Wednesday, November 8, 2023

The Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Bldg - 80 Centre Street


Sullivan Jones was appointed New York State Architect in January 1926.  Among the initial projects assigned to him was the designing of the State Office Building in Manhattan.  At the time, state offices (ranging from courtrooms and court-related offices to income tax, workmen's compensation, employment departments and the like) were scattered throughout the downtown district in 133,000 square feet of rented space.  A year later, on January 20, 1927, The Buffalo Times reported that $500,000 had been appropriated "to start the foundation of a new state office building in New York City,"

The city had provided the state with the block-engulfing site bounded by Worth, Centre, Leonard and Baxter Streets, just north of the newly opened New York County Courthouse.  It came with caveatsThe New York Times explained that the State Office Building would have "limited height...a limitation dictated by the height of the court house," and noted that the architecture "will be a modern adaptation of classical architecture to harmonize with the courthouse and with the proposed scheme of the Civic Centre which is growing up north of the Municipal Building."

Jones would not finish his plans.  In the spring of 1927, the State Department of Architecture was abolished and replaced by the Division of Architecture in the Department of Public Works.  Jones was appointed head architect.  It should have been merely a technical change.  But he and the head of the Department of Public Works, Colonel Frederick Stuart Greene, were quickly at odds.

On September 1, 1927, the Press and Sun-Bulletin began an article saying, "The long smoldering differences between Colonel Frederick Stuart Greene, state superintendent of public works, and Sullivan Jones, state architect...broke into the open yesterday."  While Jones was away on vacation, Greene had taken him off the job of the 32-story state office building in Albany and given it to architect William M. Acheson.  The article noted, "The differences between Colonel Greene and Mr. Jones were an open secret."  When the reorganization of the Department of Architecture was first proposed, it said, "Neither Colonel Greene nor Mr. Jones, it was declared, wished to work in a department headed by the other."

On September 2, Jones met with the Governor for an hour at the Executive Mansion.  But his nemesis had beat him there.  The New York Times reported, "Colonel Greene had been to see the Governor an hour before Mr. Jones arrived."  The article said that insiders believed the contention between the two "will result in the early retirement of [Jones]."  The insiders were correct.  Sullivan Jones resigned his position on February 8, 1928 and was replaced on the State Office Building project by architect William E. Haugaard.  

Governor Al Smith laid the cornerstone on December 17, 1928.  Inside it, according to The New York Times, were "a copper box containing records, newspapers and photographs."  The building's construction cost was projected at $6 million (about $103 million in 2023 terms).  The article said it "will be nine stories high and will house all the State departments and bureaus."

Governor Smith poses with a silver trowel at the cornerstone laying.  Directly behind him is Mayor James Walker.  The New York Times December 18, 1828.

The Centre Street site sat upon what had been Collect Pond, a 48-acre body of water that was filled in by 1813.  The problem was that below ground level the water remained.  It had already caused problems when structures like Engine Company 31's fire station and the 1894 Criminal Courts Building slowly began sinking.  Now, in the spring of 1928, Collect Pond reared its head again.  On April 22, The New York Times ran the headline:


Quicksand and Muck Raise the Estimated Cost of Foundation from $244,900 to $1,000,000


Engineers determined that the 20-foot long pilings were useless, as they would have nothing solid upon which to sit.  Pilings 43-feet long were substituted.  Sullivan Jones took the opportunity to take a jab at his long-time adversary.  He told a reporter from The New York Times that the problems "were due to 'unnecessary' changes in the original plans made by Colonel Greene."  Greene put a positive spin on the situation, saying "there was nothing alarming in the conditions that had been found on the site."

The Jones-Haugaard designed State Office Building was clad in Maine granite "similar to the material used on the new court house," reported The New York Times.  Despite the construction delays, it was opened on October 28, 1930, two months before its projected completion date of January 1, 1931.  The overall design was an Art Deco interpretation of the Greek temple fronts of the courthouses surrounding it.

Each of the full-height fluted piers of the four-story midsection was capped by three square bosses, suggesting capitals.  Atop the base, an elaborate carved frieze of eagles and swags was interrupted above the entrance by a panel announcing "STATE OF NEW YORK."  A granite cornice embellished with alternating anthemion and lions heads slightly disguised the recessed top two floors, which were decorated with a carved wavecrest frieze.

photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Daily Argus reported that the building housed "all state agencies in the metropolitan area...employing about 1,645 persons."  Among the various offices in 80 Centre Street was the Governor's New York City office.  But perhaps the most visible resident would be State Attorney General Louis J. L. Lefkowitz, who took office on January 10, 1957 and would remain in the position until December 31, 1978, serving four Governors.  

Known as "the people's lawyer," Lefkowitz spurred investigations and initiated laws, like his proposed legislation in January 1964 "to eradicate the evils" of the theater.  In a precursor to the Taylor Swift ticket debacle decades later, Lefkowitz drafted three bills that would police "the financial operation of every show, from the investment stage to the sale of tickets," reported The New York Times on January 17.

photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Later that year, 50 Federal and state officials met in Lefkowitz's office "to protect the traveling public from 'fly-by-night and unscrupulous' cruise ship operators," wrote The New York Times on September 18, 1964.

On April 18, 1972, the State Supreme Court announced a plan to reassign state and city operations within existing structures in the Foley Square district.  The New York Times reported, "Crucial to the plan is the transfer of...the state office building at 80 Centre Street from the state to the city."  Two years later, the transfer had not been accomplished, although The New York Times said it was "now mostly vacant."

Ornate elevator doors survive on the lobby level.

After serving for 22 years, early in 1978 Louis J. Lefkowitz held a press conference during which he announced he would not be seeking a sixth term.  He died at the age of 91 on June 20, 1996.

At the time of Lefkowitz's retirement, the fate of the State Office Building was still undecided.  A new proposal was presented in 1986 to renovate it to provide space for 55 new courts.  But a dispute between the state and city over how the space would be split foiled the plans.

Finally, on November 1, 1989, The New York Times reported, "After three years of feuding, New York State and New York City have given up on plans to convert a state-owned building in lower Manhattan to new court space."

Three years later, in November 1992, the state announced a planned $258 million rehabilitation to 80 Centre Street planned for the mid-1990s.  "It will house primarily 43 criminal parts of the State Supreme Court," said The New York Times.  The building was rechristened the Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Building.

Without landmark designation, the Art Deco structure was threatened in the summer of 2018 when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to eliminate the Rikers Island Correctional Facility and erect a 40-story tower on the site of 80 Centre Street.  Those plans never went forward and, happily, the distinguished Louis J. Lefkowitz State Office Building survives.

photographs by the author
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  1. There is amazingly little information about Sullivan Jones on-line, except for the following: Born: 1878, Died: 1955. Born in Rockland County, NY, and raised in Yonkers, Sullivan W. Jones studied at MIT from 1896 to 1898. He then moved to New York City in 1900 and essentially spent the rest of his professional career, with some trips to Albany, in New York City. While in New York City he established a partnership with Henry Hornbostel, but in 1923 he became State Architect of New York, remaining in that position until 1928.

  2. NYC Department of Buildings' Development Hub is housed on the 3rd Floor. In the attic are records of the District Attorney and Department of Citywide Administrative Services. In the Cellar is the District Attorney's secure vault storage as well as an office for undercover police officers and a document printing facility. Fair amount of repairs are needed in the Cellar including clearance of debris blocking egress doors, sagging walls and floors. The 4th Floor houses the wiretap and cybersecurity office.