Oculus - Fall 2013 - (Page 49)
Shaped and reshaped
by political agendas,
the Tweed Courthouse embodies a legendary
record of governmental machinations
B Y J O H N M O R R IS DIXO N , FA IA
f you think the rebuilding after 9/11 has been complicated politically,
consider the Manhattan courthouse whose construction extended from
1861 to 1881 and involved millions of dollars of outright fraud. One result
was a criminal conviction for the politician who led the process, William M.
(“Boss”) Tweed. So linked in the public mind were the politician and the New
York County Courthouse (its official name) that it has been popularly known
as the Tweed Courthouse. And the building has continued to be an object of
political controversy – even in the current century.
The structure’s site was earmarked in 1857 for a new City Hall (to replace
the adjacent one that still survives). But by the time the project was approved
in 1861, it had morphed into a county courthouse. Ground was broken that
year for a structure designed by the reputable architect John Kellum in Classical Revival style, with some Italianate features.
The Board of Supervisors directing the project included Tweed, who
virtually controlled the city through his leadership of the Tammany Hall
Democratic machine. He and his cronies determined municipal policies and
promoted charter revisions that minimized oversight of their activities. Suspicions were aroused by the building’s prolonged construction and incessant
calls for additional funding; in 1871 the New York Times broke a story about
“official corruption.” Much of the money was being funneled to Tweed and his
associates. In 1873 he was tried on a 220-count indictment and convicted. He
died in jail in 1878.
Meanwhile, construction had stopped. In 1874, while officials pondered
how to proceed, architect Kellum died; two years later, Leopold Eidlitz was
commissioned to complete the structure. Best known for his churches and
synagogues in the Gothic and Romanesque Revival styles, Eidlitz brought
to the courthouse a very different aesthetic. With much Classical Revival
construction already in place, Eidlitz introduced some round arches on the
exterior and completed the interior with a rich variety of vaulting and intricate patterns of polychrome masonry.
The building’s hybrid architecture was not a critical success, and proposals to demolish it arose as early as 1910 and as late as 1974. But Victorian-era
architecture regained respect, and in 1976 the building was listed in the National Register. Eight years later both exterior and interior became designated
New York City landmarks. In 1989 the city commissioned a feasibility study
for its preservation and reuse, initiated by Mesick Cohen Waite Architects and
completed by John G. Waite Associates.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani approved a $90-million restoration in 1999,
expecting the Museum of the City of New York to operate the building as a
visitor center, with galleries celebrating the city’s history. But the museum
subsequently proposed moving its entire operations there, making extensive
alterations that aroused wide opposition. In 2002 Mayor Michael Bloomberg replaced the city’s Board of Education with a Department of Education
©Michael Rogol Photography
Politics = Architecture
©Michael Rogol Photography
(above, top) Tweed Courthouse; City Hall is at left.
(above, bottom) Tweed Courthouse Rotunda.
directly accountable to him, installing the new
department there – a few steps from City Hall.
Today, some of the building’s lofty, richly ornamented rooms are used for meetings and conferences. Others have been adapted for office use,
with modular demountable partitions and raised
floors – all removable with no damage to the
restored interiors. Details of the building’s recent
restoration and remarkable history can be found
in the 2006 book Tweed Courthouse: A Model of
Restoration, by architect John G. Waite, FAIA, with
Nancy A. Rankin, AIA, LEED AP, and Diana S.
John Morris Dixon, FAIA, left the drafting board for
journalism in 1960 and was editor of Progressive
Architecture from 1972 to 1996. He continues
to write for a number of publications, and he
received AIANY’s 2011 Stephen A. Kliment
Oculus Award for Excellence in Journalism.
Fall 2013 Oculus
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Fall 2013
Letter from the President
A Word from the Editor
Center for Architecture
One Block Over
Opener: The City More Beautiful
Affordable Housing in 2013: Communities, Not Containers
The Future of Prefab
From Ports to Parks: New York’s Waterfront Wager
East River Magic
Shoring Up for the Future
FAR ROC Rocks!
Index to Advertisers
Oculus - Fall 2013