On October 6th, during the 2012 OHNY Weekend, OHNY intern Elis got to climb 149 steps to the top of the Jefferson Market Library Tower. Designed by Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux, this Venetian Gothic tower, provides unparalleled 360° views of Greenwich Village. The tower, usually closed to the public, was an exclusive OHNY Weekend site this year.

The first time I noticed the Jefferson Market Library was on my first Halloween night in New York City in 2009. I had walked to Sixth Avenue for the Halloween Parade, and remember looking up to see a giant, castle-like building almost entirely hidden by scaffolding cover. Dark and billowing in the chilly October wind, I remember thinking that the scaffolding made the building look like it was wearing its own Halloween costume. But what really captured my attention that night, was a giant white spider climbing up and down the wall of the 172-foot tower. I later learned that the spider, is a regular Halloween Parade fixture puppeteered by Basil Twist and his team since 1995. I eagerly looked forward to the performance again the next year, and was disappointed when, the spider did not make an appearance  because of continuing renovations on the clock tower.

Since late last year, I have once again been watching the Jefferson Market Library, but not for the spider. With renovations finally completed,  I have been watching the removal of the scaffolding as more and more of the incredible Victorian Gothic building is exposed. It’s not too hard to imagine how this was once voted  to be one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America by a poll of architects in the 1880s.

Built between 1875 and 1877, the building was originally a courthouse with civil and police courts, court offices, jails and a prison. Some of the most notorious local trial of that time were held here, including Harry K. Thaw’s 1906 trial for the murder of architect Stanford White (of McKim, Mead and White) and the 1909 trials of Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers who had gone on strike over poor working conditions (that prefaced the 1911 factory fire).

The four faced clock tower at the corner of 10th Street and Sixth Avenue was also part of the original building.  Local fire watchers once stood on its balcony and rang a large bell in the tower to call volunteer firemen.

In 1945 due to redistricting, court cases stopped being held at Jefferson Market. Ownership switched hands several times, and the Police Academy is said to have been the last tenant who used the building for riot training before abandoning it in 1958.

Jefferson Market was set to be demolished in 1959, but local village residents including E.E. Cummings and Lewis Mumford rallied behind Margot Gayle to save the building. They did so successfully and in 1961, Mayor Robert F. Wagner announced that the building would be converted into a public library. This adaptive reuse effort was undertaken by architect Giorgio Cavagelieri, best known in the neighborhood for converting the Astor Library on Lafayette Street, into the Public Theater.

Climbing the Jefferson Market Library tower requires going up a series of narrow and winding spiral steps (climb too fast and you risk getting vertigo!). After 149 steps to the fire watcher’s balcony, the view at the top is really impressive. Unlike popular lookout spaces in New York City, there are no sweeping views of Central Park or the city’s many skyscrapers. What visitors do see, is an intimate birds-eye view of the West Village and its low buildings, the Hudson River, and the Freedom Tower. From the top of the tower, I was able to spot Bell, Book & Candle’s aeroponic roof garden, shops and restaurants I regularly visit, and other great local gems.

On my way up, I came upon an old fire watcher’s bell, and to my utmost delight, the giant spider, which sleeps in the tower during the year and comes out on Halloween. This year was the first time since 2009 that the spider would make an appearance. However, due to Hurricane Sandy, the spider will continue its long sleep for one more year.

The library is open to visitors Mondays through Thursdays, but the tower is closed to the public, except when it opens its little door during OHNY Weekend. If you missed it this year, don’t miss the opportunity in 2013! Brave the line, climb the steps, say hi to the spider on your way up, and take in this rare view of the Village.


Jefferson Market Library

425 Avenue of the Americas (at 10th Street)
New York, NY


Photo Credit: Gilbert Rodriguez, Nicolas Lesmery Nantel, and Elis Shin

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