By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP
This iconic landmark was almost destroyed in 1958 after the city and courts decided to vacate it. Through the concerted efforts of Village activists, a new Public Library branch was opened after restoration of intricate brick and stonework by architect Giorgio Cavaglieri from 1962-1967. More restoration was done in 1994 and from 2012-2014.
The Third Judicial District Courthouse, designed by architects Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux, circa 1874-77, replaced the Jefferson Market shopping and municipal structures of 1830. In a poll of architects taken in the 1880s, this rated as the “fifth most beautiful building” in the United States due to its multitude of High Victorian Gothic details and stained glass windows. The country’s first night court began here, and infamous criminal trials, like Harry K. Thaw, murderer of celebrity architect Stanford White, created drama.
In 1931, Sloan & Robertson designed the Women’s House of Detention along the Greenwich Avenue side of the block, seen at left in the 1935 photo, which stressed the verticality of the 14-story costly brick structure, with French-influenced decorative detail. Built to accommodate 429 prisoners awaiting trial—but often crowded way beyond that—it was connected directly to the back of the Courthouse. When I was living nearby at my friend Tony Hoffman’s apartment, activist Angela Davis was one of its later occupants, and I would hear ladies cry out as I passed by. The jail was demolished in 1974, but if it were standing today—like the detention facility at West 20th Street and 11th Avenue, touching the side of Jean Nouvel-designed luxury condos—it would have made a nice affordable or senior housing conversion.
Today, the scene of the jail site is a fenced park cared for by local gardeners. The elevated IRT 6th Avenue train (1878-1938) is now underground, and the West Side Savings Bank clock is gone, but the three-story shops on West 10th Street and the 1848 homes on Patchin Place (home of poet e. e. cummings until 1962) are in the background behind the “Old Jeff” clock tower (Milligan Place off Sixth Avenue is just to the right, out of the photo). Inside, Jefferson Market Library now bustles with children and locals taking advantage of the beautiful library and lecture rooms.
If you get a chance to tour the clock tower on the Sixth Avenue corner, you can climb the original curved stairway for a great view of the Village!