Former Lives of Libraries
Jefferson Market Branch of New York Public Library
Originally a courthouse, the Jefferson Market Library has served the Greenwich Village community for over forty years. The building, a New York City landmark, was designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux (who also assisted in the design of Central Park) in a Victorian Gothic style. It was erected—along with an adjacent prison and market—between 1875 and 1877 and cost the city almost $360,000.
What the city got for its money, in addition to an architectural gem—voted one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America by a poll of ahitects in the 1880s—was a civil court on the second floor, now the Adult Reading Room, and a police court, now the first-floor Children's Room. The beautiful brick-arched basement, now the Reference Room, was used as a holding area for prisoners on their way to jail or trial. Scattered about the building were offices and chambers, and looming a hundred feet above ground was the firewatcher's tower. The tower, still intact, commands an uninterrupted view of Greenwich Village, and houses the bell that would summon volunteer firemen.
The courthouse was the center of national attention in 1906, when Harry K. Thaw was formally charged with homicide in the first degree - willful murder - and committed to prison without bail for the murder of architect Stanford White (the infamous Girl in the Red Velvet Swing case). White's firm, McKim, Mead and White had, coincidentally, designed 11 branch library buildings for The New York Public Library. White's affair with chorus girl/model Evelyn Nesbit before her marriage to Thaw was the motive in this crime of passion. Thaw was eventually judged to be insane and was sent to an asylum until his release in 1915. This story was later immortalized by E. L. Doctorow in his book Ragtime.
Earlier, in 1896, Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, testified in the courthouse on behalf of a woman he felt was unjustly arrested for prostitution. Crane related that he was "studying human nature" in the dicey Tenderloin area of the city, when the alleged solicitation occurred. Front page headlines the next day praised Crane's "chivalry and courage" for speaking out on behalf of the wrongly accused woman.
In 1909, Triangle Shirtwaist Company workers were taken to the Jefferson Market Courthouse and tried in night court: a tactic meant to intimidate the female strikers arrested while protesting unfair labor practices, as prositution cases generally filled the court's dockets at that time. As one arrested shirtwaist maker said, "No nice girls go there." These intimidation tactics did not succeed. The striking women's spirits were not broken and great strides were achieved in their working conditions. Unfortunately, not enough changed for the better. The factory was the site of a tragic fire in 1911, when 125 garment workers, most very young girls, died or were killed jumping from the factory windows to the pavement below.
By 1927 the courts were used solely for women's trials, and in 1929 the market and co-ed prison were torn down and replaced by the Women's House of Detention, probably the only Art Deco prison in the world. Mae West was tried there soon after on obscenity charges when her Broadway play Sex was targeted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. West received a $500 fine, one day in the Women's House of Detention, and nine days at the workhouse on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island). The House of Detention was razed in 1973 and replaced by a lovely community garden. By 1945, through redistricting, court was no longer held at Jefferson Market, and the building was taken over by various agencies including the Police Academy, which is rumored to have used it for riot training. This group departed in 1958, leaving the courthouse empty.
By 1959, the building had become home to only pigeons and rats and was considered such an architectural eyesore the city planned to knock it down and erect an apartment building. But Village community members, led by Margot Gayle and Philip Wittenberg, and including Lewis Mumford, E. E. Cummings (who lived across the street in Patchin Place), and actor Maurice Evans, rallied to save the building from the wrecking ball. In 1961, Mayor Robert F. Wagner announced that it would be preserved and converted into a public library. The task of converting the old courthouse to a modern library was undertaken by architect Giorgio Cavaglieri, who also remade the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street into The Public Theatre.