Friday, October 7, 2011

The 1872 32nd Precinct Station House -- No. 1854 Amsterdam Avenue

photo by Tim McDevitt, The Epoch Times
After real estate speculator Richard F. Carman made his fortune rebuilding the downtown area after the devastating Great Fire of 1835, he purchased large tracts of land—approximately 23 acres--in the open countryside of northern Manhattan. By the middle of the century Carmansville, a picturesque village of freestanding homes and barns, had developed.

In the meantime, New York City’s formerly-disordered police force had been reorganized into the New York City Police Department in 1844; now known as the Metropolitan Police. For the first time a military-type structure with rank and order was installed.

The 32nd Precinct was mapped out, covering the enormous area of all land north of 110th Street on the east side, and from 144th Street on the west side. Included was the quiet village of Carmansville.

Although there was essentially no crime in the sparsely-populated area, a small three-story brick station house was erected at 152nd Street and 10th Avenue (later to be renamed Amsterdam Avenue) in 1864 which, owing to the law-abiding nature of the community, did not even have a jail. Five years later plans were underway for a “new and more commodious building to meet the requirements of the 32nd Precinct," according to Augustine Costello in his 1885 book "Our Police Department."

Police Officer Nathaniel D. Bush, who had recently been given the status of official architect for the police department, set to work on the new building. Ground was broken in 1871 and the structure was completed a year later. Bush’s dignified French Second Empire design melded harmoniously with the residences and churches of the town’s prosperous citizens. Three high stories of red brick supported a steep mansard roof shingled in scalloped slate and capped with lacy iron cresting. Brownstone lintels and pediments finished the windows and brownstone quoining accented the corners and the slightly-projecting central sections of each fa├žade. The red brick was painted off-white to simulate stone blocks. Over a century later the AIA Guide to New York City would call it “straight from a Charles Addams cartoon.”

The elegant and spacious new station house included all the facilities missing in the former building: a brick stable for its fourteen horses, a jail and sleeping rooms for “vagrants”—the Victorian term for the homeless.

As the stately station house which The New York Times termed “handsome” was rising, Precinct Captain Elanson Wilson’s chief clerk, Seth C. Hawley, recognized an opportunity. He ordered the builders to work alternatively on erecting the station house and adding an addition to his own home; all at the expense of the police department. When the house was finished, a former painter-turned-policeman, Officer Gray, was posted for three months at Hawley’s residence painting.

Graft at the new station house went even further. Captain Wilson, seeing the commodious accommodations of the new stable, brought his own four horses from his private stable to be boarded here. And while his horses received free feed at the city’s expense, he rented out the paddocks of his own stable for $30 a month per horse. Chief Clerk Hawley brought three of his horses to the precinct stables, as well.  And a cow.

The public had enough, however, when it was discovered that Captain Wilson posted one patrolman as a servant in the Wilson residence for two years, and another as a livery man in his private stables, attending to the horses in full uniform.

Among the policemen in the new building was Patrolman Richard S. Eldridge. The other cops referred to him as “Pops” and for several years he had been the truant officer in the neighborhood. In January 1885 Pops Eldridge was reassigned to regular patrol duty and he requested, instead, to be granted retirement.

On January 24 the 87-year old policeman retired; believed to be the oldest policeman in the United States.

Not all the police stationed at the 32nd Precinct Station House were so gentle. When Officer John W. McMurray heard that Hugh Smith had reported him to the Captain in December 1886, the officer hunted him down. Smith was clubbed severely and, when he escaped and jumped a fence, McMurray fired two shots at him. To calm himself down, the policeman entered a 10th Avenue saloon and bought a round of drinks. Unfortunately for John B. Nolan, he said something that displeased McMurray who then clubbed the man and took him to the station house. While Nolan was standing before the sergeant, McMurray clubbed him again.

Another officer, John Mara, sent word to the station house on January 3, 1888 that he was sick. Someone else would have to take up his post. Captain Cortright left to investigate. Sure enough, Mara had left his post at 115th Street and Cortright found him in a saloon “gloriously drunk.”

When the captain attempted to discipline the officer, Mara launched a savage attack on his superior. He was jailed and held for $300 bail.

Then there was Officer M. J. McCauley who decided that rather than patrol on a beautiful day in June, 1889, he would go boating instead. When he was noticed by passersby, he jumped into the water and reported, soaking wet, to the precinct that he had just rescued to drowning persons. The clever ploy did not fool the supervisors.

Despite some questionable officers in its early days, the men of the old station house protected the community well for over a century. By 1986 when the building was designated a landmark it was owned by the St. Luke African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church leases much of the space to medical offices.

Despite some missing ironwork on the roof and replacement windows, the grand old station house is in a remarkable state of preservation. The cream-colored imitation stone paint layer has been sand-blasted away and there is apparent dry rot to some of the mansard-level window framing and rusting on the upper cornice. Nonetheless, Nathaniel D. Bush’s 32nd Precinct Station House is, as the AIA Guide to New York City called it, “a wondrous Victorian survivor.”


  1. I'm a somewhat confused. I grew up in the neighborhood on 151st St, and lived there from 1952 until I moved in 1984. This precinct was known as the 30th Precinct. I was in the neighborhood when the police moved into a more modern building located on 151st between Amsterdam and Convent, also called the 30th precinct. In fact the press at one time dubbed the "Dirty 30th" after a corruption scandal.

    1. The New York City Police Department has a tradition of reorganizing and reassigning precinct numbers. Sometime in the 20th century the 32nd was apparently renamed the 30th. The Landmark Preservation Commission's designation clung to the original precinct number.

  2. When did the 32nd Precinct move from 152nd Street down to 135th Street?

    1. The current station house was opened in 1931, designed by architect Thomas E. O'Brien.