The landmarked Jefferson Market Library that sits between Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Avenue and Tenth Street had a fascinating prior life. The building was formerly a courthouse, with a prison next door where the garden is today, itself replacing a dingy police court over a saloon and a wooden fire tower. In 1967, just under a decade after being saved from demolition through community efforts and years of renovation, the building was reopened as a New York Public Library branch.
We previously covered the history and architecture of the Jefferson Market Library as the building campaigned for renovation funds to restore its main entrance through Partners in Preservation, and we were excited to learn through an after hours exploration with the New York Adventure Club that this restoration will take place starting 2017, opening up the lobby as a new public space and revealing the building’s high vaulted Victorian ceilings.
On the tour, we climbed the 149 steps along a winding metal staircase from the basement, which is now a reading room, to the clock tower and outside of it. Several of the original wooden clock hands of the tower are still stored at the very top level, along with a spider from the Halloween parade.
One of the original clock hands
The Halloween spider
In 1961 the clock in the tower was electrified as a result of efforts by Greenwich Village citizens. The construction of the building reveals itself clearly in the tower–with exposed red brick, curved stone walls, and metal railings.
The views of Greenwich Village and beyond are also spectacular:
Back in the basement, the exposed brick and stone walls make it easy to imagine the building’s incarceration past, despite the fact that the building itself did not have a jail. Notable names that were locked up in the old courthouse jail cells next door, also known as the Women’s House of Detention, included Mae West, Angela Davis, and Andrea Dworkin, Holly Woodlawn (before it was discovered she was really a man).
The basement contrasts with the noble limestone detailing and stained glass windows of the upper floors, and you can see where architect Fredrick Clarke Withers drew inspiration from the London Law Courts.
Next, check out 6 hidden alleys and private streets in Greenwich Village. Get in touch with the author @untappedmich. Information also provided by Corey William Schneider, founder of New York Adventure Club.