On Detention

Twentieth century New York saw a lot of paradise paved (see Moses, Robert), but there is one spot in New York that saw paradise reclaimed — not from a parking lot but from an eleven-story prison that once stood at 10 Greenwich Avenue.

June 18, 1932 cover by William Crawford Galbraith.

The Jefferson Market Garden in Greenwich Village was once the site of a women’s prison designed to be a more humane corrections facility, but between its opening in 1932 and its closing in 1971 the Women’s House of Detention went from noteworthy to notorious.

It was designed by a firm known for its Art Deco buildings — Sloan and Robertson — and although it still looked rather stark and institutional on the inside, attempts were made to gussy it up with artworks commissioned by the WPA. The New Yorker’s E.B. White found a certain “sanitary elegance” to the place.

WELCOME INMATES!…When the Women’s House of Detention opened in 1932 it focused on more humane practices, including vocational training and other reform measures. Clockwise from top right, a 1938 photo shows how the prison once loomed over the Sixth Avenue El;

by the late 1960s the jail had become squalid, overcrowded and violent. He wrote: “I can still hear the desperate pleas of inmates shouting through the windows as I walked home from school every day.”

BIG, BAD HOUSE…Clockwise from top, left, protestor outside the New York Women’s House of Detention at the Prisoners’ Rights and “Free the Panther 21” demonstration in 1970; illustrious inmates at the prison included Ethel Rosenberg (pictured Aug. 8, 1950), Angela Davis, and Valerie Solanas (who shot Andy Warhol in 1968); demonstrators outside the prison in 1970; 1956 publicity still taken by the Department of Corrections. (Diana Davies via Smith College/

In the late 1960s Village residents began holding town hall meetings to discuss the removal of the overcrowded prison, many complaining of the friends and families of inmates who lingered outside day and night, yelling up to their loved ones behind bars. The protests were successful; the prison closed in 1971 and was demolished three years later.

A BIT OF EARTH…Top photo is an overhead view of the Jefferson Market Garden, planted on the site of the former Women’s House of Detention. Below, a verdant pathway takes a turn through Jefferson Market Garden. Photos courtesy of amny.com and Jefferson Market Garden.

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How Dry I Ain’t

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a canny politician, seemingly able at times to please both sides of a divisive issue. This was the case in 1932, when teetotaling New Yorkers touted FDR’s long record of supporting such causes as the Anti-Saloon League, while city dwellers such as E.B. White knew better…

LIBERAL LIBATION…Franklin D. Roosevelt was an enthusiastic drinker, especially of his famed martinis. (thrillist.com)

*  *  *

From Our Advertisers

In the days before air conditioning, most folks had to rely upon whatever cooling breezes they could channel into their homes, and apparently in Tudor City they could find some relief from the East River, at least when the wind was blowing from that direction…

…if the wind wasn’t in your favor, you could switch on an electric fan, an appliance that didn’t come into common use until the 1920s…this ad also demonstrated the power of the dictum “sex sells,” even if applied subtly…

…it would be awhile before air-conditioning became common, but in 1932 you could at least keep your goodies cool with a GE refrigerator, its radiating coils offering a novel way to disperse this smoker’s emissions…

…we jump to our cartoons, with Kemp Starrett in some mixed company…

Garrett Price illustrated the peril one faced when driving through Chelsea, where one could encounter freight trains at street level…

…for almost one hundred years this street-level freight line on 11th Avenue — known as “Death Avenue” — claimed the lives and limbs of hundreds of (mostly poor) New Yorkers…

HEADS UP!…the Hudson River Railroad at 11th Avenue and West 41st Street. (forgotten-ny.com)

…happily, we move on to June 25, 1932…

June 25, 1932 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

…which featured a profile of Samuel Klein (1886-1942), founder of Union Square’s discount department store S. Klein, famous for its “bargain bins.” The profile included this column-busting caricature of Klein as rendered by Abe Birnbaum

YOU COULDN’T MISS IT…The S. Klein Department Store was a Union Square fixture from 1910 to its closing in 1975. At right, undated photo of founder Samuel Klein. The building is long gone, the Zeckendorf Towers now occupying the site. (theclio.com/bklyn.newspapers.com)

…and we roll right into our advertisements, and this spot from the makers of B.V.D.s, who found a new market for men’s shorts and continued the 1920s trend toward a more casual, androgynous look among “modern debs”…

…you likely wouldn’t catch Helena Rubinstein wearing B.V.D.s., busy here shaming women into using her line of beauty products…

…on to our cartoons, we have this spot illustration by James Thurber

…and another travelogue image from Rea Irvin

Douglas Ryan gave us an unlikely Shakespeare lover (unless the boxer was Gene Tunney)…

…and we end with a bit of Prohibition humor from Gardner Rea

Next Time: Help Wanted

Published by

David O

I read and write about history from the perspective that history is not some artifact from the past but a living, breathing condition we inhabit every moment of our lives, or as William Faulkner once observed, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." I read original source materials, such as every issue of The New Yorker, not only as a way to understand a time from a particular perspective, but to also use the source as an aggregator of various historic events. I welcome comments, criticisms, corrections and insights as I stumble along through the century.

One thought on “On Detention”

  1. I remember the womens house of detention.By the sound of some of the women yelling down I think some of them had to be transvestites.
    They made a play about it,Women behind bars.We saw it at the Astor place theatre.
    A good time was had by all.It was funny when that nutty old lady said she was really Eleanor Roosevelt.


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