“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, her 28.November.1967 evaluation of the Jefferson Market Library
An earlier article took you inside the Jefferson Market Library to see its colorful, stained-glass windows in geometric and floral patterns. This one focuses on some of its fascinating exterior—and sometimes amusing—details. See the building in all its eclectic glory during the Greenwich Village Walking Tour.
Because of its Victorian Gothic style the Jefferson Market Library is sometimes mistaken for a church. Originally this New York City and National Historic Landmark was a courthouse designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers (1828-1901) and Calvert Vaux (1824–1895), who co-designed Central Park with Frederick Law Olmstead. It was built, along with an adjacent prison and market, between 1875 and 1876 at a cost of $360,000. This architectural gem was voted one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America in a poll of architects in the 1880s. The chimneys resemble those found at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace outside London.
A civil court was on the second floor, where the Adult Reading Room is now; and a police court operated where the first-floor Children’s Room is located today. The basement, with its vaulted ceilings made of brick, was used as a holding area for prisoners headed to jail or trial. It is now the Reference Library and Computer Room.
And then there is that clock tower. The fire watcher’s balcony sits one hundred feet above ground. The bell, which once called volunteer firemen to action, still hangs in the tower and rings out the hour during daylight. The bell is referred to as the Old Jeff.
After more than 80 years of service as a courthouse and by other city agencies, including the NYPD’s Cadet Academy, by 1959 the building had been abandoned. It was looked upon as an architectural eyesore. The city planned to knock it down and build an apartment building. Village residents, including poet e. e. cummings, who lived across the street in Patchin Place, organized to save the building from the wrecking ball. In 1961, Mayor Robert Wagner announced a plan to preserve and convert the old courthouse into a public library. The preservation and conversion job fell to architect Giorgio Cavaglieri (1911–2007); he had adapted the Astor Library on Lafayette Street to become the Public Theatre. Construction began in 1965 and the library opened for business in 1967.
“Founded in 1832, Jefferson Market was one of the principal food markets of the city and was readily recognizable by its wooden fire-lookout tower.”
—from “New York’s Greenwich Village” 1968
by Edmund T. Delaney (1914–2000)
What follows are some of the better-known, even sensational trials that took place at the Third Judicial District Courthouse, now the Jefferson Market Library. The name for its present-day use comes from the city’s principal markets, founded in 1832 and named for America’s third president, that once stood on this land.
In 1907, a sensational trial focused national attention on the courthouse. Harry K. Thaw (1871-1947), heir to a coal and railroad fortune, was tried for the murder of one of America’s foremost architects, Stanford White (1853–1906). Mr. Thaw committed his crime of passion out of jealousy. Mr. White had had an affair with Evelyn Nesbit, an actress and artist’s model, before her marriage to Mr. Thaw. The trial made famous the phrase, the Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, because during the course of testimony it was revealed that a red velvet swing had been installed for Miss Nesbit’s use in Mr. White’s apartment, which was located in Madison Square Garden. Thaw was acquitted on the then-novel plea of temporary insanity; and was sent to an asylum until his release in 1915.
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 testified that he was “studying human nature” in New York’s Tenderloin when the alleged solicitation occurred.
In 1909, the near-by Triangle Shirtwaist Company, was picketed by its young female employees because of its tough labor practices, including low wages for long hours, and unfair rules, such as losing half a day’s pay for taking more time for a restroom break than the floor supervisor felt was necessary. Dozens of striking workers were arrested and taken to Jefferson Market Courthouse, where they were tried in Night Court with the prostitutes in a vain attempt to shame the workers into calling off their strike.
In 1927, Mae West (1893–1980) was tried here on charges of “corrupting the morals of youth,” following a police raid of her Broadway play Sex. Miss West was fined $500. She also was given ten-days jail time; serving only eight because of good behavior. Which brings to mind her quip, “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”