As the Municipal Archives begins preparations for moving 200,000 cubic feet of records from our Brooklyn warehouse to a new modern facility we started to think about past moves. Moving an archive is a mammoth undertaking, but surprisingly, the NYC Municipal Archives, one of the largest repositories of historical records in North America, has led an unexpectedly transient life. In 1952, the then-new Municipal Archives and Records Center occupied space in a warehouse called the Rhinelander Building, at 238 William Street. When that building was demolished in the late 1960s to make way for the Police Headquarters, the Archives relocated to 23 Park Row. In the summer of 1979, the Archives had to move again—this time to the “Tweed” Courthouse in City Hall Park, as a temporary facility until renovations at the Surrogate’s Court were completed. And so began our four-year sojourn in a beautiful but imperfect building.
Reflecting on these moves, we dug out this piece from the New York Archival Society Newsletter, issue #3, Spring 1983.
Farewell to Tweed,
Although the staff of the Municipal Archives knows that moving to the Surrogate’s Court building is necessary and important for many reasons, it is with considerable regret that we must depart the old “Tweed” Courthouse. For, underneath the dirt and dust of a century we found a noble building, monumental but eccentric, a building with character and a past.
From the very beginning, 123 years ago, the Tweed Courthouse has never been just an ordinary public building. William Marcy “Boss” Tweed extorted between eleven and twelve million dollars [roughly equivalent to 250 million dollars today] from the taxpayers of the City for its construction at a time when it cost the United States only seven million dollars to buy all of Alaska. Naturally, most of the money went into the pockets of Boss Tweed and his “Ring.”
Perhaps because of its sordid origins, and what it symbolized, City Hall turned its back on the Courthouse almost as soon as it was finished. Starting at the turn of the century, there were plans to demolish the structure. Gradually, the building was used less and less, particularly after the New County Courthouse at 60 Centre Street was completed in 1926. By the 1970s, less than 10% of the building’s space was occupied; a building, it should be noted, only steps from City Hall. Because of its doubtful future, it was never modernized or renovated and stands virtually as it did when completed in 1878, except for the heating system and elevators which were installed in 1911. It did, however, suffer one unfortunate indignity in 1955 when the staircase to the portico directly into the rotunda at the second floor level was removed to widen Chambers Street. With the staircase gone, the building must be entered at the street level, a considerably less grand experience.
Just ten years ago [in 1973], it seemed the Tweed Courthouse was truly doomed. A special task force appointed by Mayor Beame prepared a report urging that the building be demolished and replaced with a City Hall Annex. It was estimated a new building would cost twelve million dollars, just what the Tweed Courthouse cost the City a hundred years earlier. Ironically, it was fiscal politics that saved the Courthouse. Just as the report was issued, the City’s financial shenanigans of past decades culminated in what became known as the “fiscal crisis.” This timely calamity meant the City could not afford to demolish Tweed, much less build a replacement.
Much of the credit for saving Tweed Courthouse must also go to the Honorable Paul O’Dwyer. He was one of the first to recognize the unique features of the building and realize it was still a solid structure, despite what little money Boss Tweed had actually spent on the building. During his term as City Council President, Mr. O’Dwyer used some of the rooms for his staff. Finally, in 1978, Mayor Koch presided over a “roofraising” celebration that signaled the City’s determination to restore the building to its much deserved but never achieved glory.
Since then the Courthouse has come to serve a variety of functions never imagined by Boss Tweed. It has not been used as a working Courthouse for at least a decade, except as a set for motion pictures. The first was the Academy-Award winning film, “Kramer vs. Kramer.” The climax scene of the movie, when Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman pleaded for custody of their child was filmed in one of the courtrooms on the third floor now occupied by the Archives. About a year later , the director Brian DePalma transformed the building into a police station and an insane asylum for his movie “Dressed to Kill.” That movie was particularly memorable to those who worked in the building for the eerie atmosphere created by the clouds of smoke used in the filming.
The director Sidney Lumet first used one of the courtrooms for “Prince of the City” and again last year , much more extensively for the “The Verdict,” starring Paul Newman. Although the Tweed Courthouse had to masquerade as a Boston courthouse, really sharp moviegoers may have noticed the New York City seal glowing in the etched glass of the doors in some scenes. The moviemakers had wanted to achieve an “old Boston” look, so they gave the Courthouse an expensive and meticulous coat of chocolate, cream and gold paint and re-marbleized the plaster pillars. Although movie critic Pauline Kael wrote that it looked more like old Budapest, the results were quite handsome. Nevertheless, the Landmarks Preservation Commission declared publicly that it was unhappy with the colors because they did not reflect the original brick and stone. Fortunately Landmarks had no jurisdiction in this instance so that the City did not insist that it be re-painted to its original dingy beige.
The Courthouse has also been used for numerous fashion photography settings, art exhibitions and receptions, including one for the Iran-hostages after their ticker-tape parade. Most recently, the swearing-in ceremony for the new Fire Commissioner took place in the Courthouse to the accompaniment of the Emerald Society Pipe Band.
Alexander B. Callow, the author of a book about the Tweed ring described the Courthouse as a “low, squat, time-haunted building, toad-like and incredibly ugly, that could well serve as the epitaph for William Marcy Tweed.” We, who have worked in Tweed, have a quite different view. We will remember the sunshine that suffuses the rotunda; the nobly proportioned rooms with the windows that rumble like thunder on windy days; the solid black walnut doors with the City's seal etched in glass; the trompe l’oeil plaster and cast-iron; the cage elevators; the movie-making days.... Farewell Tweed Courthouse!
The Tweed Courthouse story does have a happy ending. In the 1990s, the City gave the building the careful and appropriate renovation that it deserved, and restored the grand staircase to Chambers Street. The Museum of the City of New York planned to take over the space, but in 2002, the incoming Bloomberg administration decided it would better serve as the headquarters for the Department of Education, newly brought under direct mayoral control.