Village Big House

A depiction of Greenwich State Prison. Image via NYPL.

A depiction of Greenwich State Prison. Image via NYPL.

If one has the occasion to think about incarceration in the Village, many long-time residents would likely recall the Women’s House of Detention, an imposing building that loomed over Jefferson Market Courthouse from 1932 to 1974. However, about one-hundred years before the Women’s House of Detention came into being, the Village was home to New York State’s first state prison.

The Women's House of Detention at 6th Avenue near West 9th Street in 1939.

The Women’s House of Detention at 6th Avenue near West 9th Street in 1939.

Extending over four-acres of land between today’s Christopher and Perry Streets and Washington Street and the Hudson River shoreline, the Greenwich, or Newgate State Prison, was constructed in 1796-97. The plans for the prison were crafted by architect Joseph-Francois Mangin, who would later go on to design New York’s City Hall building and the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the Lower East Side.

Newgate was New York State’s first prison, and was directed by Quaker philanthropist and politician Thomas Eddy, who hoped to help reform the city and state’s penal system. As the Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report for the Weehawken Street Historic District notes, an observer in 1801 wrote, “‘A more pleasant, airy, and salubrious spot could not have been selected in the vicinity of New York’ … and the prison, as one of the area’s most imposing structures, became one of Greenwich’s first tourist attractions.” The prison’s location north of the (then) city center and on the Hudson River is thought to have helped generate the well-known phrase “sent up the river” as a euphemism for incarceration, well before the prison’s successor Sing Sing Prison was built up the Hudson.

Problems of overcrowding and poor conditions arose almost immediately after the prison’s construction, and the designation report goes on to describe, “despite the state prison’s reform reputation, a number of insurrections occurred that were accompanied by attempts to burn the buildings. Many of the Newgate prisoners were West Indian blacks who had a history of opposition to white authority. Stephen Allen, recently the Mayor of New York City (1821-24), was appointed as commissioner to recommend changes in the state prison system in 1824. Among his recommendations was the closing of Newgate in favor of constructing a new prison farther north along the Hudson River at Sing Sing (later Ossining), New York. The City of New York acquired the Newgate State Prison from the State in 1826, and prisoners were moved to Sing Sing in 1828-29. The Newgate land was plotted and sold by the City in 1829, however, it reserved the blockfront along West Street between Christopher and Amos Streets for a public market.” After closing, the prison was briefly re-purposed as a sanatorium spa, and eventually some of the buildings of the old prison were incorporated into a brewery complex. Today, none of the original prison structures stand.

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Drew Drew was GVSHP's Director of Administration until March 2015.