100 Centre Street, 1938–1942

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

Commit a crime in Manhattan and you’re likely to end up at 100 Centre Street. Located in the north part of the civic center, across from Columbus Park and Chinatown, this imposing municipal complex contains multiple courtrooms, hundreds of jail cells and the offices of the New York County District Attorney. Commonly called “The Tombs,” this name refers to the original Hall of Justice, which was built in the late 1830s to resemble an ancient Egyptian mausoleum.

Harvey Wiley Corbett was architect of the new Criminal Courts Building. Completed in 1942, it is a somber yet dignified piece of Moderne or Streamlined Modern architecture, with hardly any ornament or sign of excess. Corbett specialized in high-rise construction and worked with Hugh Ferris in the 1920s to develop conceptual images for the 1916 zoning law. He was briefly a member of the Associated Architects, which designed Rockefeller Center, and later worked on the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building on the east side of Madison Square. Though it was never completed, this 32-story office building was planned as the world’s tallest structure. For the courts complex, Corbett collaborated with Charles B. Meyers, an architect with such institutional projects as Yeshiva University in Washington Heights to his credit.

The Criminal Courts Building has an E-shaped plan. The center section, flanked by deeply-recessed entrances, steps up to a squat tower that resembles a ziggurat. A fourth tower, with a simpler but complementary design, is freestanding and contains jail cells. The exterior is faced with Indiana limestone. Although the spandrels have dark abstract reliefs, the stonework is smooth and sleek, like many civic buildings constructed in the United States during the late 1930s. An auspicious quote from Thomas Jefferson greets visitors: “Equal and Exact Justice To All Men Of Whatever State or Persuasion.”

By the 1970s, however, the Tombs had become one of the worst jails in New York City. Closed following riots in 1974, it was later extensively remodeled and is now part of the Manhattan Detention Center at 125 White Street. Designed by Urbahn Associates, the 1989 ribbed pink concrete structure dramatically improved conditions for inmates. Linked to the north tower by an enclosed bridge, this feature recalls the “Bridge of Sighs” (c. 1902) that connected the earlier Manhattan Criminal Courts Building and the city prison.

As part of New York City’s “Percent for Art” program, the Department of Corrections commissioned several artworks that relate to the justice system. Kit-Yin Snyder contributed “Solomon’s Throne,” installed atop the bridge, and “The Seven Columns of the Temple of Wisdom” at the building’s entrance. These mysterious, semi-transparent sculptures are assembled from small wire cages, a possibly sly reference to the jail cells contained within. The bridge is also decorated with elaborate cast reliefs of King Solomon and Bao Gong, historic figures embodying wisdom and fair-mindedness, and the Baxter Street facade, facing Chinatown, presents seven murals that depict the lives of immigrants in New York City. Installed above the storefronts on the second floor and unfortunately often obscured by trees, these colorful panels are by Richard Haas.

– Matthew A. Postal