By Robert Pigott
When most New Yorkers think of courthouses, they visualize Foley Square in lower Manhattan or perhaps Court Street in Brooklyn. But there was a time when the City’s courthouses were not so centralized. If you travel to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood and walk along 42nd Street towards the East River, when you get to Fourth Avenue, you will come upon a truly majestic building. An apparently recent sign out front says “Community Board 7.” But engraved in stone over the entrances on opposite sides of the building are the words “MAGISTRATES COURT” and “MUNICIPAL COURT.” This building unlocks the story of New York City’s lost neighborhood courthouses.
Two of the oldest and grandest neighborhood courthouses are still standing: the former Jefferson Market Courthouse and the Harlem Courthouse.
Built between 1874 and 1877 as the Third Judicial District Courthouse, the Jefferson Market Courthouse, located on Sixth Avenue between Greenwich Avenue and West 10th Street, remains a Greenwich Village landmark, albeit serving a very different function. Designed in the American High Victorian Gothic style by the firm Vaux & Withers, it was built to house the Police Court and the District Court. In 1906, Henry Thaw was indicted in this courthouse for the murder of architect Stanford White, whom Thaw suspected of dallying with his wife, the former actress Evelyn Nesbit. Reflecting its judicial function, the building’s sculptural detail includes the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice. The Sixth Avenue El rumbled past the courthouse from 1878 to 1939. By 1958, the building had not been used as a courthouse for over 10 years, and the City was planning to sell the entire block to private developers. Before the enactment of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Law, a grassroots preservation group succeeded in eliciting the support of then Mayor Robert Wagner, who prevailed on the New York Public Library to acquire the building for a branch library, which it remains to this day.
Not all neighborhood courthouses were as stately as the Jefferson Market or Harlem Courthouses. For example, in the 1930s, the Fifth District Municipal Court was located in rooms above a movie theater on Broadway and 96th Street, and the public entered the courthouse through the theater lobby. With the gentrification of the Upper West Side, the movie theater that housed the courtrooms, the Riverside Theater, and the adjacent Riviera Theater were torn down in 1976, to make room for The Columbia apartment building.
The court is hidden away on a dingy side street and is virtually unknown to the fun seekers who throng to Surf Avenue, the Island’s ancient main stem, a few hundred feet away. Yet to a handful of cognoscenti who have discovered its charm, it rates as a Coney Island attraction on a par with Steeplechase Park …. Coney Island Court is one flight up in a faded tan brick-and-sandstone building which has come to be known as the Little Brown Jug at Coney Island. Downstairs in the 60-year old edifice is the 60th Precinct Police Station.
The article goes on to describe the minor miscreants coming before Magistrate Charles E. Ramsgate, ranging from bootleg knish peddlers to a man arrested for changing into his bathing suit while wearing his wife’s dress for cover. The Coney Island Magistrates’ Court was shut down in 1958, and the building that housed this courthouse/police station was torn down, replaced in 1971 with a police station–only building.
The Children’s Court’s new home, built in 1912, was the first of two courthouses to be located on East 22nd Street between Lexington Avenue and Park Avenue South, a quiet residential block near Gramercy Park. The second “Gramercy Park courthouse” was built in 1940 adjacent to the Children’s Court to house the Domestic Relations Court. (The Domestic Relations Court had been created in 1932 to assume the jurisdiction of the Children’s Court and the Family Court—not to be confused with the Family Court of broader jurisdiction created in 1962.) The adjacent courthouses would retain their judicial function until 1975, when they relocated to the new Family Court courthouse on Lafayette Street. In 1981, both courthouses were incorporated into the Baruch College campus, the main building of which is around the corner on 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue.
The Magistrates’ Court and the Municipal Court moved out of the building in, respectively, 1942 and 1960. The former courthouse then served as a YMCA until the mid-1970s, its principal courtroom on the second floor transformed into a basketball court. In 1976, the old Westside Court became the home of the American Theater for Actors, a nonprofit theater company that maintains three small theaters in the building to this day.
The West Side Court’s return as a neighborhood court occurred in 1993, when the newly-created Midtown Community Court was opened there to handle misdemeanor cases emanating from the Times Square area, such as illegal vending, prostitution, shoplifting and low-level drug possession. The theater company and the courthouse coexist apparently happily, occupying different floors of the building.
Other members of the new generation of neighborhood courthouses include the Harlem Courthouse, reactivated in 2002 under the more user-friendly name “Harlem Community Justice Center,” and the Community Justice Center, opened in 1999 on Visitation Place in Red Hook, Brooklyn. But it is unlikely that the era when neighborhood courthouses dotted the City’s streetscape will ever return.
Robert Pigott is the general counsel of a nonprofit organization and a former Section Chief and Bureau Chief of the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau. This article is based on his recent book New York’s Legal Landmarks.