Day 247

Tweed Courthouse

September 2nd, 2012



Built between 1861 and 1881, the Old New York County Courthouse (a.k.a. Tweed Courthouse) represents one of Boss Tweed's most notorious schemes to embezzle money from the city's coffers for himself and his Tammany Hall confederates. All the costs of construction were greatly inflated, with the excess going directly into the pockets of the so-called "Tweed Ring". A particularly egregious example of this graft: the plasterer, a Tammany crony, did two days' worth of work and was paid $133,187 — somewhere around 2.3 million of today's dollars! Tweed was eventually convicted of forgery and larceny in 1873 after being tried, fittingly, in an unfinished courtroom in this very building.

Judged on its own merits, the courthouse is a lavish work of artistry and craftsmanship (photos here), but it was long reviled because of its negative associations with greed and corruption. The NY Times reports:

By [the time it opened], the courthouse had become a looming symbol of public betrayal.

"The whole atmosphere is corrupt," said George C. Barrett, a reformer from that time. "You look up at its ceilings and find gaudy decorations; you wonder which is the greatest, the vulgarity or the corruptness of the place."

Such visceral reactions blinded people to the building's merits, according to several historians and architects. They say the building is a striking 19th-century structure, with marble walls, a Corinthian portico and a beautiful skylight rotunda.
The courthouse (which has not actually been used as a courthouse since 1961, when it became a municipal office building) languished for much of the 20th century, falling into disrepair (perfectly captured in this photo). Its front staircase was chopped off to make way for a street widening and vines began to overtake the portico. A painstaking (and extremely expensive...) renovation completed in 2001 brought the place back to life, however, restoring its opulence and grandeur (and even its staircase).

There were plans for the Museum of the City of New York to move in after things were fixed up, but Mayor Bloomberg decided instead to relocate the Department of Education's headquarters to the courthouse instead. And just this year, a small public school opened on the premises; it will be housed here until 2015, when its own building is ready. In the meantime, this is going to be the world's snazziest kindergarten.

By the way, the city offers free tours of Tweed Courthouse! You can sign up here.

One Comment

  1. gordon satteson says:

    Not knowing the history of how the building came to be, you’d have to agree it’s a masterpiece. Hope to see it in person one day.
    Also, Thanks for the link to nyc-architecure.com I can’t wait to go exploring!

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