The women’s prison in the middle of the Village

It’s doubtful that today’s Greenwich Village residents would allow the city to put up a fortress-like jail behind Jefferson Market, the 19th century courthouse-turned-library at Sixth and Greenwich Avenues.

But the Village was different in the 1930s. When city officials decided to replace an old jail that was part of Jefferson Market, they weren’t met with NIMBY opposition.

So in 1932, the Women’s House of Detention opened.

Modern and bright (WPA murals lined the walls), it focused on reforming the inmates, often charged with prostitution.

There were some illustrious inmates, held for other crimes, like Ethel Rosenberg, Angela Davis, and Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol in 1968.

Longtime Village residents still miss the street theater: Inmates on higher floors catcalled men on the street and cussed out visiting boyfriends and husbands on the sidewalk below.

By the 1960s, it was overcrowded and as unsafe as the jail it replaced. Closed in 1971 (inmates were shipped off the Rikers Island), the building was bulldozed in 1974.

A lovely garden was planted in its place.

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24 Responses to “The women’s prison in the middle of the Village”

  1. Joly MacFie Says:

    Thanks. This has resolved a question that has long nagged at the back of my mind. I first visited NYC in 1980 and stayed in 33 Greenwich Avenue in an apartment that overlooked the site. I was told it was the former Women’s House of Detention. Until this day I have wondered how they fitted all those criminal women into Jefferson Market. Now I am wiser.

  2. Josie Says:

    Dorothy Day (co-founder of the Catholic Worker) and Judith Malina (co-founder of the Living Theater) and others were imprisoned in the WHD for a month in the summer of 1957 for refusing to take shelter during the mandatory air raid drills.

  3. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Just look at the scant amount of people walking the streets, the Village was certainly a lot different from what we know now. And also look at the advertising on the buildings, no Starbuck’s here, that’s for sure. I used to walk with my mother to the 6th Ave bus that would take her downtown to work; buses going downtown on 6th Ave in those days, yet the tough women would always curse down at us from up above. “Ignore them,” said my mother, but I never did, always fascinated by what they were shouting us to do. Rather interesting at that, I thought, as I’d drop off my mother at a bus stop then wander down the empty city streets.

    • wildnewyork Says:

      One of the building ads is for Bigelow’s drugstore, probably the only thing that’s stayed the same.

  4. Bam-Bam Says:

    Grace Paley wrote a short essay about her incarceration there.

  5. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Look at the Rooms (to Let?) sign hanging from the building on 8th St and 6th Ave, must have had a lot of continuous emptying tenants on that corner with an elevated train running tight through, whew!.

  6. BabyDave Says:

    It was very engaging to observe the back-and-forth between those incarcerated upstairs and their visitors on the sidewalk.

    Man below: “I’m waiting for you baby. You know I love you.”

    Woman in window: “You just stay away from my cousin Raquel, you hear? And I told you that brother of yours was no good. What was he doing talking to the police about me anyway?”

    Man: “It’s all going to be OK, baby, trust me.”

    Woman: “I’ll trust you a lot more when you’re back with my bail money.

    It was truly astounding street theater.

  7. Bowery Boy Says:

    In addition to the Living Theater’s Judith Malina, Mae West also did time there.

    • Walk About New York Says:

      To the Bowery Boy : I do not think it was at WHD where Mae West served her time for indecency. My understanding is that she was detained in the jail that was connected to the Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1929, just before it was demolished, making way for the WHD.

  8. Josie Says:

    The Sixth Avenue El was taken down in or about 1939, shortly after that picture was taken.

    In the late 1950s, a group of people including the Becks and Dorothy Day would gather on the street below the prison on Christmas Eve to sing carols for the prisoners.

  9. wildnewyork Says:

    I have to do a post on Dorothy Day soon. A curious and interesting person.

  10. Lisa Says:

    Tom Wolfe documented the what this intersection was like in the ’60’s, in The Candy Colored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby chapter “Voices of the Village Square” (Google Books link below:)

    T Wolfe

  11. marilyn Says:

    I remember the cat calling, walking past the women’s prison as a child in the 50’s & 60’s.

  12. The West Village courthouse inspired by a castle | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] The fantastical Jefferson Market building—with its turrets, gables, stained glass, and incredible clock tower—started out in 1877 as a courthouse and jail (including a notorious women’s prison). […]

  13. V R Says:

    I felt like I had to comment on this. You can see footage of this jail in “White Slaves of Chinatown”, one of Joseph P. Mwarma’s “Olga” movies that use to be shown in Times Square grindhouses. It’s a pretty interesting snapshot of a dark period in Village history during the 60s.

  14. An incredible map of 1930s Greenwich Village | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] is the same, the landmarks Sarg illustrates so lovingly depicts don’t always exist anymore. Jefferson Market prison, the Washington Square Bookshop, the Village Barn, Luchow’s, and Wanamaker’s department […]

  15. Looking down Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Avenue at West 10th Street looks about the same today, right? Well, except for the notorious women’s prison building hiding behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse turned […]

  16. Walk About New York Says:

    My Greenwich Village Walking Tour [] includes the present-day Jefferson Market Greening (a.k.a. Garden). I talk about what once dominated the area from that plot of land. It is always helpful to read more about a tour sight. Thanks.

  17. New Yorker Says:

    The film, “House of D” is about a boy who makes friends with a woman who is incarcerated. It wasn’t very believable, but was enjoyable.

  18. What remains of Jefferson Market’s police court | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] thanks to the fortress-like building that provided terrific street theater for decades, the Women’s House of Detention, built in 1929 and demolished in […]

  19. trilby1895 Says:

    WHD, now garden; wasn’t that the location of one of the characters in “Sex and the City” – the redhead – I think it was her wedding. Come to think of it, I wonder if producers of the program were aware of the “woman” aspect of that location and chose it for that reason….

  20. Everything you need to know about Greenwich Village in one map from 1961 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Village Nursing Home (third image) is still a nursing home, not a luxury residence. The Women’s House of Detention boxes in Jefferson Market Courthouse, which hasn’t been repurposed as an NYPL library branch […]

  21. Everything you need to know about the Greenwich Village of 1961 in one map | 1960s: Days of Rage Says:

    […] remain. The Village Nursing Home (third image) is still a nursing home, not a luxury residence. The Women’s House of Detention boxes in Jefferson Market Courthouse, which hasn’t been repurposed as an NYPL library branch yet. […]

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