This attractive repeating Art Deco design originally was made in individual nickel plated bronze pieces. The pieces when bolted together formed a repeating motiff lintel across the top of the interior entrance doorway of the Women’s House of Detention.
The Jail was located at 6th Ave behind the present day Jefferson Market Public Library which was originally a courthouse.
The New York Women’s House of Detention is believed to have been the world’s only art deco prison. It was designed by Sloan and Robertson in 1931 and opened to the public with a luncheon on March 29, 1932.
The courthouse, and jail, the latter which was subsequently opened in 1934 (demolished 1973) was the scene of the notorious Harry K Thaw murder trial of renowned architect Stanford White in 1906.
I rescued several of the individual bronze pieces, the rest were scrapped during demolition, the original lintel was about 8 feet long. I have made a mold of one of the sections and have several configurations available.
I have a book I saw in a list of references in an article on this building, I was hoping for some photos and didn’t know what to expect of the actual contents. Anyway it’s titled Hellhole; the shocking story of the inmates and life in the New York City House of Detention for Women. By Sara Harris, Dutton 1967. It starts out detailing the jail building and the horrid conditions, rats, roaches, overcrowding, the lousy staff/correction officers/doctors and system that was a total failure in every possible way.
The city was paying correction officers and doctors on call about $90 a month flat fee, so needless to say the morale to do work wasn’t there, nor were the quality of the medical services. The women only jail saw mostly drug addicts and prostitutes, most all of whom were repeatedly put in there- which clearly shows how the entire criminal justice and court system was a total failure. The book goes on to take general leave of the conditions of the jail and staff treatment of prisoners, and starts diving right into much more detailed case histories and interviews with a number of former and present inmates. Harris’ interviews took her to the worst slums in Harlem. Her subjects recounted their time in this jail and coping with a constant barage of rats, dirty bedding with mice nests inside, toilets that leaked on the floor, the homosexual attacks on new inmates and the gang/protection racket amongst the various factions within the prisoners. They further recounted the lack of medical services and a number of instances where inmates with serious mental or physical problems were not given treatment or given the standard pills they handed to everyone who had a medical complaint of any kind- drug withdrawl pills. Harris’ interviews showed graphically how the entire cycle began, and why the women wound up being incarcerated over and over again- one woman arrested 28 times- for the same crimes.
The mystery of why someone in the system didn’t start thinking there had to be a better way, treatment for drug addictions and a help up out of the poverty and lack of skills that resulted in prostitution and stealing. The lack of skilled staff and quality medical care, the city’s dire budgetary shortfalls, and the poorly designed “system” all came together in the most disasterous fashion, and the results were a revolving-door of the same pathetic addicted inmates, and ineffectively dealing with the root causes of the problems that brought them there in the first place. It appears as though the “blame” was largely and inappropriately placed upon The “Women’s House of Detention” building when in reality, the jail was a visible and dark symptom of the much larger, totally ineffective and broken- criminal justice, legal, and social welfare system.
The problem was not so much “the building” as it was the city, poor budget and the quality of staff that $90 a month salary could obtain. I’m not so certain that the ubiquitous rats, roaches, filth, overflowing toilets and poorly trained abusive staff were not symptomatic of all such detention facilities given the budget shortfalls, poorly paid staff and overburdoned court system. In the end, as a “solution” to neighborhood complaints it was the building that was demolished, the system apparently was not fixed nor were the budget problems addressed. Indeed, now, as then, the faces appearing in the facilities and courts are young black poverty stricken, addicted and hopeless people caught up in the system and it’s revolving door cycle of arrest, release back on the street with no job, or money with which to buy food or pay rent, and untreated drug addictions for which the person needs exorbitant amounts of money to support. One can’t help but wonder if these issues are the same today, with only the inmate faces and the addiction of choice being the bulk of any change since the 1960’s Harris’ book has no photos or images, but the details of the stories leaves the readers with more than enough of a series of mental images as clear as any photos she could have included.
The sculpture is now available in two sizes, large and original;