Old New York In Photos #73 – Jefferson Market Courthouse

Jefferson Market Courthouse, Greenwich Village – 1885

An 1897 book, The Greater New York Guide Book, Manhattan Historic and Artistic by Cynthia M. Westover Alden described the Jefferson Market Courthouse quite simply as “an irregular but unique and handsome structure, built of red brick and sandstone, in the Italian Gothic style.”

In 1885 at 9:25 in the morning according to the clock in its tower, James R. Osgood photographed the Jefferson Market Courthouse for American Architect and Building News.

Since originally being published, this crisp and clear photo has remained unseen for over 130 years.

This view looking southwest is one that has changed in 130 years. but would still be recognizable to any resident of Greenwich Village today. The courthouse still stands on its irregular plot of land at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 10th Street and is the pride of Village residents.

When completed in 1877 by architect Frederick Clarke Withers, the Jefferson Market Courthouse was the epitome of stylish Victorian design. As can be seen in the photograph, surrounding the courthouse along 9th Street, Greenwich Avenue and part of 10th Street was the original Jefferson Market, which began functioning in 1832. The group of buildings housed butchers, fish peddlers and produce dealers. Over the years however, the market became home to a magistrate’s court, a women’s court and a series of cells to temporarily hold women prisoners.

The Jefferson Market was demolished in 1929 for a building that would become the Women’s House of Detention. While excavating on the site for the prison, the workers hit upon the Old Minetta Creek. A 25 foot diameter space quickly filled with 10 feet of water and several pumps were needed to drain the site. The new jail was opened in 1932 and was closed in 1973. A garden now occupies the site.

Getting back to the Jefferson Market Courthouse, it stopped being used as a courthouse in 1946. For years the building sat vacant and the courthouse site was drooled over by real estate developers anxious to put up an apartment building. Neighborhood preservationists lead by attorney Howard Wittenberg and Margot Gayle formed a group to save the courthouse from demolition. Their idea was to have the city convert the building into a library. This was in 1961, before the creation of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission. Amazingly the group was successful and the Jefferson Market Library was opened in 1967. The building has been renovated but still retains its charm and many of its original details.

The Sixth Avenue Elevated in the foreground was closed in 1938 and gone in 1939. To the right of the courthouse, the group of three story buildings featuring the “Milk Dairy” sign along Sixth Avenue have survived into the 21st century with minor modifications.

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