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The Jefferson Market Library: A Striking Landmark Shines Again

To those who had grown accustomed to keeping time by glancing at the four-faced clock on the grand tower of the Jefferson Market Library, the past several years have been an adjustment, to say the least.

Today, however, we are delighted to share that the much-needed rehabilitation of this beloved city landmark has been completed on the Sixth Avenue and West 10th Street facades. The scaffolding at these locations, which has covered the entire building since 2003 in a bid to secure its deteriorating exterior, has slowly been removed since late last year. Only a small portion at the Sixth Avenue entrance remains.

The Jefferson Market Library today

The restoration of the exterior of this unique landmark is one which GVSHP long pushed for. The Jefferson Market Library, prominently located at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 10th Street in the heart of Greenwich Village, hid from view for almost a decade.

Though the scaffolding was installed in 2003, no action was taken until August 2007 when funding was finally secured for facade repairs. The rehabilitation project carefully brought back the High Victorian-style building’s stunning polychromatic facades of red brick and limestone.

Scaffolding being removed, late 2011. Courtesy of the Jefferson Market Library Facebook page.
Courtesy of the Jefferson Market Library Facebook page.

For both longtime Village residents and newcomers to this particular corner of Greenwich Village comes a fresh look at one of the city’s most cherished landmarks. Designed by architects Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux, the Jefferson Market Courthouse (as it was originally known) was constructed between 1874 and 1877. Their vision was so successful that their architect contemporaries in an 1880s poll voted the building the fifth (of ten) most beautiful in the United States.

Withers and Vaux drew inspiration from Ruskinian Gothic models, and the inclusion of the clock at the tower for use by the public recalls the civic-minded designs of piazza buildings in Renaissance Italy. The ornate building features multi-dimensional facades and paired windows within pointed arches. The varied height of the roof, which includes the elaborate tower, and the colorful materials and detail can be seen from many viewpoints in this section of the Village.

Historic view in 1963, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

After its time as a courthouse and other uses, such as a police academy, the building faced the wrecking ball in the post-World War II years. However, preeminent preservationist Margot Gayle led a grassroots effort to save the building, and it found new life as a branch of the New York Public Library in 1967.

Gayle formed the Village Neighborhood Committee in the late 1950s in a campaign to reactivate the clock. The original architects included a bell below the clock to sound off on the hour, and Gayle also paved the way for the bell to strike again in 1996. To listen to an interview of Gayle that GVSHP conducted in 1996, please visit the oral history page on our site.

Plaque on the West 10th Street facade. We helped ring the bell!

The library conversion was led by pioneering preservation architect Giorgio Cavaglieri, an appropriate choice given his northern Italian roots and the building’s European-inspired design. His work here was selected for the 1968 Honor Award by the American Institute of Architects, a tribute marked by a plaque near the Sixth Avenue entrance.

To learn more about Cavaglieri, Gayle and other preservation pioneers, please see our “Remembering the Pioneers of Village Preservation “ page on our site.

The clock is running again.

In 1969, the newly-named Jefferson Market Library was designated a New York City Landmark as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District; the report described it as “a remarkable essay in High Victorian design for this country.” In 1977, the library was further recognized for its country-wide significance when it was listed as a National Historic Landmark under the name of the “Third Judicial District Courthouse”.

Join us in welcoming the return of this incredible city and national landmark. And, if you’re in the area, don’t forget to look up when you’re wondering what time it is!

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