With change constantly occurring around us, Justin and I often find ourselves in a perpetual state of FOMO. There’s always something shiny and new to check out in New York City, from towering new structures to pop-up exhibits. But that also means that we sometimes take the stuff that’s been around for a while for granted. Case in point: the Jefferson Market Library.
The West Village is as picturesque a neighborhood as one can imagine, with tree-lined streets, dreamy townhouses and cute cafes. The Jefferson Market Library’s beautiful Victorian Gothic facade fits right in. We’ve passed it a million times, admiring its beauty in passing, but never really taking note.
But the Jefferson Market Library is a structure that’s rich with history (including some salacious bits!), and it tells a tale of reinvention that seems perfectly at home in New York City. Here are some fun facts about the library:
1. One of its architects also designed Central Park
The Jefferson Market Library was originally a courthouse. It was designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux. Calvert Vaux worked with Frederick Law Olmsted to create Central Park, Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park and Morningside Park, among many others.
2. It has a scandalous past
We touched briefly on the “Trial of the Century” involving the murder of architect Stanford White by multimillionaire Harry Kendall Thaw in our Flatiron post. Guess where that Trial of the Century took place? Right here at the Jefferson Market Library in 1906. The grounds also housed a Women’s Detention Center from 1929-1973, which hosted Mae West for a night when she was arrested on obscenity charges for her Broadway play called… wait for it… “Sex”.
3. E. E. Cummings saved it
The court became defunct due to redistricting and the property went through some changes before finally being abandoned and falling into disrepair. The city planned on demolishing it and replacing it with an apartment building, but locals fought it. One of its champions was none other than E. E. Cummings, who happened to live directly across the street.
4. It’s home to a 14-foot spider
Each year during the Village Halloween Parade, a giant spider crawls up and down the clock tower of the Jefferson Market Library. The spider has been part of the parade since its creation, but took extended periods off as the parade underwent changes. Most recently, it was on hiatus from 2010-2011 due to library renovations. Puppeteer Basil Twist took that time to create a brand new spider–with the help of high school students–using materials scavenged off the streets of New York City. Unfortunately Hurricane Sandy thwarted the new spider’s debut, but it returned to the parade in 2013 and has been a fixture ever since.
5. You can climb the clock tower once a year
The Jefferson Market Library has participated in Open House New York for over ten years. During that weekend, you can climb the clock tower to meet the spider and enjoy magnificent views of the city. Fair warning, though: it’s 149 steps to the top, and the staircases are very narrow. On our recent adventure, my fear of heights kicked in and I threw in the towel midway. And it’s fortunate that it did, because the tiny, open balcony would’ve given me nightmares. If you have any similar fears, sit this one out.
Pro Tip: The Jefferson Market Library is an open access site, meaning no advance reservations are required. But it only allows access for a very short window, so be prepared to come early and wait in line. Due to the narrow staircases, the traffic up and down is slow so plan for additional time accordingly.
This branch of the New York Public Library has been active since 1967. You can visit the working library every day of the week for books, computer use and a host of events such as readings, classes and movies. Don’t miss the amazing garden as well, a beautiful oasis in the middle of the bustling city.
425 6th Ave
Mon-Thurs 10 am – 8 pm
Fri-Sat 10 am – 5 pm
Sun 1 pm – 5 pm
Pair it with:
Brunch at Banter
You don’t have to take more than ten steps from the Jefferson Market Library to find yourself a great restaurant. But we have a penchant for cute Australian cafes with great coffee and avocado smash, so we walked just a tiny bit further to Banter. If you can get it, grab a seat on the outdoor patio. That way you can enjoy your meal while fantasizing about living in one of the colorful townhomes across the street. West Village brunching is all about #goals, amirite?
169 Sullivan St
Daily 8 am – 11 pm