Thursday, August 1, 2019

The 7th District Police Court - 314 West 54th Street

The City Beautiful Movement was born during a time of social reform.  Its proponents proposed that by surrounding the public with grand, beautiful buildings a sense of moral and civic virtue would be sparked.  Crime and immorality would be replaced by pride.  

But that theory did not work in Hell's Kitchen.

The district on the West Side of Manhattan was among the most crime-ridden and impoverished in the city.  In 1881 The New York Times called the area “one of the most miserable and crime-polluted neighborhoods in this City” and said “there is more disease, crime, squalor, and vice to the square inch in this part of New-York.” 

In 1892 the State Legislature approved the "issue of $300,000 bonds to pay for new Seventh District police court."  It was a significant amount, more than $8.5 million today.   The city hired architect John H. Duncan to design the multi-use structure and his Renaissance Revival style structure would comply handsomely with the City Beautiful Movement.

Construction began in 1894 and was completed two years later.  Quickly called The West Side Court, its rusticated stone base drew inspiration from palazzo architecture, its three grand arched entrances sitting  two steps above the sidewalk.  A pair of ornate carved cartouches upheld a panel reading VII DISTRICT POLICE COURT.

The two stories above were faced in gray-beige brick.  Duncan lavished this section with sumptuous terra cotta embellishments in the form of banded Corinthian columns upon paneled pedestals which separated the grouped openings of the second and third floors, an intricate entablature of shields, wreaths and eagles that announced the Eleventh Judicial District Court, elaborate broken pediments that spilled forth sculptural forms above the flanking windows of the second floor, and a striking frieze below the overhanging cornice.  Above the cornice, originally, was a copper-sheathed mansard which sprouted a small tower with an open belfry.

Originally the flanking windows of the upper floor were round, changed in 1928.

Although the building was completed in 1896, there would be significant delays in getting the complex opening.  For one thing, Duncan quickly found that the boiler system was incorrectly installed and leaking.  It had to be redone--a situation that landed the City and the contractor in court for some time later.  

And on February 1, 1897 The New York Times reported that "Residents and politicians of the west side who were interested in the building of a new police court building...are angry because the City Magistrates do not assign a Magistrate to the court and open it for business...The building was completed nearly a year ago, and the civil court took possession some months ago."

The problem was, according to City Magistrate Robert C. Cornell, that the State Legislature had not supplied funds for a police clerk or chief clerk.  Those positions were necessary for the handling of fines.

It would be another nine months before the police court opened.  On November 4, 1897 the New-York Tribune reported that the "Seventh District Police Court took possession of its quarters in the new District Court Building in Fifty-fourth-st., near Eighth-ave., yesterday."  The newspaper noted "In the lower part of the building there are rooms for the Water Purveyor and the Street Cleaning Department of the district.  On the second floor is the police court and on the floor above is the civil court, with rooms for reporters and the Gerry society [the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children]."  Connected to the building in the rear was a jail.

The endless parade of hearings and trials--covering street bonfires, murder, arson, robbery, prostitution, assault and others--would continue unbroken for decades.  J. Waldere Kirk, who appeared before the judge on November 23, was among the first.  His attorney explained that he and Richard R. Mandelbaum had been friends for some time; but Kirk had become "too intimate with Mrs. Mandelbaum."  Kirk was "forbidden to communicate with her."  But when Mandelbaum came home unexpectedly one afternoon, he found Kirk with his wife in the bedroom.  When he demanded an explanation, Kirk shot him.

The following week a bizarre case unfolded in the courtroom.  Thirty-five year old bricklayer James Hanson was brought in to answer charges by his wife, Carrie, of abandoning her.  The Times said "She was unable to appear, however, having herself been arrested on a charge of chloroforming her husband."  It seems that Carrie had attempted to kill James by holding a chloroform-soaked towel over his face while he slept.  Thinking she had successfully killed him, she rushed from the boarding house.

On the way out she got into a quarrel with the landlady, who, suspecting that something was wrong, went up to the room and found the unconscious man.  Doctors were able to revive him.  In the meantime Carrie, assuming her husband was dead, filed charges that he had left her.  In the end it was Carrie who ended up in jail and James was a free man.

The menacing conditions of Hell's Kitchen were evidenced the following September when race riots erupted.  Blacks had been unofficially restricted from passing west of Ninth Avenue.  But an increase of the Black population and landlords' wanting to be paid was changing that.  One property owner told reporters "The negroes pay their rents regularly, and many of the whites do not."

Now, said The New York Times, the violent four days of rioting that broke out on Sunday 30 "was the direct result of a conflict of races for the supremacy of the neighborhood."  The white youths were the first to attack.  It ended in one white boy, Thomas Carney, dead, one horse killed, "and eight negroes and two white men with cuts and bruises too numerous to mention, and about forty-four prisoners, white and black, of both sexes."  There were far more victims who were not brought in.  The article noted the "numerous citizens who walked around the west side of town yesterday morning looking as through they had had intimate acquaintances with a buzz-saw or a threshing machine."

The string of hearings and jailing sentences that followed did little to quiet the racial tension.  A year later, on August 18, 1900, The New York Times reported that rioting seemed to have ceased "chiefly because of the severity of the police" who were ordered "to club the rioters into submission wherever they proved obstinate."  Despite that, rioting broke again within the week.   Victims, one with a stab wound to the stomach, were taken to hospitals and once again the courtrooms were filled with teens charged with a variety of associated crimes.

It turned out that some of the Hell's Kitchen policemen were no better than the rioters.  On September 24 Policemen Herman Ohm and John J. Cleary appeared in the West Side Court to answer charges "that they had, without cause, brutally beaten negroes in the race riots of last month," according to The Times.  The assaults were not solely upon rioters, either.  In one case, George L. Myers explained to the judge that he had gone downstairs to close the tenement building doors for protection.  Officer Cleary "rushed to him and assaulted him.  Then he was dragged to the street and pommeled.  One policeman whose name he did not know struck him a blow on the head with his nightstick which rendered him unconscious.  The stick was broken."

Almost all of the cases heard at the West Side Court reflected the tenor of the neighborhood.  After a complaint by Hattie Ross, a member of the Charity Organization Society and the Prison Reform Association, investigators went to No. 237 West 40th Street on November 1, 1900 where she claimed "was a disgraceful opium establishment."  In a fifth floor flat they found Mora Garrigan and three customers.  Garrigan had given them morphine through a hand-made hypodermic needle made of a rubber bulb used to fill fountain pens.  Bella Wilson, William Williams and Della Adams were lying on a bed, drugged.  All four were arrested.

They appeared before Magistrate Meade on November 2, and the judge did not hold back in his opinion of the women.  He called them "the most disgusting objects that he had ever seen."

The day before that hearing, the jail had been the scene of tragedy and frenzy.  Two prisoners, Frank Emerson, alias William B. Johnson, and Arthur Flanagan were held on the fourth floor awaiting trial for burglary.  Flanagan, who was just 19-years old, had his girlfriend, Deborah Whiting, bake a hack-saw blade into a sweet potato pie.  Little by little they sawed away at the bottom-most iron bars of the cell, so their work would not be noticed.

Around 2:00 on the morning of September 29 they squeezed through the opening just before Keeper Hugh McGovern's scheduled rounds.  They used one of the bars to crush the guard's skull, killing him.  Their plan was to use a rope made of blankets and bed ticking to slide 40-feet down to a 20-foot wall, then jump.  Flanagan went first and succeeded.  But Johnson missed the wall and fell headfirst onto a pile of iron rails.  He died immediately.

A touching act of kindness by the staff of the West Side Court occurred after Philip Raimondo was arrested on September 5, 1921 for stealing a loaf of bread.  A World War I veteran, Raimondo had served with the 11th Engineers in France where he was gassed.  He had been discharged from Knickerbocker Hospital two weeks before the theft.

The New York Herald reported "when Magistrate Simms  learned he was ill, penniless and starving...a collection of $7 was taken for him in the court room."  Raimondo's charges were dismissed.

In an interesting side note, the man's cousin Philip Raymond, appeared in the courtroom a few days later having read the story in the newspaper.  The family had been trying to track down Raimondo for some time.  One of his brothers, said The New York Herald, was a wealthy contractor.

A trio of would-be kidnappers that year would probably have drawn little notice if it were not that their target was Evelyn Nesbit, former showgirl and mistress of Stanford White.  She was at home reading when she heard voices outside her door.  Opening it, she was seized by a man and then two others rushed up.  The quick-witted Nesbit screamed "Fire!" knowing it would cause residents to rush to the hallways.  The three men fled.

As they ran from the building and jumped into a taxicab, they caught the attention of Policeman Michael McMahon, who jotted down the license number.  The kidnappers had not given up on their scheme and the cab soon returned.  McMahon started questioning the driver "when the three men jumped out and began beating him," reported The Evening World on September 19, 1921.

Beating a police officer in broad daylight was a bad idea.  "Other policemen rushed up and the three, who said they were Joseph Daly, John Werdmer and James Dunn, were subdued.  Wardmer being knocked unconscious."

The following day Evelyn Nesbit and her neighbors were in the West Side Court to identify the three men.  Evelyn pointed out Daly ("whom the police know as 'Spot'") as "the man who laid hands on her," said The Evening World.  She and the other residents identified the other two men as well, noting they "have disturbed the peace in that vicinity before."

In 1928 a major renovation to provide additional space for the Municipal Court included the removal of the mansard roof and the tower.  A flat-roofed upper story was built, set back from the facade.  The two circular windows on the third floor were replaced with more functional rectangular versions.

In 1936 an innovation in social services born in the West Side Court.  Agnes Adams, writing in The New York Post on January 19, 1937 began her article "At a time when women are being fairly sharply scored for their Meddelsome Mattie tendencies, an organization founded by a woman, financed and staffed by women, is rounding out its first year of service."  That organization was the Magistrates' Courts Social Service Bureau, headquartered in the Seventh District Court.

Founded by Magistrate Anna M. Cross, it had already handled 400 cases which, as she pointed out, touched "nearly three times as many individuals."  The purpose of the group, explained Adams, was "to give a person who finds himself in court with trouble on his hands a chance to tell somebody whose sympathies are colored by mercy as well as justice the story back of the immediate dilemma."

Judge Cross was more explicit, saying the aim was "to weigh the difference between the unfortunate and the vicious" and to circumvent punishment if possible.  Instead, corrective measures might be substituted for those delinquents whose petty crimes were caused by social or psychological issues.

By the Depression years a night court was being held in the building fro 8:00 to 1:00 in the morning.  It drew a crowd of wealthy New Yorkers who saw the proceedings as great entertainment.  The 1939 New York City Guide, published by the Work Progress Administration, explained "The Seventh District Magistrates Court, better known as the Men's Night Court, occupies the gray stone building at 314 West Fifty-fourth Street...Before rubbernecking was officially discouraged, Park Avenue in evening dress used to drop in to gape at the tragic parade of drunks, panhandlers pickpockets, wife beaters and brawlers."

The Magistrates' Court was removed from the building around 1944.  Beginning that year, through 1961, that space was leased to the General Services Administration for the Navy Shore Patrol and then the Armed Services Police Department.

Immediately after the West Side Police Court moved out in 1962, the building was taken over by the Clinton Youth and Family Center.   In 1967 architects Walfredo Toscanini and James Stewart Polshek, specialists in repurposing vintage structures, were hired to competed convert the building for the group operated by the YMCA of Greater New York and the Rotary Club of New York.  Completed in 1970, The New York Times architectural columnist Ada Louise Huxtable wrote about the transformation on January 31, 1971.

"It took faith, hope and $1 million in the case of the Clinton Youth and Family Center," she said.  Saying that it sits "in a section once known evocatively as Hell's Kitchen and now known sociologically as a multi-problem area.  The language is less colorful but the meaning is the same.  Too many of its people are poor and in trouble."

Much of the $1 million project--$850,000 to be exact--came from the Astor Foundation, a gift of Brook Astor.  Huxtable pointed out that "Outside, the visitor finds a cleaned-up...facade, virtually unchanged except for new doors in its triple-arched entrances."  The interior spaces were totally renovated, with new club rooms, a television room, gymnasium, dance area and music room, and even an adult lounge for parents.

The article pointed out that the 10,000 residents of Hell's Kitchen "are members of families with incomes of less than $3,000 a year.  They are the old and poor existing shakily in the only neighborhood they have ever called home."  The center's director, Harvey Newman, listed the neighborhood problems as "by-products of the crowded city--poverty, crime, narcotics, alcoholism, bitterness and hate."

Another renovation came after 1979 when the 42nd Street Local Development Corporation obtained a 10-year lease on the building, subleasing it two cultural institutions, the American Theatre of Actors and the Children's Museum of New York (which took the ground floor).

And then, in 1993, the building once again became home to a courthouse--the Midtown Community Court.  The court replaced the Children's Museum on the first floor.  Like Judge Anna M. Cross's Magistrates' Courts Social Service Bureau, it sought to provide alternatives to fines and jail for low-level criminals.  Sam Roberts wrote in The New York Times on June 7, 1993 that rather than locking up miscreants "The courts will seize the moment of arrest to delivery counseling, treatment for drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases and other on-site services as gateways to potential self-improvement."  Also provided in the Midtown Community Court's space are a social services clinic, and fatherhood and workforce development programs.

John H. Dunan's handsome courts building, albeit beheaded, and slightly altered, looks little different today than it did in 1896 when the mere presence of an imposing building was thought to imbue a sense of scruples and pride among the neighborhood residents.

photographs by the author

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