The Tombs, Sort Of


That vaguely art-decoish building is the Criminal Courts building for New York County, where I served on jury duty last week. (There’s no picture-taking allowed on the inside, so let me simply say that the interior was built to high standards and has been maintained to low ones.) There are four nearly identical wings, but the northernmost, on the left, is only connected to the rest of the building by a corridor at the ground and a bridge at an upper floor, while the three southern wings are connected by a continuous block. In other words, the building plan is something like this:

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That division makes sense, since the three southern wings and the connecting block are the courthouse, and consist of courtrooms, judges’ offices, the Manhattan district attorney’s offices, and so on, while the northern wing is a jail. That’s where the title of this blog post comes from. The building is often referred to as The Tombs, and that takes some explanation. There have been four buildings by that name housing prisons in Manhattan. The name originated with the architecture of the first prison, which was constructed at the height of New York’s brief and bizarre Egyptian revival style in the mid-1800s, and therefore was said to look like a pharaoh’s tomb. The name might not have stuck except for the exceptionally unpleasant conditions inside: today’s Foley Square was the Collect Pond, and older buildings at the edges of the pond, like the Tombs, had permanently damp interiors. The name stuck when the old prison was replaced in 1902, and again in 1941. Technically, the southern three-quarters of the current building was the Criminal Courts Building and the northern quarter was the jail, but the whole building was called the Tombs by a lot of people. Then a new prison was built across the street of the north wing (you can just make it out on the left of my photo) to expand capacity, and it is now nicknamed the Tombs.

The 1941 building was designed, simply, to frighten people. You enter (assuming you’re not coming across the bridge from the prison) through one of the two courtyards between the three wings. They look okay from across the street, but they are small in plan and the surrounding building is 15 stories high, so you have the sensation of being at the bottom of a well. There are two free-standing pylons at the entrance to each courtyard that serve no purpose other than to increase the sense of claustrophobia. But that’s not the best part. There are quotes and aphorisms carved into the courtyard walls. Maybe they were meant to be interesting, but they do not have that effect on me. I walked in as an innocent man to present myself for jury service, and I felt guilty; I can only imagine what it’s like for someone visiting on more personal business. The quotes:

  • THE JUST MAN ENJOYS PEACE OF MIND
  • EVERY PLACE IS SAFE TO HIM WHO LIVES IN JUSTICE
  • BE JUST AND FEAR NOT
  • WHY SHOULD THERE NOT BE A PERFECT CONFIDENCE IN THE ULTIMATE JUSTICE OF THE PEOPLE?
  • WHERE THE LAW ENDS THERE TYRANNY BEGINS
  • GOOD FAITH IS THE FOUNDATION OF JUSTICE
  • THE ONLY TRUE PRINCIPLE OF HUMANITY IS JUSTICE
  • JUSTICE IS DENIED NO ONE
  • IMPARTIALITY IS THE LIFE OF JUSTICE AS JUSTICE IS OF GOOD GOVERNMENT
  • THE PEOPLE ARE THE FOUNDATION OF POWER
  • EQUAL AND EXACT JUSTICE TO ALL MEN OF WHATEVER STATE OR PERSUASION

My point is that architecture and its related arts can have enormous power. A courthouse doesn’t need to be made more intimidating than it inherently is, but the Tombs was designed in a manner to do so. There have been efforts to make it less overwhelming, but short of replacing it, I suspect the city is stuck with a gothic horror in art-deco clothing.

 

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