Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Jefferson Market Library

The Jefferson Market Library today.
The Jefferson Market Courthouse and the Women's House of Detention in the '40s.
The 6th Avenue elevated line in front of the courthouse in the '30s.
Walking along lower Sixth Avenue, it's hard to miss the striking Jefferson Market Library and Garden, at the intersection of West 10th Street and 6th Avenue, a masterpiece in architecture built from 1873-7 that has just recently reopened after some renovations inside, but is still covered in scaffolding.  Walking down there to take a few pictures, I saw it was open for business again and took a look around inside.  The building really is a work of art, inside and out, and as I walked up the spiral staircase to the upper floors I saw inscribed on the circular wall quotes about justice and the law written in intricate gothic lettering.  On the upper and ground floors are ornately carved wooden entrances.  What's now the children's book room, with picture books, a group reading area and computers for teens only, were once the police courts where sensational trials of the likes of Henry K. Thaw and Mae West were held in the early twentieth century; Thaw for the murder of his wife's former lover, architect Stanford White, West for obscenity.  In the basement, there are a couple of arched castle-like entranceways to the former civil court, where the adult computers  and periodicals are.  Sherlock Holmes did his research down there in 1971's "They Might Be Giants".

Several merchants' sheds were set up on the land in 1832, along with the Jefferson Market Assembly Rooms that held trials, named for the late President, and, the following year, a large, octagon-shaped wooden fire tower in the center of the triangular plot formed by the intersection of West 10th Street, 6th and Greenwich Avenues.  Remaining for only a few decades, in 1873 new red-brick, richly decorated victorian structures began to be built in it's place, completed in ten years.  Of the nicely matching picturesque group that consisted of a courthouse, jail and merchants' sheds, only the courthouse remains.  The new, imposing tower and surrounding buildings were based on Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, built for King Ludwig II from 1869 to 1886.  (Only a few blocks away, oddly enough, on the southeast corner of 17th and 7th, directly across from a bank I used to always go to when I worked at Alger, was the last home of Lola Montez, who's catch-phrase inspired the song "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets".  She was Ludwig II's grandfather's mistress and was once made a countess, but died on that corner in poverty in 1861.)  The old jail was torn down by the end of the 1920s, and with Art Deco masterpieces such as the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, a new Art Deco-style female prison, the Women's House of Detention, went up in 1932.  Supposedly, it was the only Art Deco prison ever built, and with it's walls and windows close to street level, the female prisoners could easily heckle passers-by.  Ruth E. Collins, the prison's first warden, called the completion of the structure "a new era in penology", and believed firmly in rehabilitation as well as punishment, and treating the women with dignity and as individuals.  She commissioned a number of works of art, most famously Lucienne Blotch's mural "Cycle of a Woman's Life from Childhood to Womanhood".  David Duchovny's directorial and writing debut, House of D, about his childhood growing up in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, is named for the prison and features it prominently.

Despite Collins' philosophy, the prison became notorious in it's final years over allegations of racial discrimination, abuse and mistreatment.  Black activist Angela Davis was outspoken about the cruel treatment she witnessed, and anti-porn feminist Angela Dworkin testified that she was assaulted by two doctors there.

The courthouse had it's last trial in 1945 and sat vacant until the late '60s, when it was slated for demolition, while contractors such as Robert Moses planned to build apartments there.  However, preservationist and Greenwich Village resident Margot Gayle enlisted the help of writer E.E. Cummings and historian Lewis Mumford and successfully persuaded the city to preserve the building and reuse it as a branch of the New York Public Library.

Instead of the courthouse, the prison, along with the famous mural was destroyed in 1974, mainly due to the bad reputation it had gained in its final years.  In its place a peaceful, well-cared-for park and garden was planted by community residents.  With benches, lush grass and healthy trees, it is one of the many intimate escapes that speckle the concrete city.  In 1996, after 135 years, the old bell in the clock tower rang out once again, putting, as the New York Times stated, "the 'Village' back in 'Greenwich Village'."  It rings every hour, on the hour, from 9AM to 9PM.

All in all, it's a relief for guys like me who appreciate the lost art form of a bygone era.  What a shame it would have been if this building had actually been demolished.  I walked around the Village a little more, and then headed home.  With Open House New York in November, I'll definitely get an early start to sign-ups and try to catch a more in-depth tour of this place.
Lucienne Blotch's "Cycle of a Woman's Life from Childhood to Adulthood".