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Castles in the Sky on Sixth Avenue: Calvert Vaux and the Victorian Gothic

Greenwich Village, with its cobblestone streets and historic brownstones, stands as a testament to the rich architectural heritage that defines New York City. Among the many architects who left an indelible mark on this iconic neighborhood, Calvert Vaux emerges as a visionary whose designs seamlessly blend with the bohemian spirit of Greenwich Village, including its own magic castle.

Calvert Vaux was born in London on December 20, 1824, and immigrated to the United States in 1850. His partnership with Frederick Law Olmsted, renowned for their collaboration on Central Park, catapulted Vaux into architectural fame. However, it was his solo ventures that contributed significantly to the unique character of Greenwich Village.

Calvert Vaux (1824-1895)

Vaux was part of an architectural movement in the 19th century that we know today as the Victorian Gothic style. This became more prominent in the later stages of Vaux’s career. The Victorian Gothic movement, part of the broader Gothic Revival, emerged in the mid-19th century as a reaction against the perceived coldness of industrialization and a desire to reconnect with the romanticized aesthetics of the medieval past. In Greenwich Village, this is most prominently on display at Jefferson Market Library.

The Victorian Gothic style began to emerge in Great Britain in the 1850s under the influence of the architect John Ruskin. By the 1860s the style had spread across continental Europe, the prime example being the fairytale castle of the Bavarian King Ludwig II, Neuschwanstein Castle. The style was an amalgamation of various medieval styles ranging from Venetian to Byzantine, and, of course, the romanticized visions of castles and knights imagined in such works as Wagnerian operas. This would have a profound affect on Vaux and the design of Jefferson Market Library, originally designed as a courthouse.

John Ruskin’s 1849 essay “Seven Lamps of Architecture” was a critical influence on the Gothic Revival movement in the latter half of the 19th century

Vaux, along with the architect Frederick Clarke Withers, began work on the Jefferson Market Courthouse building in 1874. Jefferson Market and Neuschwanstein Castle, begun in 1869, are prime examples of the pointed arches, decorative tracery, and an overall emphasis on intricate detailing that draws inspiration from medieval Gothic architecture. The façade of the Jefferson Market Library is adorned with various architectural details typical of Victorian Gothic design. These include pointed arch windows, intricate carvings, and decorative moldings. Jefferson Market’s exterior features a rich interplay of materials, including brick and stone, contributing to its visual appeal.

Jefferson Market Courthouse in 1893

One of the most distinctive features of the building is its prominent clock tower with pointed turrets. These elements add verticality to the structure and contribute to the picturesque quality associated with Victorian Gothic architecture. Jefferson Market’s clock tower serves both a functional and decorative purpose. Stained glass windows, another characteristic feature of the Victorian Gothic style, are incorporated into the design. These windows often feature geometric patterns and vibrant colors, adding a sense of beauty and sophistication to the interior spaces. The roofline of the building is marked by steep gables, another hallmark of Gothic Revival design. These gables contribute to the overall silhouette of the structure, creating a visually interesting and dynamic profile.

Neuschwanstein Castle in 2013

However, a more recent and direct connection between Neuschwanstein and Jefferson Market is Disney. It is well known that Walt Disney used Neuschwanstein Castle as the inspiration for the famed Disney castle that sits in the center of Disney World, Disneyland, and we see at the beginning of Disney movies. Jefferson Market Library’s head librarian, Frank Collerius, in a presentation for Village Preservation members, revealed that Disney had a former attraction that highlighted famous New York City monuments, including the Washington Square Arch and Jefferson Market Library.

Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle at Magic Kingdom

In Neuschwanstein Castle and the Jefferson Market Library, we uncover the fascinating intersection of architectural styles and cultural influences, even in modern pop culture. Each structure, with its own story and significance, invites us to appreciate the enduring appeal of the Gothic Revival movement and the timeless beauty it has bestowed upon these enchanting landmarks. Vaux’s ability to blend Gothic influences with his own innovative ideas contributed to the enduring charm of his creations, most especially in Jefferson Market Library.

Jefferson Market Library circa 2021

If you are interested in learning more about Victorian Gothic and Gothic Revival architecture, especially in South of Union Square, please check out our self-guided walking.

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