Site of the Women's House of Detention (1932-1974)
The Women's House of Detention
The site as it appears today
Lucienne Bloch, a WPA muralist, at work in the prison
FBI wanted posted for Angela Davis, who was held at the House of Detention
Backstory and Context
Construction on the Women’s House of Detention began around 1930 on the site of the former Jefferson Market Prison and next to Jefferson Market Courthouse. The building was unique in its use of the Art Deco style of architecture and was reportedly the world’s only prison built in this style. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Sloan & Robertson and cost $2 million, a staggering sum at the time.
The old Jefferson Market Prison was demolished after a flood of criticism regarding the treatment of prisoners. Its replacement was intended to be a modern, humane facility and even included WPA artists' murals. Though the prison was built to house 457 women, at its worst, it housed more than 700, which forced women to share small cells in often unsanitary conditions.
A look at former inmates of the Women’s House of Detention reads like a social history of the United States. Among its many prisoners—who were notorious in the Village for going to the windows and shouting down to family, friends, lovers, and pimps on the street—were a who’s who of twentieth-century culture. The actress Mae West was once imprisoned here on obscenity charges for her performance in the Broadway play, Sex. Ethel Rosenberg, who would eventually be executed for espionage and her husband, was held there during her trial. Afeni Shakur, a member of the Black Panthers and future mother of Tupac Shakur, was imprisoned here after she and other Panthers were arrested for their plan to bomb several New York City locations.
In the 1960s, the prison, which had previously been seen largely as a nuisance because of the "street theater" which erupted when friends and family yelled up to prisoners at the windows, developed a darker reputation. Several high-profile prisoners exposed the widespread abuse and brutality within the House of Detention. Feminist Andrea Dworkin was held in the House of D, as it was known, following her arrest at an anti-war protest. Angela Davis, another Black Panther, was imprisoned here for a year after guns belonging to her were used in an attack in a California courtroom, leaving four people dead. Both women would later publish accounts of the abuse they experienced and witnessed, which would lead to increased calls for the prison to be closed.
In 1971, the last of the prisoners were moved from the House of Detention to Rikers Island, a move that critics argued would only isolate the women from their community. In 1974, the building was demolished despite calls for the building to be used for housing. Today, a park occupies the corner lot where the House of Detention once stood.
Apmann , Sarah Bean . The Women's House of Detention , Village Preservation . January 29th 2018. Accessed February 24th 2021. https://www.villagepreservation.org/2018/01/29/the-womens-house-of-detention/.
Bareau , Penelope . Past Prisons: Inside the Lives of 7 Former NYC Jails , 6sqft. April 10th 2017. Accessed February 24th 2021. https://www.6sqft.com/past-prisons-inside-the-new-lives-of-7-former-nyc-jails/.
Davis , Angela . Prison Memoirs: The New York Women's House of Detention , The Village Voice . October 10th 1974. Accessed February 24th 2021. https://www.villagevoice.com/2020/12/04/prison-memoirs-the-new-york-womens-house-of-detention/.