Designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux, the Jefferson Market Courthouse was began construction in 1875 and took two years to build. The architects’ “Ruskinian gothic” style along with a large influence from the Venetian Gothic creates a grand and arresting structure. In the 1880s, the building was chosen as the fourth most beautiful building in America.
Originally the courthouse did not stand on its own but was a part of a three building complex that included a jail on the corner of West 10th Street and Greenwich Avenue and market housing. The other two buildings were torn down in 1973 and a garden now occupies those spaces. The jail, which in 1932 became the New York Women’s House of Detention famously housed actress Mae West. As the author and star of “Sex,” a big hit on Broadway, West was booked for obscenity and arrested, fined, and jailed overnight in Jefferson Market Prison on February 9, 1927. The judge at her trial inquired to West “are you trying to show contempt for this court?” and West responded sweetly, “On the contrary, your Honor,I was doin’ my best to conceal it.” The play Courting Mae West is based on these true events.
In 1945, the courthouse was shut down due to redistricting. It was then used by a number of agencies including the Police Academy. The building was empty and vacated by 1958 and plans to raze it to make way for apartments put in the works by the city but after a strong protest by preservations and the community (including the poet E.E. Cummings and the actor Maurice Evans, it was decided to convert the courthouse into a public library. The building was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1977 and in 1996, the old tower house bell was restored after 100 years of disuse and once again, rings every hour.
Jefferson Courthouse Market
425 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10011-8427 – (212) 243-4334
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