Jefferson Market Library New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Looks and Books: Why You Should Visit the Jefferson Market Library

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.

West facade of Jefferson Market Library with yellow cabs traveling on 6th Avenue via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Jefferson Market Library garden and fountain with apartment building in the background via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

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”.

A close-up view of the Jefferson Market Library balcony and clock via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

View up Sixth Avenue including the Empire State Building via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The view to the north includes the Empire State Building
View south of Sixth Avenue including the World Trade Center and the spire of the Jefferson Market Library via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The view to the south includes the World Trade Center (on a less foggy day)

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

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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

Jefferson Market Library West Village New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Jefferson Market Library West Village New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The staircase leading up to the tower

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. 

Open House New York Weekend is one of our favorite events of the year. Our prior Open House New York adventures include a visit to a Gilded Age treasure and an ultra-modern transportation hub.

The flora and fauna in the Jefferson Market Library garden via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

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

Table with two plates of food at Banter with a row of colorful townhomes in the background via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Fried chicken burger and Golden folded eggs with a cup of coffee from Banter via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Interior of Banter with diners via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

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

Like it? Pin it!

– L.

I’m done – take me back to the top!

15 thoughts on “Looks and Books: Why You Should Visit the Jefferson Market Library”

  1. Excellent post! We really enjoy and appreciate your blog. We will definitely put this on our places to go list. I wonder if my height aversion and claustrophobia would kick in halfway up? We haven’t hardly explored the West Village yet, but we will. Love your research on everything. We especially love the stories of the past.
    P.S. How random was that subway meet?

    1. Hi Tip! Thank you for the comment. We’re thrilled you enjoyed the post. Though Lynn only made it halfway, I went straight to the top. I am not particularly afraid of heights, but the second half of the climb even made me a little queasy. And running into you by chance like that was incredible. Let’s see if we can make that happen again, shall we?

  2. ooh e.e. cummings lived opposite it? now I have to go check his house apart from the view from the tower. though I do not think I would like to meet a faux spider but all in the spirit of the day I suppose. btw the building looks gorgeous (and the comment is a tribute to the great cummings if you get the drift) thank you for pointing out the library to someone like me who is still figuring out the city. xx

    1. Thanks, Dippy. And you should visit, for even just the simple fact that it’s a library, which is reason enough. I love E.E. Cummings: “now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”

  3. Dang it, I just realised that we have missed the Open House dates! 🙁 And since I forgot to mention earlier, a Broadway play called ‘Sex’… it’s a no-brainer, what was Mae West thinking 😛 She way waaay ahead of her times!

  4. Hey guys! Great post! I missed the deadline to wait for the library. Oh well, maybe next year. I questioned whether you would be able to get up those stairs Lynn, I was second guessing myself. I definitely have FOMO!

    1. Hey Trudy! Thanks so much ❤️ Don’t feel bad, we overheard the staff at the library saying that they cut the hours back drastically this year! I think the library itself is still worth a visit year round, though 😉

      Your instincts were spot on, I only made it to the first level because the staircase was enclosed and I couldn’t see the drop! Might’ve been a little over-ambitious on this one 😉 Thanks for reading!

  5. Wow! You Mad Hatters did it again! We’ve been there earlier in the year to check out the stained glass but had no idea of its scandalous past nor that E.E. Cummings lived across the street!

  6. I’ve passed this building dozens of times but never knew what it was – what beautiful architecture and incredible views! I also appreciate the warning about a fear of heights – remind me on our next visit to tell you about the time I climbed the Asinelli Tower in Bologna despite seeing the “Warning: Risk of Death! Climb at Your Own Peril!” sign at the entryway and why I vowed never to do so again…. :O

    1. Hey Lauren! I knew the first half up (narrow, semi-clausterphobic, spiraling stone staircase) had more to do with Lynn’s very real fear of heights, but even I had palpitations on the way up the second half (pretty ancient looking spiraling iron stairway with a laughably low railing). Definitely not for the faint of heart.

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