Friday, April 20, 2012

The 1912 20th Street Police Station -- 230 West 20th Street

By 1908, conditions at the outdated 17th Precinct station house at 230 West 20th Street had become deplorable.   The official inspection report presented to the New York State Commission of Prisons that year was scathing.

The 10 cells are underground and air is very bad.  In rear of cells is policemen’s toilet room, (also underground) with opening into cell-room.  Only means of ventilation seemed to be small ducts.  The smell was bad.

The officers’ quarters upstairs are inadequate.  One lieutenant’s room has substantially no ventilation except into another bed-room.

The following year an investigator noted that the precinct (now numbered the 18th) was in dire need of modernization or replacement.  “The complement of officers is 88, with four dormitories containing sixty beds.  Their wash room has iron troughs for lavatory purposes, which should be changed for those of enameled iron.”

Finally, on May 9, 1912 the Police Commissioner submitted plans for the construction of a new station house, prison and garage to the Sinking Fund Commissioners. 

Architects Hoppin & Koen had designed the new Police Headquarters building at 240 Centre Street, completed just three years earlier.  The monumental Beaux Arts palace for cops took four years to construct and earned the architects a firm footing when the issue of civic commissions arose thereafter.

As their 4th Precinct Station House (later to become the 1st Precinct) was being completed—looking more like a Medici palazzo than a police precinct—they received the commission for the 20th Street building.

Like the 4th Precinct, the architects drew on the Italian Renaissance for inspiration.  The 18th Precinct house in the working class Chelsea area, however, would be much scaled down.  The directions in the Police Commissioner’s plans called for nothing elaborate or overly-costly.

“The interior trim is to be of oak, simple and plain.  The plumbing fixtures are to be of a standard manufacture.  The building is to be wired and piped for electricity and gas, the lighting fixtures are to be of a standard manufacture easily replaced.”

Completed later that year, the precinct house rose five stories over an American basement, invisible from the street.  The high, symmetrical first floor was clad in rusticated granite with three large arched openings—a centered entrance, a garage door for the single motorized vehicle assigned to the precinct, and a large window.

A terra cotta flagpole base in the shape of the New York City seal provided the sole decorative element of the mid-section of the structure.  Two carved cartouches that announced the precinct number flanked the fifth floor, and a handsome, bracketed cornice sat above a tidy row of dentil molding. 

For its budget of $174,825 including architectural fees, the Commission got a dignified stone-faced police station worthy of more affluent neighborhoods.

Hoppin & Koen provided for up-to-the-minute amenities.  An elevator shaft with sliding doors was provided (although the elevator never materialized) and in the basement the foundation for a garage turntable was installed that would allow the police vehicle to be garaged head-first, turned around, and driven out head-first as well.  That, too, never materialized.

The new station house could accommodate both male and female prisoners, unlike the former structure for men-only.    The first floor was double-height in the common areas where the desk and visitor areas were located.  To the rear it was split into two levels to accommodate the two tiers of cells, as well as the muster room, Matron’s quarters on the mezzanine, and sitting room.

The second floor contained the accommodations for the supervisors:  the Captain’s bedroom and bath, three lieutenant’s rooms for the six lieutenants, six sergeant’s rooms for the twelve sergeants, detectives’ rooms and lavatories.

The top three floors contained two dormitories each, with lavatories and showers.  Each dorm could sleep twenty officers.

Although conditions for the officers of the 18th Precinct drastically improved with their new station house, things continued to be hard for many of the citizens they protected.   While there were still middle-class homes along the side streets, the vast western portions of the precinct along the Hudson River were inhabited by miserably poor immigrant families.

When two officers were alerted of a “mother and children suffering from the gross neglect and abuse of a drunken husband and father” in 1912, they proceeded to 439 West 19th Street to investigate.  Here, in a single furnished room in the basement, the Michael Kearens family lived.   The Irish immigrant laborer had been out of work for a year and his wife, Bridget, had attempted to support the family until her health failed.

The police report noted that the officers “found a most awful condition of affairs; the room was in a vile and wretched condition; litter of all kinds scattered about the floor, and heaps of rubbish in the corners.  There was but one bed in the room, and this in an indescribable condition of filth, and upon it Mrs. Kearens was lying with her infant son, six months of age.  She was emaciated and so weak that she could scarcely raise herself in bed.  The infant was suffering from convulsions.”  There were three other children in the house—John, Mary and Michael, 11, 9 and 6 years old.

As the officers waited for an ambulance to arrive, Michael Kearens returned home.  “He was in a beastly state of intoxication,” said the report, “and in the most profane and abusive language demanded to know what officers were doing in his room.”  Kearens was eventually arrested and taken to the 18th Precinct station house, charged with intoxication and disorderly conduct “he being too drunk to be sent to the Night Court.”  Doctors at Bellevue Hospital diagnosed Bridget with tuberculosis and the infant with spinal meningitis.

Later investigation revealed that the Kearens were $35 behind on their rent, but were allowed to stay on “only because of the condition of the mother and sympathy for her.”  Neighbors deemed Kearens a “confirmed drunkard,” and he received a sentence of six months in the workhouse.  Bridget Kearnes survived less than a month after being admitted to the hospital.

Along with the problems associated with the impoverished residents, police had to deal with gangsters.  In 1914 the precinct was riddled with several gangs, among them the Hudson Dusters, the Owney Maddens and the Marginals.  

One such outlaw was “Big Jim” Redmond, president of the Hudson Dusters, a gang referred to by The New York Times as “notorious West Side hoodlums.”    On December 9, 1914, “Big Jim” met his match in Police Officer Sindt.

The previous night a Belgian sailor of the Red Star Liner Kroonsland was passing Redmond’s residence at 405 West 18th Street.  A woman in the doorway enticed the sailor to come up and as he did, Big Jim jumped out, pushed a gun into the pit of the sailor's stomach and demanded all his money.

Redmond got the Belgian’s entire $4.50.

Hearing the complaint, Officer Sindt went to Redmond’s door, putting other policemen on guard, and burst in.  He trust his revolver against the gangster’s side, grabbed up the gun lying at the bedside, and marched the prisoner off to the station house.

Heroism was another part of life at the 20th Street Station House.  On February 10, 1916 Officer Fisher noticed smoke rising from the doorway of Spiegel Brothers’ "3, 9 and 19-cent store" at 183-187 8th Avenue.  By the time Officer Odell joined him, they realized that eight children, ten women and several men were trapped on the roof of the burning building.

The officers rushed to the top floor of the adjacent building and used their nightsticks to force apart the iron window bars of the rear offices, breaking their sticks in the process.  They then spanned the space between the two buildings with a plank and one-by-one “led a terror-stricken group from the roof to safety,” as reported by The Evening World.

On October 12, 1917, Chief Inspector George McLaughlin paid a visit to the station house.  He noted that there was an average of four prisoners in the cell area every day with sometimes as many as 10 or 12 being held over for morning court.  That year so far the 18th Precinct had made 2,516 arrests and summonses.

McLaughlin was more impressed with the physical conditions.  “Each cell has a toilet, wash basin and one bunk.  The toilets are flushed with push buttons.  There are steam heat and electric light throughout and the cell rooms are equipped with a fan ventilator.  “The jail was clean, showing excellent care,” he reported.

With the United States’ entry into World War I, the station house was designated as one of the Air Raid Stations in case of enemy air attack.   An emergency dressing station was set up in the precinct and the commanding officer, a lieutenant, one sergeant and nine patrolmen were trained in emergency procedures should the catastrophe occur.

The house was inspected again on October 19, 1920.  Now eight years old, the building was still in outstanding shape, according to Henry Solomon.  “This is a modern and up-to-date police station…since my last inspection the place has been painted throughout and is now in first-class condition.”

A large terra cotta City Seal serves as the base for the flagpole while two large, carved cartouches beneath the cornice announced the precinct number.

The inspector commented on the female prisoners' accommodations, as well.  “there is a marble lined shower bath and a room for matrons, adjoining which is a toilet room.  The cells are well located having plenty of light and air.”

Solomon was highly impressed with the innovative work of one lieutenant.  The inspector made special note that he “looks after wayward children in the precinct, preventing if possible their arrest and subsequent conviction and incarceration.  I believe it to be a very good and praiseworthy work.”
The lieutenant’s idea perhaps planted the seed for today’s Youth Officer position, common in most NYPD precincts.

By the beginning of 1922, the New York City Police Department recognized a problem.  The rapidly increasing number of motor vehicles was vying for road space with horse-drawn vehicles and motorists often drove recklessly and at high speeds.   To address the situation the Traffic Bureau was organized.

On January 15 of that year the 18th Precinct was eliminated as the police force did a city-wide realignment of precincts.  The station house at 230 West 20th Street became headquarters for The 14th Inspection District for traffic purposes, comprising the Boroughs of Manhattan and the Bronx.  By July the new bureau had devised a means of controlling traffic violations:  the Traffic Warning Card.

The card, which would eventually become today’s driver’s license, was required for any driver of a horse-drawn or motor vehicle on a “street, parkway, park drive, park street or bridge.”  The card held five blank spaces and whenever an officer stopped the driver for a violation, it was noted in one of the spaces.   When all of the spaces on the driver’s card were filled, he was liable to arrest or summons.

The Traffic Warning Card was the precursor of today's Driver's License.

By 1941 the department had reorganized once again and the 20th Street Station House was once again a patrol precinct—now the 10th Precinct.

As times changed, the police force and the 10th Precinct were forced to change too.  On June 28, 1969 the course of gay history would change forever when the Stonewall riots took place in the 6th Precinct, just south of the 10th.   At the time, the Chelsea neighborhood of the 10th Precinct was still relatively rough-edged, encompassing the meat packing district, blocks of factories, public housing projects and 19th century brick and brownstone residences long ago converted to tenement housing.  The bulk of Manhattan’s gay population lived in the 6th Precinct, separated from the 10th by 14th Street.

The cops of the 10th Precinct had an uneasy and sometimes contentious relationship with the gay population and it all came to a head on August 9, 1973 when 200 gays marched from Greenwich Village to the West 20th Street Police Station to protest alleged harassment.   Newsman and camera crews were there to report the outcome, one which was handled deftly by commanding officer Captain Robert Boetig.

Boetig promised the Gay Activists Alliance that “there have been cases where there has been friction,” but “there is no deliberate policy of harassment.”  The captain acknowledged that “the gay liberation movement is a somewhat new arrival” in his precinct and initiated a procedure whereby various policemen would meet occasionally with leaders of the gay community in the 6th Precinct.

The 10th Precinct community today covers a broad range of ethnicities, social-economic levels, religions, and sexual preferences.  The precinct continues to adapt and serve the residents it protects.

In the meantime, while there have been some minor alterations to the exterior—the broad fan lights above the first floor openings are gone and the expansive window has been blocked up—Hoppin & Koen’s handsome Italian Renaissance police station remains essentially unchanged since 1912.

non-credited photographs taken by the author.


  1. Completely off-topic, but:

  2. She's a stunning building with some of the finest Police Officers in the world working there.

  3. Author Rex Stout often writes scenes in his Nero Wolfe detective stories located in the NYPD "Homicide South" headquarters which he places on West 20th street. Does anyone know iif this was an actual division of the NYPD with a home in the 10th precinct building ?