I recently received an interesting telephone reference question. A gentleman was calling from a historical society in upstate New York. He was doing research on the bells cast by the Meneely Bell Foundry in the early to mid 19th century. Meneely had cast tens of thousands of bells and he wanted to know if the bell in Jefferson Market Library’s clock tower was one of them. A quick search online found many different versions of the clock tower’s history. Some sources claim that the bell currently in the tower was the one from the original previous structure, a fire watch tower. Further investigation found this not to be the case, as the bell currently hanging in the tower is the third one at the Jefferson Market location. Of course, the best way to confirm the bell’s maker is to get a first hand look, so I made the claustrophobic climb to the top of the tower, timing my journey so as not to be next to the bell when it struck on the hour. Stamped on the 12,000 pound bell was the name I was looking for: Jones & Company, Troy, NY 1863.
So our bell was not from Meneely, but what about the previous bells?
Construction of a market and fire watch tower at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Greenwich Lane began on February 1, 1832 and was complete in November of the same year. The market opened for business on January 5, 1833. The Common Council named it Jefferson Market, after the third president of the United States. On July 18, 1949, the council approved funds for the construction of a jail and court house at the corner of Greenwich Avenue and Amos Street (now 10th Street).
A few years later there was ironically a fire at the fire watch tower. From The Market Book:A History of the Public Markets of the City of New York, by Thomas F. De Voe, and The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 by I. N. Phelps Stokes: “The large fire-bell tower, built of wood, several years ago, stood nearer the point of Sixth Avenue and West Tenth Street, was destroyed by fire on the afternoon of the following 29th of July, 1851. The large bell, weighing about 9,000 pounds, was cracked and ruined by the heat and fall.” This was the first Jefferson Market bell. I have yet to discover which foundry cast this bell.
The second bell at Jefferson Market has an even more interesting history. It was cast in Spain in 1762 for a Mexican monastery. General Winfield Scott (nicknamed “Old Fuss and Feathers”) captured the bell during the US-Mexican War (1846 to 1848) and brought it back to the United States. It was presented to the city of New York and hung in the fire watch tower at Jefferson Market.
In 1870 the idea to build a new municipal building on the Jefferson Market site was born in Albany. Architect Frederick Clarke Withers began initial designs. Construction began in 1875 after years of notorious politics by the Tweed Ring and Tammany Hall. Jefferson Market was completed in 1877 and officially opened on April 12, 1884 with the 1863 Jones & Company bell, which can still be heard today. The Spanish bell was moved to a Bronx firehouse located at Riverdale Avenue and West 246th Street where it tolled daily at 8am, noon, and 9pm. In 1930 that bell was moved to a 500 ton stone tower designed by Dwight James Baum. In 1936 when the Henry Hudson Parkway was built the tower and its bell were moved 700 feet to its current location, Bell Tower Park, at 239th Street and Henry Hudson Parkway.
Coming soon: The Bell, Part Two, a visual tour of Jefferson Market's clock tower.