A History of the Jefferson Market Library

"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 thirty 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) during the years 1875-1877 and cost the city almost $360,000.

What the city got for its money, in addition to an architectural gem (it was 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, where the Adult Reading Room is now) 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 above it all was - and is - the tower. A hundred feet above the ground, the firewatcher's balcony once commanded an uninterrupted view of Greenwich Village. The bell which summoned volunteer firemen still hangs in the tower.

The courthouse was briefly the center of national attention in 1906, when Harry K. Thaw was tried here 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, The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, on Washington Place, one block East of Washington Square in the Asch Building, was notorious for its tough labor policies: low wages, long hours, and annoying rules, which included a prohibition on speaking to one's neighbor at the workbench and a penalty of being sent home and losing half a day's pay for taking more time for a toilet break than the floor supervisor felt was necessary.

The workers, in alliance with middle-class sympathizers, demonstrated and went on strike. The Triangle's owners struck back aggressively. Pickets were verbally and physically harassed by hired thugs and the police, and dozens of strikers were arrested. To add insult to the injury of incarceration and fines, the arrested women were taken to Jefferson Market Courthouse and tried in Night Court, a tactic meant to intimidate strikers through association with the prostitutes whose cases usually filled the court's dockets by that time. "No nice girls go there," one arrested shirtwaist maker asserted. These intimidation tactics did not succeed. The striking women's spirits were not broken and great strides were achieved in their working conditions. Unfortunately, though, not enough changed for the better. The factory, famously and tragically, burned to the ground in 1911. 125 garment workers, most very young girls, died in the fire or were killed jumping from the high windows to the pavement below.

By 1927 the courts were used solely for the trials of women, 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 here soon after on obscenity charges when her Broadway play Sex became a target of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. West received a $500 fine, one day next door 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 only to 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 adapted the Astor Library into the Public Theatre on Lafayette Street.

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 at one time worked for the Hudson Park Branch Library. She found the renovation very pleasing indeed. 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.