Until 1895 Police Justices heard cases ranging from petty theft to murder. The system was changed that year and the job was turned over to City Magistrates who held sway in sometimes difficult physical conditions. Among these was the Third District Magistrates’ Court, familiarly called the Essex Market Court House on Second Avenue.
Perhaps the first hint of the obsolete and inadequate conditions appeared in the Annual Report of the Board of City Magistrates of 1905. It showed that the Third District Court had disposed of 18,536 cases that year. The report complained “It is certainly not hyperbole to say that there must have been at least 90,000 people in the court in the year in the cases in which defendants were arrested, giving an average of five to each case, and remembering that they come into court with counsel, witnesses, family and kin.”
Factoring in persons who came in for legal advice, the writer estimated that “at least between 150,000 and 175,000 human beings, an average of 500 a day” were inside the courthouse. The report summarized the conditions saying “Every dictate of prudence, sanitation and hope for a decent administration of justice requires that a new court house should be there constructed.”
In June 1910 the Board of Estimate submitted a recommendation to the Board of Alderman for the “construction of a new Court House and Prison” on the site of the old Essex Market Court House at a proposed cost of $23,000.
A year later no action had been taken, to frustration of Chief Magistrate William McAdoo. In his annual report for 1911 he did not hold back. “Some of the worst dens in the City of New York were the courts. They were dirty, squalid, ill-ventilated foul, dingy caverns.”
Finally, replacement of the old facility was approved and in April 1913 Chief Magistrate McAdoo chose the site—not far from the old Essex Market Court House—at the southeast corner of Second Avenue and 2nd Street. On April 7 The Sun advised, “The site is said to be an ideal one for light and air.”
McAdoo told reporters that “the plans will not be completed until an architect is selected” but he anticipated “a building of three or four stories would be erected and he hoped it would be completed by next fall.”
Ten architects submitted plans. When the design by Alfred Hopkins was accepted in December, McAdoo’s expectation of a “three or four” story building had flown out the window. Working with an increased budget of $350,000 (more in the range of $863,000 in 2015), the architect’s proposed building rose 10 stories.
“The successful design shows a simple façade in the style of the Italian Renaissance,” said the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide. The ten-story stone structure would enable the city to consolidate three outdated facilities—the Essex Market court and jail, the municipal court on Madison Street and the Ludlow Street jail.
|Hopkins' original plans called for a lofty stone structure -- Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, December 6, 1913 (copyright expired)|
Hopkins was no stranger to this type of municipal project. After studying at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he had submitted plans for several reformatories and prisons, and designed the prison in Buffalo, New York.
Hopkins had lofty ideas for his courthouse-jail building. He visited 20 European prisons and incorporated modern concepts into the Second Avenue structure. Among his innovations was a roof-top exercise area. The New York Times, on September 6, 1914, reported “It is stated that it will be the first jail in New York State to have provision for roof exercise by prisoners.”
He also designed “outside cells” to hold the prisoners. Rather surprisingly today, the American jail cells—more like cages--were set about 12 feet back from the walls. Inmates had no privacy, ventilation or sunlight. Hopkins told a Times reporter that he had been told in Europe, “You cage your prisoners like monkeys in America.”
The newspaper explained “As many cells will be made outside cells as the conformation of the site permits, and this will mean a large proportion.” With this new arrangement, cells would have three walls and a window, and only one set of bars at the front.
With the added features the city now estimated the cost of the building to be around $1 million, according to The New York Times.
But the grand plans were not to be. Two years later construction had still not commenced and on September 25, 1916 Joseph Haag, secretary of the Board of Estimate and Apportionment sent a letter to the Board of Alderman. In it he announced that the 1912 resolution had been amended by “reducing said amount to $150,000.”
It was no doubt a crushing blow to Alfred Hopkins, who was sent back to the drawing board. On December 22, 1917—a full four years after he won the commission—his revised plans were announced. Hopkins had chopped eight stories off his design and vastly cut back on both the facilities and the modern innovations.
|The revised sketch was released December 21, 1917. Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide (copyright expired)|
The Record and Guide put a positive spin on the changes, saying “This structure will be an imposing one…and will greatly enhance the neighborhood in which it is to be built.”
On the afternoon of April 29, 1919 18-year old errand boy David Levine appeared before Magistrate Charles E. Simms in the old Essex Market Court House. He was charged with the theft of jewelry valued at $140. Following his arraignment on $2,000 bail, workmen swarmed into the courtroom “tearing down the partitions and moving the records, tables, benches, and railings.”
Simms's was the last case heard in the old courthouse.
Simms's was the last case heard in the old courthouse.
The following morning, at 9:00, the new courthouse was opened “with a celebration and speeches,” according to The Times. In his address, Borough President Frank L. Dowling commented “I hope crime decreases and the court never will be crowded.”
Officially called the “Court House and Prison of Courts of Inferior Jurisdiction,” the scaled-down building was faced entirely in brick. Hopkins’ original all-stone design was a victim of affordability. All the trim—even the cornice—were deftly executed in variegated brown brick. The heavy Renaissance Revival structure was nearly the antithesis of Hopkins’ original light and airy design. Although handsome, it had a foreboding, fortress-like appearance.
|Close inspection reveals terra cotta tiles among the variegated brick framing of the arched openings.|
The second floor courtrooms were flooded with light from the large arched openings. The prisoner cells on the first floor, however, had expectedly-small windows. They were paired and framed by clever brickwork that gave them the appearance of perforated postage stamps.
The magistrates heard cases ranging from the petty disturbances to the worse of crimes. On June 9, 1919 Judge Marsh listened patiently while Lizzie Berman and her husband Henry plead their cases.
When he asked Lizzie, who appeared with a baby in her arms, about her complaint, she replied “He roughs things up and hits me.”
Henry explained “She makes me no supper.”
The judge dug deeper. Doesn’t she stay at home?”
Henry admitted she did, “but all the time she talks with the neighbors and doesn’t have time to get my meals.” He then added “And then I get thrown out of the house by the neighbors. An’ now she is just getting into court to show me something.”
Henry insisted to Magistrate Marsh that he had done nothing wrong and the neighbors ejected him from the apartment building simply so they could continue talking with his wife. Marsh saw through the argument. “You shouldn’t be fighting when you have a baby to take care of…Now go home and behave yourselves.”
The Evening World reported that “The pair accepted His Honor’s suggestion and the parade formed. Lizzie and the little Berman nonchalantly in the lead with Henry stalking doubtfully at a safe distance in the rear.”
The following year, on October 8, 1920, Magistrate William A. Sweetser heard another odd case. Rachael Toback was charged with unlawful entry, but the circumstances surrounding the 50-year old woman’s crime were mind-boggling.
Rachael had entered the apartment of Harry Abrams on East Houston Street while the family was out. She packed their belongings and hired moving vans to haul the furniture and boxes away. The New-York Tribune reported “The Abrams family had been out and arrived in time to halt the van workers.”
Rachel’s relatives testified to the judge that she was not thinking clearly. They said “that she had been forced to move at least six times within the last year, and declared that her unpleasant experiences had preyed on the woman’s mind.” The family added that “she had entered several apartments in the same way before.”
The judge committed Rachel, with her compulsive desire to move people, to Bellevue Hospital for observation.
|Relentlessly-chasing terra cotta dogs along with chains were perhaps intended to symbolize the pursuit of criminals.|
Many of the cases heard here were of a serious nature, however. And perhaps the most infamous incident at the Third District Courthouse was the gangland execution of Nathan Kaplan, alias “Kid Dropper” and “Jack the Dropper,” on August 28, 1923.
The 32-year old racketeer and extortionist was well-known by law enforcement. Since his release from prison in 1918 he had been involved in “labor slugging,” providing thugs whose violent beatings and threats provide an advantage to one side or the other in labor strikes.
On this day Kaplan appeared in court to answer a charge of felonious assault made by Jacob Shapiro. Fifteen of his gang members were there as well, “variously charged with knowledge of the same crime,” said The New York Times. But according to the newspaper “Kaplan had a way of convincing those who were to appear against him that it was to their best interests to forego their testimony.”
Shapiro, who had earlier positively identified “Dropper” as one of three men who had fired shots at him from an automobile on August 1, was suddenly “certain that he had made a mistake in accusing Kaplan.” Magistrate H. Stanley Renaud was forced to dismiss the case.
The police anticipated problems between Kid Dropper’s gang and the rival “Little Augie” gang. “Late Monday night Captain Willemse received word that members of the rival gangs would be on hand ‘ready for trouble’ when Kaplan went to court,” explained The Times. Outside the courthouse were two police captains, 15 detectives and 10 uniformed patrolmen. They were joined by the detectives who had been in the courtroom.
As Kaplan emerged from the courthouse, his wife Veronica joined him. A taxicab was waiting at the curb with its engine running. “The police closely watched the crowd which had been driven away from the immediate vicinity of the taxicab,” said the newspaper.
As Kaplan slid into the cab, an “undersized, emaciated man broke through the crowd and approached the cab on a run.” He pulled out a revolver and fired three shots. The first hit Kaplan in the back of the head. The second shot hit the driver just behind the ear and the third hit the hat of police Captain Willemse.
Veronica Kaplan jumped onto Louis Cohen, the shooter, clawing at his face and screaming “Don’t shoot him!”
The Times reported “Cohen succeeded in throwing her to one side and then, knocking away part of the pane of glass in the cab which had not been shattered by the first three bullets, he fire again in a downward direction. This bullet passed through Kaplan’s head.”
|Nathan Kaplan was gunned down in front of the main entrance on 2nd Street -- photo New York Department of Records, Municipal Archives|
The Magistrate’s Court operated in the building until March 6, 1946 when it was transferred to the Lower Manhattan Court at No. 300 Mulberry Street. Within two years, however, the move proved short-sighted. On July 26, 1948 overcrowding of the Mulberry Street facility resulted in the reopening of Essex Market Court House. Renovations were still in progress upon the opening.
But ongoing work was not the problem that afternoon. On July 27 The New York Times reported “Ten minutes after the old Essex Market Court House reopened yesterday a prisoner escaped from the building.”
Detective Jacob Rosenfeld had brought in 60-year old Joseph Ametrano who was accused of stealing a tire from the trunk of a parked car. He left his prisoner in the fingerprint room while he checked papers related to the case in the second floor courtroom. When he returned there was no trace of Ametrano.
The reopened building was now known as the Lower Manhattan District Court and it would remain in the building until 1979. That year it was taken over by the Anthology Film Archives. The organization was founded in 1970 by Lithuanian artist Jonas Mekas and four others.
A $1.45 million renovation was overseen by architects Raimund Abraham and Kevin Bone to convert the building into two motion picture theaters, a reference library, offices, a gallery, and a film preservation area. The two-screen theater was opened in 1988 “for daily screenings of avant-garde and classic films.”
Although the renovations required the nearly-total bricking up of four of the large arched courthouse windows on the 2nd Street side, Hopkins’ design—no doubt a crushing personal disappointment to him—survives otherwise intact.
photographs by the author
photographs by the author