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Behind the Book: Five Locations in Manhattan Where Justice Has Been Served

Everyone who writes anything about the history of New York quickly comes to realize that the city has not always been about office towers and skyscrapers. New York, in the half-century from 1880 to 1930, was distinctive among American cities for the beauty of its architecture but tragically, in the rush to build bigger and higher, the majority of its most striking buildings have disappeared. The destruction of Penn Station in 1963 remains the most notorious demolition of a landmark building but there have been many others. Here are five Manhattan buildings, all associated in some way with crime and criminal justice; two have survived and now serve a different purpose.

 

The Tombs Prison

The original city jail was a nondescript building erected in 1840 on marshland in lower Manhattan. The land had not been properly drained and the ground-floor cells were damp and unsanitary and in 1902 the city built a new prison, also nicknamed the Tombs, on the site. The exterior of the new building was strikingly attractive, rather similar in appearance to a French chateau, but the interior was horrendous: eight tiers of small, windowless cells, all blisteringly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

 

The Criminal Courts Building

The court system in New York has always been excessively complex. Many distinct courts, each with a different purpose, coexisted within the Criminal Courts Building, a massive granite structure facing Centre Street. Franklin Street separated the courthouse from the Tombs prison, but an enclosed passageway four stories above street level, known as the Bridge of Sighs, connected the two buildings. The Tombs held only those prisoners awaiting trial and each morning guards would escort their wards across the bridge to the courthouse for the disposition of their cases.

 

Police Headquarters

The Beaux-Arts police headquarters on Centre Street, tucked away in the center of Little Italy, is one of the most beautiful buildings in Manhattan yet many New Yorkers remain unaware of its existence. The NYPD abandoned the building in 1973 to move to a Brutalist monstrosity near the Brooklyn Bridge and the former headquarters was converted to condominiums.

Jefferson Market Courthouse

The firm of Vaux and Withers designed the courthouse for the Third Judicial District in the Victorian Gothic style and the building, now a library, still stands on West 10th Street, at the northern perimeter of Greenwich Village. The clock tower, in red brick and white granite, makes the former courthouse instantly recognizable today.

 

Madison Square Garden

This magnificent Renaissance Revival landmark, designed by Stanford White in 1890, was the scene of the most notorious murder in New York’s history. Evelyn Nesbit, an actress, had accused White of rape and her husband, Harry Thaw, shot and killed white during a performance of Mamzelle Champagne. Madison Square Garden was never profitable and it was demolished in 1925.

 

Simon Baatz is a New York Times-bestselling author and award-winning historian. He has graduate degrees in history from the University of Pennsylvania and Imperial College London, and he currently teaches United States history and American legal history at John Jay College, City University of New York. Simon grew up in London and has lived in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Frankfurt am Main, Germany. THE GIRL ON THE VELVET SWING is available now.