The sometimes picturesque, sometimes grandiose architecture of Greenwich Village is perhaps one of the neighborhood’s most iconic features. One man who greatly contributed to Greenwich Village’s unique architectural style is Calvert Vaux. Vaux is best remembered for his partnership with Frederick Law Olmsted in the landscape design of Central Park, but Vaux was also a talented structural architect who firmly believed that the aesthetics of buildings are just as important as their functionality.
A native Englishman and the eldest son of a surgeon, Vaux left London for New York in 1850 in order to collaborate with Andrew Jackson Downing, who at the time was widely popular in America for his books and articles on horticulture and home design. Although the opportunity to work with Downing was in some sense Vaux’s “big break,” Vaux’s first foray into the architectural field had actually begun seven years earlier. At what was considered the late age of nineteen, Vaux started serving as an apprentice to Lewis Nockalls Cottingham, a man renowned in Great Britain for his restorations of medieval churches. It was during his apprenticeship that Vaux became a member of London’s Architectural Association, an organization comprised mainly of young professionals and students. Vaux was in attendance at an exhibition hosted by the Architectural Association– an exhibition that had also happened to draw the attention of Downing. Having established himself as an author, Downing was interested in going into the home design business, but he lacked the architectural know-how to be able to execute his designs. Downing was impressed by Vaux’s drawings for a baptistery which were on display at the exhibition, and he invited Vaux to New York to be his business partner. The men would work together for two years, collaborating on projects like the grounds of the White House, before Vaux decided to venture out on his own projects and work with other partners.
Vaux’s résumé lists an impressive number of New York City parks and structures, including many buildings in Greenwich Village. Along with fellow Briton Frederick Clark Withers, Vaux designed the Jefferson Market Courthouse, a building which now serves as a branch of the New York Public Library. The grand Victorian Gothic-style structure was built between 1875 and 1877, at a cost to the City of New York of nearly $360,000. The building served as a courthouse until 1945 and was the site of such infamous events as Harry K. Thaw’s trial for the murder of architect Stanford White and the Night Court trials against picketing employees of The Triangle Shirtwaist Company. (This was two years before 125 workers lost their lives in the factory’s fire.) After 1945, the Jefferson Market Courthouse temporarily housed the Police Academy. However, the courthouse was vacated completely by 1958 and was in such disrepair that the city planned to demolish the building. Residents of Greenwich Village, including such famous names as Lewis Mumford and E.E. Cummings, united to save the courthouse, and in 1961 the city decided to preserve the building and turn it into a library. What was once the civil court on the second floor is now the Adult Reading Room, and the first-floor Children’s Room was formerly a police court. A poll of architects in the 1880s named the Jefferson Market Courthouse one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America, and to this day it remains one of Greenwich Village’s architectural gems.
Vaux also designed the Sullivan Street School at 219 Sullivan Street for an organization called the Children’s Aid Society. The building originally served as a sort of vocational school. The Society offered traditional academic classes in the mornings and classes in “Manual Training” in the afternoons and evenings, which taught sewing, cobbling, and book binding, among other skills. Over the years, the Society’s mission shifted to become more focused on providing social services, and the Sullivan Street School was renamed The Philip Coltoff Center at Greenwich Village. The building was recently purchased by a housing development company, and construction will begin next summer to turn the center into condominiums. However, a spokesman for the development company insists that the “character and style” of the building will be maintained.
Vaux drowned in Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn, likely due to an accidental fall off the boardwalk. A park that overlooks Gravesend Bay was named Calvert Vaux Park in his honor in 1998. Most of Vaux’s buildings in Greenwich Village and throughout New York survive to this day, stalwart and stunning testaments to his talent and his conviction that architecture is an important art form.
Banjo, Shelly. “Condo Developer Buys Children’s Aid Buildings.” The Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2011. Accessed October 4, 2011. http://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2011/05/25/condo-developer-buys-childrens-aid-buildings/?mod=WSJBlog.
The Children’s Aid Society. “The Children’s Aid Society Philip Coltoff Center at Greenwich Village: History.” Accessed October 4, 2011. http://www.childrensaidsociety.org/philip-coltoff-center/about-pcc/history.
Kowsky, Francis R. Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
New York Public Library. “About the Jefferson Market Library.” Accessed October 4, 2011. http://www.nypl.org/locations/tid/39/about.
Von Drehle, David. Triangle: the Fire that Changed America. New York: Grove Press, 2003.