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Architecture Reflecting Society

Berenice Abbott working for the Federal Art Project in 1935, again, this time taking a portrait of the Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village. Not to take anything away from Abbott, who was an amazing photographer, but it’s hard to take a bad picture of that building. It’s such an over-the-top architectural collection of styles that there’s always something to stare at. The big building on the far left side of the shot is the second prison associated with the courthouse. The first was built at more or less the same time as the courthouse, in the 1870s; this one was constructed in 1931, replacing both the first prison and the Jefferson Market buildings. The second prison was torn down in 1971 and replaced by the current garden.

The Sixth Avenue el runs across the picture as a good reminder that, however nice the views from the els may have been, they intruded on every view of the surrounding area from the street. The courthouse facade was never clearly visible until the el was demolished in 1939, since the el was built more or less simultaneously (by accident, of course) as the building.

Every once in a while I’ll look at a surviving nineteenth-century public building like the courthouse, or a photo of a demolished one like the original 1838 House of Detention, AKA the Tombs, and it occurs to me that the architecture was aspirational. The interior of the Jefferson market Courthouse had a few nice rooms but was mostly utilitarian; the interior of the Tombs was famously terrible, with tiny cells that suffered endless damp from the buried Collect Pond nearby. The ornate exterior of these buildings was a show of civilization, particularly given their functions, hiding the less-good interiors.

The Tombs, in all its Egyptian-Revival glory

New York has never had a consistent architectural style. The vaguely Egyptian Tombs was built at the same time that Federal-style rowhouses were being constructed, and shortly before the Greek-Revival Federal Hall. People looking for architectural coherence generally prefer other cities. What has always been true here is that architectural effect has been used symbolically. Roman colonnades gave banks permanence, symbolically. Gothic pinnacles gave churches historical weight, symbolically, even when the pinnacles are meaningless because there are no flying buttresses. Extreme height gives buildings symbolic importance, even when they’re simply rental space.

In this context, having a madman’s castle as a local courthouse in Greenwich Village makes sense as a symbolic expression of the majesty of the law. Maybe.