Podcasts Politics and Protest Preservation

The History of Jefferson Market and the Women’s House of Detention

In the heart of Greenwich Village sits the Jefferson Market Library, a branch of the New York Public Library, and a beautiful garden which offers a relaxing respite from the busy neighborhood.

But a prison once rose from this very spot — more than one in fact.

While there was indeed a market at Jefferson Market — dating back to the 1830s — this space is more notoriously known for America’s first night court (at the Jefferson Market Courthouse, site of today’s library) and the Women’s House of Detention, a facility which cast a gloom over the Village for over 40 years.

Almost immediately after the original courthouse (designed by Frederick Clarke Withers and Calvert Vaux) opened in 1877, it was quickly overburdened with people arrested in the Tenderloin district. By 1910 a women’s court opened here, and by the Jazz Age, the adjacent confinement was known as “the women’s jail.”

When the Women’s House of Detention opened in 1931 — sometimes referred to as the world’s only Art Deco prison — it was meant to improve the conditions for women who were held there. But the dank and inadequate containment soon became symbol of abuse and injustice.

In this special episode — recorded live at Caveat on the Lower East Side — Tom and Greg are joined by Hugh Ryan, author of The Women’s House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison to explore the detention center’s place in both New York City history and LGBT history.

How did the “House of D” figure into the Stonewall Uprising of 1969? And what were the disturbing circumstances surrounding its eventual closure?

FEATURING: Stories of Mae West, Stanford White, Alva Belmont, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Angela Davis, Andrea Dworkin and — Tupac Shakur?


Hugh Ryan on Patreon, Twitter and Instagram

Historic American Buildings Survey, Photocopy, c. 1880, Courtesy of New-York Historical Society,
New. York Public Library
The courtroom and House of Detention, 1938, New York Public Library
The Women’s House of Detention. Courtesy the New York Daily News Archives
Margot Gayle with an image of the building she would help save. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Photos of the current Jefferson Market Library

Photo by Greg Young
Photo by Greg Young
Photo by Greg Young


The subjects of these episodes are featured on this week’s episode. So check them out after listening to the current show:

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3 replies on “The History of Jefferson Market and the Women’s House of Detention”

Thank you so much for this. Hugh Ryan is an incredible advocate and impressive speaker who really made me rethink lots of things I’ve never thought about! I’ve been catching up on past podcasts ever since I found you all via Pushkin podcasts and have learned so much. And: I am a straight, white midwestern girl who hasn’t lived in NYC for 38 years – history, ideas, challenges, thought-provoking, and ! entertaining!

Ee Gads!!!! I’ve lived up 6th Ave from Jefferson Market for almost 30 years, and knew there was a woman’s prison where the garden was, but had NO idea it was there into the 70s, was part of Stonewall(!) & what a horrid nightmare it was. Thank you for this amazing episode, & for turning me on to Hugh Ryan’s book.

Was the sitcom ‘Night Court’ from the 80’s or whenever, I’m any way based on the night court mentioned here?
I’m totally checking out Hugh’s book. He gave such fascinating history.

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