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.