“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 (1921–2013), architecture critic for The New York Times, November 28, 1967
I am amused by what I have overheard on occasion when passing the building at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 10th Street. “What church is that?” The questioner could not be faulted for wondering. The structure has all the bells and whistles of a Gothic church, spires, a bell tower, gargoyles and stained glass windows.
Built in the Victorian Gothic style as the Third Judicial District Courthouse in 1876, the Jefferson Market Library now calls this most wonderful of Greenwich Village buildings home. Guests on Walk About New York’s Greenwich Village Walking Tour will discover the unique and amusing details that decorate its façade. They will also hear about the scandalous murder trail of 1906 that was held here; and about the sassy film and stage comedienne who was hauled into court here in 1927, and charged with indecency.
Unfortunately, tour guests will not get to see the full effect of the building’s stunning stained glass windows. To remedy that, I am taking you on a virtual tour of these fabulous windows; they are an important part of the oldest building in the New York Public Library system. As with all stained glass windows, they are best appreciated from the inside. It is possible to see the windows on one’s own. The library is open Mondays and Wednesdays, 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM; Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM; and Fridays and Saturdays, 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
Designed by Englishman Charles Booth (1844-1893), who also created the stained glass for nearby Grace Church at Broadway and East 10th Street, the library’s window designs are made mostly of geometric patterns. The best ones can be seen in the tower’s spiral staircase, leading from the first floor to the second. The standouts amongst these, seen by all who climb and descend the staircase, are the Pre-Raphaelite portrait beauties, forever gazing into the distance at an unseen but perfect world. The main reading room on the second floor also has some lovely stained glass.
The colors and style of the windows is in keeping with the philosophy of the late 19th century. Artists of the period wanted to integrate art into everyday life. They were rebelling against the mechanized world; they wanted to return to objects made by hand, not mass-produced. They championed “art for art’s sake,” believing this approach would return morality and spirituality to society.
The Third Judicial District Courthouse, with an adjoining jail, was designed by Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux; Vaux was the chief buildings architect for Central Park. Gothic Revivalists, as Vaux and Withers were, called stained glass, “the handmaid of the architecture.” After seeing the library’s stained glass windows, it should come as no surprise that the Jefferson Market Courthouse was voted one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America by a group of architects in the 1880s.
The name Jefferson Market given to the courthouse and now the library was taken from the 1833 market originally located on the site. It was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson. A brick building housing a new market was erected next to the courthouse in 1883. It and the jail fell to the wrecking ball in 1927; the Women’s House of Detention, constructed in the Art Deco style, took their place in 1931. It stood until 1971, when it too was demolished, replaced with the charming Jefferson Market Garden.
By 1945 the courthouse was on longer functioning as such; various city agencies were making use of it. The New York City Police Academy, which supposedly used it for riot training, was one of those agencies. The Academy had moved on by 1958; within a year, pigeons and rats were making their homes in the former Jefferson Market Courthouse. The city proposed knocking down the building but its neighbors, Margot Gayle, Philip Wittenberg, Lewis Mumford, e.e. cummings and Maurice Evans amongst them, objected to this idea. In 1961, New York’s mayor, Robert F. Wagner made an announcement; the building would be preserved, becoming a branch of the New York Public Library. The library opened in 1967 following a two-year conversion and restoration process.