Jefferson Market Courthouse’s path towards Landmark designation
Christopher Gray reports for The New York Times: The Courthouse That Escaped the Gavel. The Preservation of Greenwich Village’s Jefferson Market Courthouse.
The 1877 Jefferson Market Courthouse, as it appeared in 1906. Once considered dispensable, it is today a public library.
Preservationists of the 1950s who sought to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse of 1877 had no landmarks law to back them up. They labored on the romantic Victorian’s behalf for almost 10 years, inventing strategy and recruiting allies as they went along.
The delicate, multicolored tower at the Avenue of the Americas and 10th Street is hard to look at now with fresh eyes, but for those just discovering New York’s history in the mid-20th century, it was manna — a wild, competing series of masses, materials and colors, one loud “Look at me!” statement.
The super-High Victorian Gothic courthouse, designed by Frederick Clarke Withers, escaped demolition in 1910 when the planner Charles R.Lamb suggested clearing out the cobweb of streets in the West Village to create a new court center. Like many grand visionary ideas, this one sank like a stone.
The courthouse was next to a public market and a jail, both demolished in the 1920s for the Art Deco Women’s House of Detention, which by the ’50s was known for the inmates shouting out the windows at husbands, boyfriends and passers-by. For people who lived within half a block, this didn’t disturb the peace; it destroyed it. Neighbors clamored for its destruction.
The taint of the House of Detention, a crisp although hardly surpassing structure, clung to the courthouse, even though by the 1950s it was a civil defense office. So in 1956, when the architect Vito P. Battistaestimated the cost of converting the House of Detention into something else, he also included the price tag for redoing the courthouse — astronomical, he said. In that year the stars began to align in favor of the courthouse’s demolition. Its proximity to the House of Detention, and the lack of a plan for its reuse, would seem a death knell for any preservation project.
But the same year The New Yorker seemed to chime in for saving it, calling the courthouse “a dingy, invincibly romantic confection” and lamenting that “this is a city notoriously careless of what it possesses.” But the magazine acknowledged the typical mid-20th-century point of view that the building was “a comic blunder.”
Into this fray came Edgar T. Hussey, the president of the West Side Savings Bank, who proposed in 1958 clear-cutting the site for an apartment house, a 500-seat theater and a community center. The Village Independent Democrats were on a similar page, proposing an art center with a large plaza in 1959.