservation movement would not be born for a full century, an outcry arose pleading to have the structure dismantled and rebuilt in Central Park.  “The demolition of the Centre Street front of the Tombs will take from New York the only public building that has any architectural individuality,” complained The Times.  “Since 1838 when it was completed it has been visited, written about and pictured as one of the interesting sights of the city.”
Park Commissioners, however, concluded that the careful dismantling of the old structure and rebuilding in the Park would “cost more than the old thing was worth.”

Demolition took place in May of 1897.  Nothing of the structure -- the magnificent poly-chrome columns, the carved spread-winged scarabs, or the giant granite blocks—was preserved.  The building, described by The Times upon its destruction as “the finest specimen of purely Egyptian architecture to be found in the United States,” was a victim to its setting and its architect’s focus on design rather than function. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog.

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