The Jefferson Market building is currently operating as a branch of the New York Public Library, a relatively new development in the building’s long and complex history. Designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux, the building was erected between the years 1875 and 1877 at the cost of $360,000 and initially served as the Third Judicial District Courthouse. For nearly 100 years, citizens of Greenwich Village were tried there and often detained in the basement cells on their way to jail.
During its years as a courthouse, the Jefferson Market Building saw its fair share of famous cases, including Henry Thaw’s murder trial. Thaw, in a fit of jealousy and rage, killed architect Stanford White on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906. However, Thaw’s long history of mental illness saved him from the death penalty, and he was instead sentenced to be institutionalized for life.
More famous trials include the hosts of women who were arrested for protesting the conditions at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. These strikes did little to change the working conditions, which led to the infamous fire that killed more than 100 young workers.
In 1929, the adjacent market and prison were torn down, making way for a new women’s detention center. The courthouse subsequently began to try exclusively women until the courts were moved from the building in 1945. The NYPD then acquired the building and used it for riot training. 13 years later, the building was abandoned, left to gather dust and vermin.
The Jefferson Market Building was once an invaluable asset to the surrounding neighborhood, but this New York City gem almost did not survive to the present day. Despite an architectural committee voting it one of the 10 most beautiful buildings in America, the building was set for demolition in 1959. Thanks to the support of the public, as well as many notable celebrities of the era, the city did not follow through on its plans. Instead, the building became a library.
The rich history of this building makes it the perfect place to store the city’s wealth of knowledge. For example, all the reference books are stored in the old brick basement. The low vaulted arched chamber is both beautiful and reminiscent of when the room was used to house prisoners temporarily. Now, visitors can sit among the ancient pillars and read about the history of the city or any other subject of interest.
Located at 425 Avenue of the Americas, the library is open to the public six days a week. The old women’s detention center has been torn down in favor of a garden, making the Jefferson Market a perfect place to enjoy an afternoon in Greenwich Village. In addition, once a year, the Open House New York program offers tours of the tower, giving a handful of lucky people a chance to experience this historic view of Greenwich.