Jefferson Market Through the Years


By Brian J Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

We live with history in our built environment; history enriches our lives and gives us a sense of place. These are stories about historic places.

Parks are often the heart of a neighborhood, but public markets can serve that vital uniting function as well. A case in point is the Jefferson Market, bounded by Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Avenue, Christopher Street and West Tenth Street, forming a triangular block. Let’s explore how this block had such an outsize influence on the community.

This timeline summarizes the remarkable transformations of this one small block in the city.

The Greenwich Village Historic District designation report of 1969 (the Report) describes, “This small triangular block became the center of Greenwich Village, with city-owned buildings, in 1833, when a large market for the Village was built here. Named the Jefferson Market in honor of the President of the United States, it formed a nucleus for a small Police Court for the Second District and a small prison, all at the Greenwich Avenue end of the block. An octagonal watchtower with bell rose from the center of the block, above the small Sixth Avenue houses with stores.”

The block was called the Village Square. Before this 1833 development, the Sixth Avenue right-of way had cut through the Village to provide another north-south thoroughfare, like the other avenues.

In 1799, Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Warren’s land was acquired by a trustee of Warren’s estate, Richard Amos, who renamed Skinner Road Christopher Street, which makes Christopher Street one of the oldest streets in the Village. He also named Amos Street, shown here, which was renamed West 10th Street in 1857. Greenwich Avenue was formerly named Greenwich Lane when it connected Greenwich Village riverfront east to the Bowery, which was the main north/south thoroughfare in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

From the Report: “A dramatic renewal of this Village center, as well as enlargement to cover the entire block, occurred in the Eighteen-seventies and eighties, with the masterful design of Frederick Clarke Withers, tailor-made for its site and for the triangular shape of the block. Most of the early houses remaining here were built originally as residences with shops underneath.”

From the Report, “A handsome jail with curved end arose at the Greenwich Avenue and Tenth Street corner. It was designed by Withers in the same High Victorian architecture as the new courthouse covering the Tenth Street and Sixth Avenue corner, which still stands. A few years later arose, at the corner of Sixth and Greenwich Avenues, a new Jefferson Market in a style conforming with the other buildings. With its clocktower, gables, ornament and stained glass windows, and multitude of High Victorian Gothic details, the Jefferson Market Courthouse, tailor-made for its site, is a landmark in the best sense of the word…the famous Jefferson Market Courthouse had been designed by Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux and was built in 1874-77. It was a remarkable essay in High Victorian design for this country. These English architects drew on the finest Ruskinian Gothic and Italian Renaissance sources. At the peak of this block, the mammoth tower of the courthouse rises dramatically like the prow of a fantastic ship. The top of the tower was designed as an enclosed fire lookout with an enormous alarm bell, and it has a four-faced clock above the bell to serve the community.” The elevated IRT 6th Avenue train (1878-1938) is now an underground subway.

The Report describes thus, “Dramatic contrast is offered by the towering building which fills the block front on the east side of the (Greenwich) Avenue. This orange brick Women’s House of Detention stresses the vertical in its design. The Women’s House of Detention was built in 1929 with accommodation for 429 prisoners. It is fourteen stories high and is located at No. 10 Greenwich Avenue, adjoining the Jefferson Market Courthouse to the south. It replaces both the prison and the market building which once formed a part of the Courthouse group.”

Sloan & Robertson designed the ‘House of D’ with French-influenced decorative detail. Built to accommodate 429 prisoners awaiting trial—but often crowded way beyond that—it was connected directly to the back of the Courthouse. When I was living nearby at my friend Tony Hoffman’s apartment, activist Angela Davis was one of its later occupants, and I would hear ladies’ conversations as I passed by on the sidewalks below.

If the jail were standing today—like the detention facility at West 20th Street and 11th Avenue, touching the side of Jean Nouvel-designed luxury condos—it could have made a nice affordable or senior housing conversion.

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On March 4, 1946, the Jefferson Market court closed its doors forever.

From the Report: “After its career as a courthouse was over, it was given various uses by the City including that of Police Academy. Considerable pressure by Village groups to preserve it resulted in a happy decision, whereby it was extensively remodeled and opened in 1967 as a branch of The New York Public Library.” The new Jefferson Market Public Library branch was opened with the restoration of intricate brick and stonework by architect Giorgio Cavaglieri.

But it was not until 1973 that the House of Detention was closed and torn down. In its place is park space, its care trusted by the city to the Jefferson Market Garden Committee. The garden was originally landscaped by noted horticulturist Pamela Berdan, and today is sustained by volunteers from the community.

More restoration was done on the Public Library branch in 1994 and 2012-14. As mandated by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), all public accommodations must provide equal access to those with defined disabilities, as soon as possible. The full closure of the facility on April 2019 was to allow licensed workers to remove asbestos contaminated materials (ACM), demolish the existing, non-compliant elevator, and begin clearing the exterior site along 10th Street, where the exterior ramp would be located. The rooms facing 10th Street were gutted, ADA restrooms built on 3 floors, all connected by a new ADA elevator. The architects at WXY Architects planned an accessible path to the Lobby floor from the sidewalk with an access ramp up from the sidewalk. And by gently utilizing two window openings facing west, automatic doors are introduced at the top of the ramp landing, right at the new lobby level.

Now, this cherished landmark gets its useful accessible life extended for many years to come.

Brian J. Pape is a citizen architect in private practice, serving on the Manhattan District 2 Community Board Landmarks Committee, the State Liquor Authority Committee, and Quality of Life Committee (speaking solely in a personal, and not an official capacity), Co-chair of the American Institute of Architects NY Design for Aging Committee, is a member of AIANY Historic Buildings and Housing Committees, is a LEED-AP “Green” certified architect, and is a citizen journalist specializing in architecture subjects.