Monday, October 18, 2021

The Lost 1894 Criminal Courts Building - Centre and Franklin Streets


from the collection of the New York Public Library

On May 7, 1887 The Record & Guide reported "Senator Daly's bill for the erection of a criminal court building on the site of the old Centre street depot has passed both Houses."  It was the first step in a very long process to erect a modern structure to house Manhattan's courtrooms and offices.  Two years later, in April 1889, the Sinking Fund Commissioners formally approved the site "on the block bounded by Centre, Franklin White and Elm [Lafayette] streets."  The Record & Guide reported that the old buildings were being removed and $1,500 "is to be spend in advertising for plans and specifications for the new building."

The site sat atop a filled-in body of water called Collect Pond.  In the 18th century the pond covered 48 acres and, in spots, was up to 60 feet deep.  What had been a popular place for picnics in the summer and ice skating in the winter became polluted and odorous when tanneries, slaughterhouses and other nearby business dumped their waste here.  Derided at the end of the 18th century as "a very sink and common sewer," it had been slowly filled.  By 1813, the entire lake was undetectable--at least on the surface.

Thirteen architects submitted plans.  The winning design came from the office of Thom & Wilson & Schaarschmidt with Napoleon LeBrun coming in second.  Prolific architects Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson had only recently taken James E. Schaarschmidt into their firm.  The relationship was brief and by the time the building was well underway, the firm of record was Thom & Wilson.

The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide, January 28, 1893 (copyright expired)

The architects placed the cost of construction at $1.5 million--around $44 million today.  Their design drew from neo-Classical and Renaissance Revival.  Two projecting pavilions flanked the side staircase that rose to the columned entrance portico.  Two classical pediments filled with Greek-style sculpture  were crowned with prominent akroterions.

Architecture & Building, January 7, 1899 (copyright expired)

The Criminal Courts Building, completed in 1894, was panned by some architectural critics.  On February 17, 1894 The Record & Guide cried out for a City Architect, saying in part:

As to the special buildings which the municipality puts up from time to time, there is not an exception to the rule of architectural failures.  The latest and most pretentious of these, the Criminal Courts, is one of the most atrocious, and has been protected from public execration only because it is situated where few persons but criminals and criminal lawyers ever have occasion to go.

The New York Times was more forgiving of the brick-faced structure, calling it "the beautiful new Criminal Courts Building."  The newspaper noted, it "is five stories in height, two of the stories being double, making seven floors in all."  Although the court personnel moved in on September 3, 1894, the newspaper noted, "The decorations of the building have not yet been begun, as the walls have not yet properly settled."  

The murals in the Supreme Court rooms  on the first floor would be executed by Edward Simmons and paid for by the Municipal Art League.  The central painting, America Offering Justice to the World, reportedly used the faces of the artist's wife and children.  To the right would be Three Fates, depicting Clotho (youth) spinning the thread of life, Lachesis (middle age) twisting and measuring it, and Atropos cutting the threat at death's appointed time.  On the other side would be Brotherhood uniting Science to Freedom.

The murals enhanced Thom & Wilson's already lavish interiors.  The New York Times wrote, "The woodwork throughout the entire building is quartered oak.  The jury boxes, rails, and desks are all handsome pieces of joiner work elegantly carved in solid oak."  Visitors entered into a palatial lobby with elaborately carved marble walls, bronze staircase railings, and sculptures.

Two views of the main floor split staircase.  photos by the United States Work Projects Administration from the collection of the Library of Congress

Notable was the elevated cast iron bridge that spanned Franklin Street.  It connected the Criminal Courts Building with the City Prison--or "The Tombs"--and enabled prisoners to be taken to court without going outside.  Tirelessly fond of nicknames, New Yorkers quickly deemed it "The Bridge of Sighs."

A tremendous crowd rushed to the streets outside the building on the afternoon of February 27, 1901 because "there were wild rumors afloat" that the building was being gutted by flames "and that many prisoners were  in danger of losing their lives."  There was, indeed, a fire in Criminal Courts Building, which was extinguished within an hour--but not before causing extensive damage and near panic.

The blaze started in a document storeroom in the attic.  Judges were quietly informed of the problem and they cleared their courtrooms, most with subdued order.  "In others there was a sudden rapping of the gavel and a hasty announcement of adjournment," reported The New York Times.  "One courtroom was upset by a man who rushed in crying 'Fire!'"  

In the end, damage of upwards to $314,000 in today's money was done, "vast quantities of documents were destroyed," and the blaze "ate away almost the entire upper corner of the building."  The New York Times lamented, "It is feared that valuable mural paintings in some of the courtrooms have been ruined by water."  (They were later all restored.)

The following year a disturbing structural problem with the Bridge of Sighs was uncovered.  On April 5, 1902 the New-York Tribune reported, "For the last week or two it had been swaying when prisoners in single file cross it, and this increased until it became necessary to break step in order to distribute the weight more evenly."  Inspectors reported that the heavy timber flooring, specified in the plans, had never been installed.  Instead it had a floor "of heavy tiles."  The bridge was propped up and repairs were made.

from the collection of the Library of Congress

The criminal trials that played out here often brought throngs of supporters or protestors.  Such was the case on August 12, 1902 when Antonio Ziropoli was tried for the stabbing murder of Peter Guardini.

According to The Evening World, "Actuated more by motives of revenge than by curiosity, between four and five hundred Italians gathered in the Criminal Courts Building to-day."  The two groups became so threatening that a squad of policemen had to be called in "to prevent a free-for-all fight."  The article said, "The women, who comprised the greater part of the crowd, were the most persistent, and continually called on the Guardini family to avenge the death of their brother and husband."

More often, however, it was the high profile cases that drew crowds.  In 1904, for instance, Floradora dancer Nan Patterson was accused of having murdered her lover, bookmaker Francis Thomas "Caesar" Young, both of whom were married.  On June 4 they were in a hansom cab.  During the ride, reportedly, Young informed his 21-year-old mistress that the affair was over.  

At around 8:30 a.m. the cabbie heard a gunshot.  When he stopped the cab, Young was found slumped over Nan's lap, shot dead.  "Oh, Caesar, Caesar, what have you done?" Nan was crying.  

A hand-colored postcard changed the building's brick façade from red to yellow.

The firearm, found in the dead man's pocket, was found to have been purchased in a pawnshop by Nan.  She insisted Young had committed suicide.  Police doubted that the dead man had placed the gun back into his pocket and she was arrested.   Her trial started on November 15, 1904, but ended in a hung jury.  The second trial, begun on December 5, had the same results.  Nan Patterson's third trial commenced on April 18, 1905.   Three weeks later on May 4, the New-York Tribune reported:

Scenes of unusual excitement marked the closing hours of Miss Patterson's trial.  Not only was the courtroom in which Recorder Goff delivered the charge to the jury packed to its utmost capacity by persons who seemed to have an almost fanatical eagerness to observe the woman on trial for her life, but a crowd of a few thousand persons kept watch outside of the Criminal Courts Building.

It was almost assuredly Nan Patterson's gender that saved her from conviction and execution.  from the collection of the Library of Congress.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, Nan's different accounts of what happened, and what the prosecutor's called her "silly story," this jury, too, was unable to reach a verdict.  District Attorney James T. Jerome said he would not bring the case to trial again and Nan Patterson was set free.

Even more attention-grabbing was the trial of Harry Kendall Thaw that began on January 23, 1907.  Thaw was accused of murdering architect Stanford White on June 25, 1906 in the presence of dozens of witnesses in rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden.  Two months later, as the jury deliberated, the New-York Tribune wrote, "The extraordinary interest that the trial has aroused was shown by the crowds that gathered about the Criminal Courts Building...The largest crowd was on the White street side, where the Thaw family usually enter, but there was nearly as large a gathering on the other side of the building to catch a glimpse of Thaw as he crossed the 'Bridge of Sighs.'"

Those crowds would be incensed when the verdict found him not guilty by reason of insanity.  He was sentenced to life at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  Then, in 1915, he was judged cured and set free.

The same year as the Thaw trial, a serious problem was discovered.  The soggy landfill atop the Collect Pond was failing.  On June 22, 1907 The Record & Guide reported, "It has been known for some time that there has been considerable settlements in the building," adding, "It will be the business of the engineers to examine into the whole matter and make recommendations as to what, if any, measures can be taken to repair the damage...and to prevent any continuance of the depressions."

At the time of the article the building had sunk four inches in some places.  Cracks had appeared in walls and in the capitals of several columns.  "The trouble is due to the rotting of the piles on which rest the foundations of the building," said the article.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

Two years later the problem had worsened.  The Record & Guide, which had panned the building from the start, lobbied for a replacement.  "The existing building is not only unsafe, but it is ugly, inconvenient, badly ventilated and shabby."  The journalist suggested a new building on the site.  "The old building always was a hideous, rotten, vulgar thing," he said, concluding that demolition of the Criminal Courts Building "will make New York a sweeter city."

On November 3, 1909, two days before The Record & Guide article, the Criminal Courts Building was vacated.  On orders by the Superintendent of Buildings, 25 policemen entered the building and "ordered everybody to clear out in double quick time."   The urgency was triggered when the settling of the structure caused a gas pipe to snap.  Judge F. Mulqueen predicted, "A gas explosion in the present state of the building would be almost certain to cause its collapse."  He described having sat in his chair in the courtroom and feeling the foundations shaking, as though the structure was built "on a bowl of jelly."

Engineers carefully inspected the problem, coming up with the verdict that the structure would continue to sink, however there was no danger of collapse.  Engineer Frederick Dana Rhodes concluded, "dynamite would have to be employed to tear it down."  And so the various employees went back to work and the cracks continued to appear.

In December 1911 the owners of the Triangle Shirt Waist Company went on trial for manslaughter following the deaths of 146 female workers in the horrendous fire in the Asch Building that March.  A mob of protestors crammed Centre Street waiting for Max Blanck and Isaac Harris to arrive with their attorney.  As they stepped from their car, a little girl cried to her mother, "Mamma, mamma, look behind you.  There they are.  there are the murderers!  Hit them, mamma, for killing poor Stella."

Screaming angrily in Yiddish, the mother set upon the men, pulling a photograph of a young girl from under her shawl.  The trio rushed for the safety of the Criminal Courts Building, only to be met by 50 or more girls inside.  "Other women ran up and down, simply screeching as loud as they could," said the article.  "From tier to tier of the big central chamber came more noise and then still more."

The angry mob cut off the men's access to the elevators, so they ran for the stairway.  "They fairly had to fight their way up," said The Evening World.  In the end, the jury found that proving that Blanck and Harris had known about the locked doors was impossible and they were acquitted.

The Evening World reported, "The always noisy corridors of the Criminal Courts Building became like bedlam to-day when three hundred wildly hysterical girls and women made a demonstration of their revengeful hatred against Max Blanck and Isaac Harris."  The article noted, "The rotunda was full of them.  The corridors of every floor in the building were swarming with them."

Not everything that went on in the Criminal Courts Building was about aroused passions and sinking foundations.   In the first years after World War I a routine was established on the third floor, outside the office of Assistant District Attorney James Smith.  The attorney's confidential clerk, Ike Van Leer, began putting food on the window ledge for pigeons.  On February 21, 1919 The Evening World reported, "At first only a couple of birds paid regular daily visits."  But now, the 9:00 a.m. feeding drew "a whole flock."  

Ike Van Leer and his breakfast club.  The Evening World, February 21, 1919 (copyright expired)

The article said that the birds who came looking for breakfast, "are never disappointed.  Corn and other grain and bread crumbs, with peanuts sometimes for dessert, invariably await.  then they top off with a drink of distilled water--no common, garden variety of water for those birds."  Van Leer's routine had grown to the point that he was now using ten pounds of corn every week.

Nearly three decades after the unsettling settling of the foundation had been discovered, and exactly four decades after the facility was opened, the end of the Criminal Courts Building was on the horizon.  On June 17, 1934 The New York Times reported, "If Mayor LaGuardia has his way, the gray, dingy Tombs, or City Prison, and its dull-red neighbor, the Criminal Courts Building, will be torn down to make room for a skyscraper combining the functions of both."

Instead, the massive new Criminal Courts Building and Men's House of Detention, designed by Wiley Corbett and Charles B. Meyers, was begun directly across Centre Street in 1938.  Following its completion both The Tombs and the Criminal Courts Building were demolished.  Franklin Street, once spanned by The Bridge of Sighs, was closed between Lafayette and Centre Streets.  Today the Manhattan Civil Courthouse, designed by William Lescaze and M. W. Del Gaudio occupies the site of the old Criminal Courts Building.

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  1. Had never seen this before. What a schizoid heap - couldn't decide what style it wanted to be.

    1. The proportions are what get me- the front elevation is passable but the pavilions are too tall for their width, and it looks as if it were planned to be set in the middle of a row. At least the WPA thought some of the interior was worth photographing.

  2. To me the 1894 Criminal Courts Building bears a more than passing resemblance to the 1877 Lenox Library, designed by Richard Morris Hunt and considered a masterwork. I guess the secret to accessories is to know when to stop. Given the description and photographs of the interior I can't figure out how 'The Record and Guide' found justification to call the courts building shabby.

    Too bad that after Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were found not guilty [by reason of ignorance] some lovely, young woman who survived the deadly fire didn't take each of them for a ride in a hansom cab.

  3. I don't care what some of the architectural critics thought of the Criminal Courts Building back in 1894. Little did they know what would eventually replace it.

    1. You got that right! The courthouse that is there now is truly shabby, and people are often late for the calendar call, because there are not enough elevators. Personally, I prefer the old one.