A Unique & Beautiful Building

Mae West Was Sentenced to Prison Here

The Jefferson Market Courthouse's High Victorian Gothic architectural style makes this courthouse one of New York City's most unique buildings.  The history of the courthouse, now a library, is almost as fascinating and unique as the building itself.  

The Courthouse may be best known as the location where actress Mae West was convicted of corrupting the morals of youth with her scandalous play SEX in 1927.  She spent one night in a prison next to the Courthouse.  Fined $500, West was sentenced to nine additional days in a prison on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island).  Sound like a great publicity stunt, right?  Mae sang the rauchy song, "Honey, Let Yo’ Drawers Hang Lo," in the play's Montreal brothel setting.  Advertisements warned:  "If you cannot stand excitement -- see your doctor before visiting Mae West in Sex."  The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice closed down the play after its run of 40 weeks.  Two months afterwards, the incident would result in a N.Y. State ban on any play dealing with "sexual perversion."  

Constructed from 1874 to 1877, this red brick/limestone building was designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux (the co-designer of Central Park). The design is similar to that of the Neuschwanstein Castle of Ludwig II in Bavaria.  In 1885, Jefferson Market Courthouse was named one of the fifth most beautiful buildings in America by the American Architect and Buildings News.  The clock tower had bells that were once rung to alert volunteer firemen of neighborhood's fires. 

Named after Thomas Jefferson, the courthouse had a civil court and police court, an adjacent market, and jail with a holding area for prisoners (now the library's basement).  The building's belfry served as a firemen's watch.  By 1927 only women prisoners were tried at the courthouse and the prison had become the Women's House of Detention.  The prison was demolished and replaced by a garden in 1973.

There were other notorious cases held here.  Author Stephan Crane (Red Badge of Courage) once testified in defense of a prostitute who had accused the police of harassment.  Crane became familiar with the case while serving as a Police Court reporter for the New York Journal newspaper.  He had developed an empathy for prostitutes when writing one of his lesser known novels, Maggie:  A Girl of the StreetsHis testimony was both praised and condemned.  The author was humiliated and his reputation was ruined.  He took a reporting assignment in Cuba and left New York City.  

Harry K. Thaw, the murderer of renowned architect, Stanford White, was remanded here.  Thaw’s actress wife had been seduced by White when she was 15 years old.  Thaw shot White in the face at Madison Square Garden’s roof top theater during a performance of the musical number, "I Could Love a Thousand Girls."  E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, a 1981 film, and a 1998 Broadway musical all told the story.   

Over the years, the condition of this building deteriorated, and, by 1950, it closed.  Village residents fought to stop its demolition.  This fight was led by Margot Gayle, architectural critics, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and poet, E.E. Cummings (who lived across the street at Patchin Place).  They raised money through a Committee of Neighbors to Get the Clock on Jefferson Market Courthouse Started.  In 1961, it was announced that the building would be converted into a public library.  Architect Giorgio Cavaglieri resigned the building’s interior and construction was completed in 1968.  

Before 9/11, a glance downtown from the corner of Sixth Avenue and Tenth Street presented a fantastic distant view of the original World Trade Center at sunset as the sun glistened off their silvery towers.  Today’s view offers an equally beautiful view of the new One World Trade Center.