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Jefferson Market Garden

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Where some went to market, and some went to jail, today’s Greenwich Villagers tend the Jefferson Market Garden in the shade of the landmark Jefferson Market Courthouse.

Named for Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, the Jefferson Market opened on this site in 1833, alongside a police court, a volunteer firehouse, and a jail. The market grew rapidly to include fishmongers, poultry vendors, and hucksters. It was razed in 1873 to make way for a new civic complex and courthouse.

The Jefferson Market Courthouse, with its fire-watch bell tower, and lighted clock dial, was designed by Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux, and built in 1877. The ornate courthouse struck the New York Times as inappropriate for such a shoddy neighborhood—“a jewel in a pig’s snout.” Nonetheless, architects polled in 1895 deemed the building to be the fifth most beautiful in the United States. While Vaux believed that the cells should be “strong, secure, and entirely unattractive,” he created a six-tiered structure that allowed some light to penetrate and air to circulate. At the turn of the century, the triangular parcel between Sixth Avenue, Greenwich Avenue, and 10th Street was thus entirely occupied, and connected to the rest of the city by the Gilbert Elevated Railway’s Sixth Avenue line, inaugurated in 1878.

In 1927 the jail, the market, and the firehouse were demolished and replaced by the City’s only House of Detention for Women, an 11-story building designed in the French Art Deco style by Benjamin W. Levitan. By the time the Women’s House of Detention opened in 1931, the adjacent courthouse heard only cases with female defendants. Corrections Commissioner Richard Patterson introduced the facility as “undoubtedly the best institution of its kind in the United States if not indeed in the entire world.” Contemporaries noted the facility’s modern equipment, one of its most striking features being a turntable altar in the chapel, with sections fitted respectively for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish services.

Use of public transportation declined during the Depression, and the clattering elevated railways were criticized for lowering property values. The 6th Avenue line was demolished in 1939. Amendments to the district court system in 1945 led to the abandonment of the courthouse, which was to be sold by auction in 1959. The Greenwich Village Association (GVA), led by Margot Gayle and Verna Small, campaigned forcefully to preserve the building, and won their first victory in 1961 by saving the four-sided clock in the tower. A year later Mayor Wagner agreed to establish a Village branch of the New York Public Library in the Jefferson Market Courthouse.

The Board of Estimate transferred the site to Parks in 1974, and the Jefferson Market Garden Committee, Inc., composed of Village neighborhood associations and homeowners, was entrusted with its care. Landscape architect Pamela Berdan originally designed the garden in the spirit of Frederick Law Olmsted, who co-designed Central and Prospect Parks with Calvert Vaux. The garden was planted with 10 Star and Saucer Magnolia trees, 7 Yoshino Cherry trees, 2 American Yellowwoods, 7 Thornless Honeylocusts, 10 Crabapple trees, 70 fairy hedge roses around the lawn, 60 pycarantha, and 56 holly bushes in clusters. Volunteers have since planted tulips, daffodils, and crocuses in the garden.

In the late 1960s, GVA and Community Board 2 held town meetings to discuss the removal of the Women’s House of Detention and the creation of a “passive recreation area” on the site. At the time, friends and families of inmates lingered outside the House at all hours of the day or night, yelling their news and greetings. Nearby residents were disturbed by the noise. Gawkers came to watch the scene. The facility was overcrowded and had become obsolete. The Women’s House of Detention was demolished in 1973, after 42 years of use.

A generous grant, one of the last made by the Vincent Astor Foundation, funded the new decorative steel fence, which recalls the design of the courthouse fence and unifies the site. On October 13, 1998 Mrs. Brooke Astor dedicated the fence at a ceremony attended by members of the Greenwich Village community.

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