Jefferson Market Courthouse
As known as "Old Jeff"
Jefferson Market Courthouse was the center of one of New York City’s first grassroots preservation campaigns and an early example of a successful adaptive reuse project.
Jefferson Market Courthouse was built by architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Withers in 1876, as part of a group of brick and limestone buildings in an area called Jefferson Market. The structure, designed in the Venetian Gothic style, was created with leaded glass, steeply sloping roofs, gables, pinnacles, Venetian Gothic embellishments, and an intricate tower and clock.1 In 1885, a national poll of architects gave the courthouse a fifth place ranking amongst the most beautiful buildings in America. It cost $360,000 to build and housed a police court, a civil court, and a basement where prisoners were held before they went to jail. However, by 1950, the courthouse structure was dark and vacant, and faced demolition.2
The Jefferson Market Courthouse is currently a branch of the New York Public Library system. It is located in Greenwich Village on Sixth Avenue between 8th and 10th Streets. On 8th Street there is a community garden where the former Women's Detention Center was located.
1950: Jefferson Market Courthouse is vacant and faces demolition
1958: Jefferson Market Courthouse’s doors officially close
June 30, 1960: A drive to save the courthouse commences
October 16, 1960: The clock above the courthouse starts ticking again
By 1950, the Jefferson Market Courthouse had been vacant for five years, and faced demolition. The building's doors were closed in 1958. Pending demolition, the courthouse's neighboring Greenwich Village residents rallied to its defense.3 As part of the strategy to save the courthouse, the Villagers first sought to restore the clock atop of the building. Preservation activists, such as Margot Gayle, spearheaded the formation of the Committee of Neighbors to Get the Clock on Jefferson Market Courthouse Started. She launched a grassroots campaign to raise money to fix the clock. Villagers themselves, as well as several others who contributed, raised the required funds to restore the clock. By October 16, 1960, the community had raised enough money to fix the clock, and it began ticking again.
Villagers then rallied to save the entire structure. In 1961, they formed the Committee for a Library in the Jefferson Market Courthouse. City officials responded to these efforts with the necessary protective actions and capital funds to ensure a useful future for the structure.4 High ranking officials such as Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., Democratic leader Carmine De Sapio, and Republican State Senator MacNeil Mitchell, all supported the preservation of the courthouse and its reuse as a branch of the New York Public Library.5 A noted architect, Giorgio Cavaglieri, was enlisted for the adaptive reuse of the structure. Cavaglieri's adaptive reuse of the Jefferson Market Courthouse was an incredibly involved endeavor. He began with four years of preliminary study, then integrated modern library facilities, such as air conditioning, elevators, and furniture. He took many photos of the original building in order to ensure that the stained glass windows and black walnut doors would be restored accurately. All of the new features that he added to improve the structure were contemporary and modern in style.6
- For more information regarding Margot Gayle's involvement in the campaign to save the Jefferson Market Courthouse Clock see: Charles Hosmer, Interview with Margot Gayle. Under the auspices of the Eastern National Park and Monument Association. 23 June 1982. University of Maryland Libraries Collection.
- Oral History with Giorgio Cavaglieri, Margot Gayle, Carol Greitzer, Whitney North Seymour, Jr., and Ruth Wittenberg
New York Preservation Archive Project
174 East 80th Street
New York, NY 10075
Tel: (212) 988-8379
- Norval White and Elliot Willensky, A.I.A. Guide to New York City (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1968).
- Village Neighborhood Committee for the Clock on the Jefferson Market Courthouse, bulletin, January 1965.
- Village Opens Fight for ‘Old Jeff,'” New York Herald Tribune, 11 June 1961; Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2007), page 281.
- Douglas Martin, “Giorgio Cavaglieri, Urban Preservationist, Dies at 95,” The New York Times, 18 May 2007.