One of the many historic sites in East Harlem is the Harlem Courthouse. It is located between Lexington and Third Avenues on 121st Street, adjacent to the Harlem Art Park and the tiny street known as Sylvan Place.
This Gothic-Romanesque Revival structure was designed and built between 1891 and 1893 by the architectural firm Thom & Wilson, who also designed the Moorish style Hampton Apartments on Perry Street in Greenwich Village, and the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street that was demolished in 1994. The 100′ x 100′ structure was used by the Municipal and Magistrate’s Courts, and was one of the city’s earliest county seats.
Much of the building was restored during a renewal project, but the jail and former living quarters were not part of the restoration program. This part of the building was used for processing criminals and holding prisoners, who used their 40 jail cells until 1940. Suffering from mold and asbestos, this part of the building can no longer be occupied but the jail cells are still intact and archival records were retrieved with the handwritten names of prisoners in journals. The arched entryways to each jail cell have heavy plated doors with bars.
Incorporated into the third floor courtroom walls are two murals painted by Works Progress Administration (WPA) artist David Karfunkle in 1938. One was painted on a canvas and the other painted right on the plaster wall. They were named “Exploitation of Labor – Hoarding of Wealth.” Deemed inappropriate for the courtroom in its new use when it reopened in 2002, these historic murals, painted in a double-height vaulted ceiling, were hidden behind drapes.
The mural that was painted directly on the plaster wall suffered great damage due to mold that can clearly be seen on the upper left hand side of the image
After restoration in 2014, the entryway on 121st street maintained its marble mosaic floors, a stunning marble and iron spiral staircase which runs to the top of the tower, an oak door, and window trim, as well as eight small gables with two exterior clocks ~ the murals now remain uncovered, on view to all who enter that courtroom.
The Harlem Courthouse is now in use as the Harlem Community Justice Center where family, housing and small claim civil cases are heard. There is also some office space for the NYPD. It is not open to the public unless you have business there. We uncovered a virtual tour with the New York Correction History Society with many more interior images.
The Harlem Courthouse was designated a New York City Landmark in 1967 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
Below is the Third Avenue entrance to Harlem Art Park, with the Harlem Courthouse in the background. In the center of the park is the first Percent for Art installation, unveiled in 1985, entitled Growth by artist Jorge Luis Rodriguez. While Growth is a permanent installation, the Park regularly hosts revolving art.
East Harlem has a plethora of art and culture from its historic murals to La Marqueta ~ and a plethora of good eats.
Don’t get lost. Get a Map of East Harlem.