Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

The Old Police Headquarters

ONE OF THE finest buildings in all New York is also one of the least-appreciated and most forgotten. The old Police Headquarters at No. 240 Centre Street was built in 1909 on a triangular lot in what was then solidly Little Italy. Arguably, it is today located in the ever-expanding Chinatown, but real estate brokers usually describe its location non-ethnically as Soho, just on the cusp of the area which is increasingly (and most irritatingly) known as NoLIta, ‘North of Little Italy’.

From the basement shooting range to the rooftop observation deck, the building was designed in the monumental Beaux-Arts style by the firm of Hoppin & Koen, “to impress both the officer and the prisoner with the majesty of the law.” The New York Times wrote that “its grandeur contrasted utterly with the little buildings and crooked streets around it.”

The older old Police Headquarters, where reformer Teddy Roosevelt held court as Police Commissioner, was located nearby on Mulberry Street and when the nerve center of the N.Y.P.D. shifted to Centre St. between Broome and Grand, the gun shops, cop saloons, and police reporters followed suit. One restaurant across the street was simply called ‘Headquarters’. With its oak bar and ceiling of carved wood, the ‘Headquarters’ restaurant became a particular favourite among the higher brass of the N.Y.P.D. According to popular lore, a tunnel was actually constructed connecting the restaurant with the actualy Police HQ, in which a number of the Boys in Blue used to enjoy a drink during the trying days of Prohibition.

The view from Cleveland Place.

The design, from the north.

The execution, from the south.

In 1973, the New York Police Department decamped to the brand new 1 Police Plaza, a red-brick modernist box behind the Municipal Building and next to the Church of St. Andrew. The large building then sat empty for a number of years while a series of proposals were mulled over (hotel, cultural center, museum, et cetera). Finally in 1983 the City accepted the proposal of developer Arthur Emil to turn the building into luxury condominiums. The plan agreed to called for fifty-five apartments as well as office space for non-profit organizations. Emil paid the City of New York $4,200,000 for the old Police Headquarters and then proceeded on a $20,000,000 renovation of the building. The grandiose entrance hall was preserved and restored, but most of the interiors, as police offices unamenable to residential use, were scrapped and redone.

This famous photograph of the Old Police Headquarters was taken by Berenice Abbott.

The new apartments featured high ceilings and simple interiors respective of the building’s form. One apartment featured a vaulted living room in what was once a basketball court. Especially privileged is the owner of the single apartment at the northern end of the building which has a garden, while another apartment features a terrace overlooking the garden. While none of the units are small, Edward R. Downe (of media group Downe Communications) took one of the larger apartments to house his large collection of twentieth-century American art.

Rather interestingly, during the planning phase of the 1980’s renovation it was discovered that the building did not fit the land allotted to it in municipal plans. “We were going to closing and we asked for a survey,” Arthur Emil told the Times. “In every single, solitary direction, the building exceeded the lot line, sometimes by several feet.” This put the developers in an awkward position. The sale required the preservation of the exterior as is, but the Building Department of the City would not allow a permit for work to begin unless the proposals fit the plans the City had. This would require the developers to push back the façade as much as seven feet on one side, a change which would never get the approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. It took a few months for the Catch-22 situation to resolve itself as the City finally decided to grandfather in the building in its current form.

The Old Police Headquarters is unquestionably one of the hidden gems of New York, but I can’t help but have mixed feelings towards its current use as luxury residences for movie stars, investment bankers, and fashion designers. My gut instinct tells me it ought to have been preserved as a single unit, and there are any number of uses it could have been put towards (university, library, high school, or perhaps even an archiepiscopal palace). But at the very least its conversion to condominiums preserved the august structure and it still stands there proudly on Centre Street for all Knickerbockers to enjoy, while so many (perhaps even most) of our other monuments of architecture and taste have fallen to the wrecking ball.

The Old Police Headquarters in context.

The rear façade.

This post was published on Wednesday, September 27th, 2006 3:21 pm. It has been categorised under Architecture New York.
28 Sep 2006 11:26 am

I find it interesting that the Chinatown in London is also located in a quarter known as Soho. However I must say the New York Soho sounds much nicer than its sordid London counterpart.

Jeffrey Smith
28 Sep 2006 12:16 pm


28 Sep 2006 1:32 pm

Or perhaps it should be made into Castle Cusack? When you are of course Governor of New York, etc.

28 Sep 2006 5:33 pm

You mean, when he’s King of New York.

Andrew, as usual, I find your sentiments exactly where they should be. Thank God for people like you.

Your only short coming is your attitude toward Ronald Reagan. If you’d been born earlier and lived through the Cold War –especially through things like the Cuban Missle Crisis– you’d understand how unbelievably important and great Ronald Reagan’s achievments were and are.

4 Oct 2006 11:57 pm

Yes Liam, New York’s SoHo is lovely!! And I’m glad to see Andrew is giving it some credit – although the title “hidden” would imply that it is surrounded by less treasure-able buildings, which is not so true. In any case, this is one of my favorite article topics of this site so far. Hurrah Police HQ!

5 Oct 2006 6:59 pm

Completely chuffed to find that the Police Headquarters Building – one of the most spectacular edifices in New York City – has been lauded here. Ever since I first discovered this structure on one of several long walks, I wondered about it.

I wonder whether you have intentions of documenting any of the many fine examples of neo-Renaissance buildings in New York, such as the University Club or the Central Savings Bank on the Upper West Side.

Rickie Murphy
1 Mar 2007 6:02 am

what a really beautiful building..I have previously worked on the renovation of a number of rooms in there ind it was a real thrill…

Han H
1 Apr 2008 9:10 am

The police building is one of my favorite buildings in the city. I pass by it all the time, and for years can’t figure out what’s going on in there. I and my girlfriend asked the doorman what this building do and he was quite short and didn’t wanna answer questions. But thanks to this nice article now I know what this building about.

robert grossman
19 Nov 2009 1:29 pm

Thank you for your fine and thorough article. I’ve lived within sight of this masterpiece most of my life. Had a tour of it when it first opened as an apartment building. I remember the Headquarters Bar well. It still operates as O’Nieals and the (bricked up) tunnel to Headquarters can still be seen there. In many old movies, when the New York police go after a criminal, there is a scene of squad cars pouring out of the underground garage on the Broome Street side with sirens blaring.

Stu S
15 Jan 2010 3:43 pm

Wonderful article. I was researching for a story set circa 1935 and you provided great reference shots and history.

I agree; it’s a shame that it wasn’t turned into something that added to New York rather than luxury apts.

18 Nov 2011 12:10 am

Hey Andrew – any idea of the headquarters hosts events? Trying to get in contact with them. -Emily

11 Jul 2012 1:40 pm

Excellent article. A suburban New Yorker who has visited and worked in NYC since the 1960s and enjoys history and architecture, I was stunned to discover this building in June 2012. I agree that it would have been ideal to keep more of the original design/layout of the interior, but also agree that at least this treasure was saved from the wrecking ball. Stunning that NYC promotional efforts are silent on this treasure.

29 May 2013 9:48 pm

One of my all time favorite buildings in NYC… I just finished doing a painting of it!

Steve Peacock
11 Jul 2014 4:53 am

Lived right behind it for a year on Centre Market Place in z crusty little hovel next to old John Jovino Gun Shop; I was happy with my miniature pad, equally thrilled to look at the Police Building daily. I think there was a $1.5 or $2 million condo when it opened in 1988. The 4-bedroom unit is currently selling for $34 million. Missed the boat.

John George Archer
28 Jul 2014 11:39 am

Justly in the right place, these residence are only a few decades too late.

V. Scott
30 Sep 2014 7:28 pm

Rickie Murphy you stated you worked in the building creating some of the new interiors. Would you happen to have pictures. I am very interested in New York arcutecture. One of the best structures to ever have falling in the name of progress was The old Penn Station. That place was a marvel.

William A Rance
29 Nov 2017 9:27 pm

A most beautiful building. As a Brit, I feel that we should do a reversal on what happened to London Bridge. We should have purchased it while we had the chance, and shipped it to London where it would have found a good home. It just belongs on a London street, close to St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace. Even it’s un-American style is more in keeping with an old-worldly place. Maybe we could have leased it out as a more appropriate embassy building for the United States. What a wonderful idea!

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