The atmosphere in which literature and knowledge are dispensed is part of a cultural package. Today it is the fashion to offer a kind of statistical, book-counting culture in visually illiterate surroundings. At Old Jeff there is also the literature of architecture: cut stone faces and flowers, spiral stairs, soaring stained glass windows, the feeling, form and sensibility of another age. This, too, is the record of civilization.
—Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic, The New York Times, November 28, 1967
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 architects 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 briefly the center of national attention in 1906, when Harry K. Thaw was tried there 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.
Construction began in 1965 and the library opened for business in 1967. Among the first of its visitors was the poet Marianne Moore, who had worked for the Hudson Park Branch Library. She found the renovation very pleasing. Many since have come to share her feeling, knowing that a library is an essential space, allowing one to contemplate privately in public, among a world of ideas.
The New York Collection
Since its opening in 1967, The Jefferson Market Regional Library has been collecting interesting, and sometimes rare, books on the history of New York City—and particularly, Greenwich Village. Following is a selective list of the more than 150 books in this special collection, which can be found downstairs in the Reference Room. The library also has an archive of photographs and other material on the history of the Jefferson Market Library and Courthouse, click here to see the finding aid.
Tenth Street by Bill Binzen
New York: Grossman Publishers, 1968
The project: Document in photographs the life of a Manhattan thoroughfare called Tenth Street, stretching from the East River to the Hudson. The result: An impromptu band strikes up between First and A; tattered posters announce a long-past public show "against sneering" on Waverly; a boy clings to the back of a bus for a free ride on B; a corpse missing a shoe sprawls on Third; and everybody either swings or stares in Tompkins Park. Binzen went on to publish, among other things, a number of photographically illustrated children's books available in the New York Public Library collection.
Evidence by Luc Sante
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992
The mysterious face of death is revealed in 55 brutal photographs of crime scenes taken by the NYPD between 1914 and the early 1920s.
Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report
New York: The Commission, 1969
The history, architecture, and facts about every building in the Village, house number by house number.
New York Unexpurgated: an amoral guide for the jaded, tired, evil, non-conforming, corrupt, condemned, and the curious, humans and otherwise, to underground Manhattan by Petronius [pseudonym]
Just what the title says. Must be read to be believed.
Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village, 1912 by Judith Schwarz
Lebanon, NH: New Victoria Publishers, 1982
The first published study of a club that included over 100 of the most creative, often politically active, women of the twentieth century: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Agnes DeMille, among others.
Hellhole: the shocking story of the inmates and life in the New York City House of Detention for Women by Sara Harris
New York: E. P. Dutton, 1967
Life on the inside: A serious discussion of a truly horrific prison also reads like the script treatment for a movie starring Pam Grier. Who could ask for anything more? (P.S. That's a teenaged, pre-fame Andrea Dworkin getting arrested on the opening pages).
The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498–1909 by Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes
New York: Arno Press, 1967
Beautiful maps and descriptions from the past 500 years. Find out who owned what land in 1701... Or the street layout of the Dutch community in 1613!
Valentine's Manual of Old New York, volumes 1916–1927 edited by Henry Collins Brown
New York: Valentines Manual Inc.
Fascinating facts and history from the 19th century up until the 1920s. For example, find out (in detail) what St. Marks Place was like 100 years ago. Find out when exactly The Golden Age of Booze took place. Take a tour of the stately mansions of the Bronx, and so much more.
Naked City by Weegee
New York: Essential Books, 1945
Arthur H. Fellig, better known as Weegee the Famous, worked as a freelance tabloid news photographer in New York City between 1935 and 1945. His stark black-and-white photographs chronicle crime scenes, mob hits, fires, people sleeping, Bowery bars, people at the opera, people at the movies, and lovers at the beach. His work has been described variously as grotesque, sensationalist, voyeuristic, compassionate, brutal, noirish, and hilarious. Just like the city itself.
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