Monday, April 13, 2015

April 2015 Former Lives of Libraries

Jefferson Market Branch of New York Public Library

Originally a courthouse, the Jefferson Market Library has served the Greenwich Village community for over forty years. The building, a New York City landmark,
was designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux
(who also assisted in the design of Central Park) in a Victorian Gothic
style. It was erected—along with an adjacent prison and market—between
1875 and 1877 and cost the city almost $360,000.

What the city got for its money, in addition to an architectural
gem—voted one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America by a poll
of ahitects in the 1880s—was a civil court on the second floor, now the
Adult Reading Room, and a police court, now the first-floor Children's
Room. The beautiful brick-arched basement, now the Reference Room, was
used as a holding area for prisoners on their way to jail or trial.
Scattered about the building were offices and chambers, and looming a
hundred feet above ground was the firewatcher's tower. The tower, still
intact, commands an uninterrupted view of Greenwich Village, and houses
the bell that would summon volunteer firemen.

The courthouse was the center of national attention in 1906, when
Harry K. Thaw was formally charged with homicide in the first degree -
willful murder - and committed to prison without bail for the murder of
architect Stanford White (the infamous Girl in the Red Velvet Swing
case). White's firm, McKim, Mead and White had, coincidentally,
designed 11 branch library buildings for The New York Public Library.
White's affair with chorus girl/model Evelyn Nesbit before her marriage
to Thaw was the motive in this crime of passion. Thaw was eventually
judged to be insane and was sent to an asylum until his release in 1915.
This story was later immortalized by E. L. Doctorow in his book Ragtime.

Earlier, in 1896, Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage,
testified in the courthouse on behalf of a woman he felt was unjustly
arrested for prostitution. Crane related that he was "studying human
nature" in the dicey Tenderloin area of the city, when the alleged
solicitation occurred. Front page headlines the next day praised Crane's
"chivalry and courage" for speaking out on behalf of the wrongly
accused woman.

In 1909, Triangle Shirtwaist Company workers were taken to the
Jefferson Market Courthouse and tried in night court: a tactic meant to
intimidate the female strikers arrested while protesting unfair labor
practices, as prositution cases generally filled the court's dockets at
that time. As one arrested shirtwaist maker said, "No nice girls go
there." These intimidation tactics did not succeed. The striking women's
spirits were not broken and great strides were achieved in their
working conditions.

Unfortunately, not enough changed for the better.
The factory was the site of a tragic fire in 1911, when 125 garment
workers, most very young girls, died or were killed jumping from the
factory windows to the pavement below.

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