When local residents of Greenwich Village head to their local library, they see more than just books and periodicals. That is because the Jefferson Market Library is an architectural gem steeped with history.
The Jefferson Market Branch of the New York Public Library is located at 425 Sixth Avenue at the corner of 10th Street. The building was originally built as the Third Judicial Courthouse from 1874-1877 and was designed by architects Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux (who also was involved in designing Central Park).
When it was completed the second floor (now the adult reading room) was a civil court and the first floor was home to a police court. The current reference room in the basement was formerly a holding area for prisoners.
Above the three floors is a one hundred foot clock tower. It once offered an unrestricted view of Greenwich Village and was used as a fire watcher’s balcony. The original bell which alerted volunteer firemen is still hanging in the tower.
One of the most famous cases to be tried in the building took place in 1906. That is when Harry K. Thaw faced justice for the murder of architect Stanford White. Despite killing White, Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
By 1927 the courts were used only for the trials of women. In 1929 the market and co-ed prison were knocked down and replaced by the Women’s House of Detention.
Mae West was tried here on obscenity charges when her Broadway play Sex became a target of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. West received a $500 fine, one day next door in the Women’s House of Detention and nine days at the workhouse on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island). The House of Detention was knocked down in 1973 and replaced by a community garden.
By 1959, the structure was abandoned and the city planned to knock it down and replace it with apartments. Village community members rallied to save the building and in 1961, Mayor Robert F. Wagner announced that it would be preserved and converted into a public library.
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