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The Jefferson Market Courthouse/Library Archive: A Sneak Peek with Barbara Knowles-Pinches

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Did you know that the Jefferson Market library has an archive of images, papers and press clippings dating back to the 1800s?  This collection of Greenwich Village history has recently been processed and made available to the public by archivist and librarian Barbara Knowles-Pinches, who began working at Jefferson Market in 2009.  The digitizing process has just begun; images and a finding aid will be available online in the near future. Here, Barbara tells us about some of her favorite items from the archive. 

How long have you been working as an archivist?

For 10 years, starting in the Billy Rose Theatre Division. I have a background in theater history, and have always been a history buff, so being an archivist is a perfect fit.  Working on the Jefferson Market archive has been a real treat!

What’s the scope of this collection?

It follows the chronology of the Jefferson Market Courthouse and library from 1876 to the present. The 1876 structure is actually the oldest building in NYPL (the Schwarzman Building at 42nd and 5th was begun in 1902).  The archive not only covers the history of this building, but provides glimpses into the history of Greenwich Village as well. The papers and photographs that had been stuffed into a filing cabinet are now preserved in 18 acid-free boxes. If anyone wishes to develop their knowledge of Greenwich Village history, they might want to take a look at this unique collection.

There is so much fascinating history just in this site alone!

Jefferson Market began life as a traditional marketplace. A courthouse was erected on the site in 1876. The courthouse received a lot of attention in 1906 when it was used for the Harry K. Thaw / Stanford White murder trial. Later, the women’s house of detention, situated where the garden is now, achieved a certain degree of notoriety.

We have a print of the old market stalls adjacent to the wooden fire tower that perversely burned down; copies of the hand-drawn pen and ink courthouse floor plans; a print of a painting by John Sloan, owned by The Whitney, that shows Jefferson Market in the shadow of the El train that ran up 6th Avenue.

We also have a lot of information about the building's conversion into a library...

In the early 1960s, a very determined and energetic woman named Margot Gayle spearheaded a committee to save the 100 foot clock tower and bell. On the day of the bell’s inaugural ring, a procession of people from the community climbed up the spiral staircase to the top of the tower to celebrate.  At that time, there was no electric connection to the bell, only two guys with a 150 pound mallet. When the bell finally rang, it was magnificent. The event was written up in the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town," September 15th, 1962. We have a lot of photos of this event. It was the first time in living memory that the bell—the second largest in the city after Riverside Church—had rung.

That event started the momentum that resulted in the conversion of the courthouse into a library in 1967. We have lots of press on that. For The New York Times, Ada Louise Huxtable wrote, "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."

Is there any information within the archive about the building's influence outside of New York City?

The restored building garnered a lot of attention, and has been recognized in all sorts of architectural awards lists and publications. It was featured in Progressive Architecture.  The stained glass windows, designed by Charles Booth, were included in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We have a lot of artist’s renderings and Christmas cards of the building.

Disney made a mock-up of the structure in what used to be called Disney-MGM studios, now Disney's Hollywood Studios.  They have a backlot that includes a reduced scale New York street, and within that used to be the Jefferson Market courthouse.  It has since been taken down, but we have color photographs of it in our archive.

People who come into this library comment on what a fantastic space it is to read in.

For library aficionados, we have some wonderful old photos of librarians and notebooks from Jackson Square, a library in the Village that closed when Jefferson Market opened.

There are pictures of the building and the neighborhood showing children’s participation in raising money for the library—our children’s librarian, Rebecca Schosha, is able to use these to show to classes visiting the library.

Can you tell us about one of your favorite items in the collection?

One of my favorite things in the collection is "The Official Program and Guide" from "Greenwich Village Week," May 21-27, 1932.  It cost 10 cents.  It has a description of “bohemian” Greenwich Village in 1932, and references to many of the famous artists who lived here: Henry James, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry.  The booklet lists a week of celebratory activities, including a barn dance, of all things.  This is why I work with archives, because I can sit down and read something evocative like this from cover to cover.

Thanks, Barbara!

If you are interested in accessing the Jefferson Market archive, please contact library manager Frank Collerius at 212-243-4334, or fcollerius@nypl.org.

All of the images in this post are included in the Jefferson Market archive.

 

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What an excellent project!

This sounds like an enormous undertaking, since both the building and the neighborhood have such a long and fascinating history. It's great that you've made this information available for the public!

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