New York is rich with creatively repurposed buildings. A once-stately Spring Street bank is now a Duane Reade. The shelves of a elegant Fifth Avenue bookstore now carry lipstick and nail polish sold by a makeup brand.
And the magnificent Jefferson Market Courthouse building (above, in 1878, a year after completion) on Sixth Avenue and Tenth Streets—with its Gothic turrets and stained glass loveliness—has been a New York Public Library branch since 1967.
It’s a terrific place to read. But perhaps the best part is that the interior contains the remnants of its late 19th century use as a police court (with an adjacent jail).
Jefferson Market was one of several local courts at the time that handled neighborhood crimes.
Head down the spiral staircase to the basement reference room, where long arched hallways, doorways, and a main area are lined with brick.
This is where the holding cells once were for the parade of (alleged) drunks, prostitutes, and petty thieves taken in by cops.
There was room for 138 suspects. Here they bided their time until brought to see the judge, or waited after sentencing to be escorted to one of the city’s jails or workhouses.
Upstairs in the first-floor children’s room was the actual courtroom, with imposing Victorian Gothic-style entryways.
Suspect after suspect lined up here, pleading their cases before the magistrate brought the gavel down.
The famous and infamous made appearances along with average joes. In 1896, writer Stephen Crane came in to defend a woman arrested for solicitation who he met while “studying human nature,” as he put it.
Harry K. Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit who killed Stanford White ten years later on the roof of Madison Square Garden, also appeared before a judge here, who determined that Thaw should be held without bail and sent to the Tombs.
It must have been a circus when the night court opened in 1907. Keeping the court open through the wee hours of the next morning helped alleviate crowding, and it made it a lot easier to process the nightly haul of “prodigals” trucked down in police wagons from the vice-ridden Tenderloin district in today’s Chelsea.
“The night court in Jefferson Market sits in judgment only on the small fry caught in dragnet by police,” wrote one publication in 1910.
“Tramps, vagrants, drunkards, brawlers, disturbers of the peace, speeding chauffeurs, licenseless peddlers, youths caught red-handed shooting craps or playing ball in the streets; these are the men with whom the night court deals.”
Women, too, crowded the holding cells and courtroom. “Old—prematurely old—and young—pitifully young; white and brown; fair and faded; sad and cynical; starved and prosperous; rag-draped and satin-bedecked; together they wait their turn at judgment.”
For women especially, night court became a tactic of intimidation. Since most of the other females there were prostitutes, the association with them was supposed to intimidate “nice girls” under arrest.
This was the goal when striking shirtwaist workers were deposited at Jefferson Market in 1909, according to the NYPL history site. But the female strikers didn’t break (strikers leaving a police wagon and entering the courthouse, above).
Jefferson Market’s police court days were over by 1940, though the building retained its association with criminal justice, thanks to the fortress-like jail that provided terrific street theater for decades, the Women’s House of Detention, built in 1929 and demolished in 1973.
Today, the site of the women’s jail is now a beautiful garden behind the restored and beloved (and thankfully saved from demolition in the 1960s) Jefferson Market Library.
Take a walk around the library and grounds, and feel the presence of a rougher, wilder slice of the city. Now, can anyone shed light on who the old man on the exterior fountain might be?
[First image: Alamy; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: Greenwich Village History; seventh image: unknown; eighth image: Jefferson Market Garden]