Jefferson Market Library (formerly Third District Judicial Courthouse)
The Third District Judicial Courthouse ca. 1880 (New York Historical Society, via the Library of Congress)
Jefferson Market Library today (ground view)
Jefferson Market Library (aerial view)
Jefferson Market pediment, depicting a scene from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
Backstory and Context
Although credited to both English-born Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux - the latter is famous for co-designing Central Park with Frederick Olmstead - the courthouse, as well as the then-adjacent prison, were designed solely by Withers in the Victorian Gothic style, inspired by the English writer John Ruskin, and it is considered his best-known work. The project was highly controversial: citizen protests and contract disputes marked its construction. However, the final cost of not only the courthouse, but all of the complex’ buildings, was less than $360,000 – quite a bargain, since the estimated cost for the original (unused) design ran to millions of dollars!
The building originally included a police court, which later served as a night court, on the ground floor and a district court on the second floor. Harry K. Thaw, the infamous killer of architect Stanford White, was arraigned and imprisoned there in 1906. In 1909, striking female workers from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were arrested and taken to the night court there. This was to humiliate the proper young ladies: during this era, prostitutes were frequently brought into night court. (Two years later, many young women in that same factory would die in a notorious and horrific fire.)
Due to redistricting, the building stopped being used as a courthouse in 1945, and for over a decade thereafter it was employed for many purposes, including as a police academy. After the building was abandoned in 1958, many local people of prominence, including the preservationist Margot Gayle, the historian Lewis Mumford, poet e.e. cummings and actor Maurice Evans banded together to save first the clock tower, then the building itself. In 1961, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner announced that the building would be converted into a library. Architect Giorgio Cavaglieri was hired in 1965 to completely convert the abandoned building, and he accomplished the task in only two years.
The library has a children’s reading room where the police court used to be, and an adult reading room where the district court once was. A reference library, which contains many volumes (some rare) on the history of New York, is located in the basement. The exterior is faced in red brick with Black brick and yellow sandstone trim; its cornice and frieze are made of granite. At the northeast corner is a tower with an iron balcony and pyramidal roof, with a prominent four-faced clock at the top. The structure contains many gables and stained-glass windows. The tympanum above the library’s entryway contains a bas-relief sculpture representing the climactic courtroom scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In 1996, the old fire bell in the tower rang for the first time in over a century.