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Thread: Surrogate's Court Building - 31 Chambers Street in Manhattan - by John R. Thomas

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    Default Surrogate's Court Building - 31 Chambers Street in Manhattan - by John R. Thomas

    Surrogate's Court

    New York County (Manhattan)
    31 Chambers Street
    New York, NY 10007


    Surrogate's Courthouse is located on the northwest corner of Chambers and Centre Streets in downtown Manhattan and houses the Court of the same name. The Surrogate’s Court/Hall of Records is one of the finest public buildings in New York. The Beaux Arts style masterpiece is a major example of the early 20th century City Beautiful movement in the civic center, along with the Municipal Building and the New York County Courthouse. The idea behind the City Beautiful movement was to transform cities with spectacular, imposing classical buildings, fine artwork, and broad boulevards. The intention was to provide an uplifting experience for the community. The Surrogate’s Court, with its ornate granite facade and opulent marble interior, still makes people feel good about the city. The building was originally designed for use as a Hall of Records and this was its original name. The Surrogate's Court was one of the original tenants, with courtrooms, offices and chambers on the 5th floor. The building was renamed the Surrogate's Courthouse in 1962.

    Planned since 1888 for use as a Hall of Records and home to Surrogate's Court, it took eight years to build, from 1899 to 1907, and cost more than seven million dollars. It was designed by John R. Thomas, a respected and prolific architect who was said to have been responsible for more public and semipublic buildings than any other architect in the country. Thomas adapted his prize-winning design for a new City Hall which was never built. When he died, the Tammany Hall architects Horgan & Slattery took over. The building replaced the old Hall of Records in City Hall Park.

    Built of Hallowell, Maine granite, the seven-story, steel-framed structure was intended to be a fire resistant storehouse for the City's records. The front of the building has a triple arched entrance with eight, thirty-six-foot high granite Corinthian columns above. A tall mansard roof caps the facade. The grand marble staircase in the first floor rotunda reflects the architect's appreciation of the Paris Opera House. Philip Martiny and Henry Kirk Bush-Brown, both respected, prize-winning sculptors, produced the 54 sculptures on the exterior. The statues represent allegorical subjects such as Philosophy and Law, as well as the seasons. The Philip Martiny sculptures on Chambers Street represent figures in New York City history, including DeWitt Clinton and Peter Stuyvesant. Praised muralist William DeLeftwich Dodge created the mosaic murals on the interior depicting the signs of the zodiac. The ornate courtrooms are decorated in gilded plaster and carved wood paneling in Santo Domingo mahogany and English oak. Other lavish interior decoration includes chandeliers and detailed bronze door knobs. An enclosed courtyard in the interior of the building extends from the first to third floors with a skylight on the fourth floor.

    It was popular as soon as it was built, appearing in all the guidebooks of the period, and is one of the most cherished buildings in the city today. It has suffered few damaging alterations over the years and is remarkably intact. The interior is a popular site for filming and can be seen in dozens of movies and commercials. It is a designated New York City exterior and interior landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

    ©2005 - All Rights Reserved

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    Convenience and Elegance Await Agency at New Home

    Angel Franco/The New York Times
    The new offices of the Department of Cultural Affairs will wrap around the
    second-floor balcony of the two-story central lobby in the landmark
    Surrogate's Court building at 31 Chambers Street.

    August 22, 2006

    A long-empty suite of grand public rooms in the Surrogate’s Court building, overlooking City Hall Park and Foley Square, is being reclaimed as the headquarters of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

    It will be the agency’s fourth home in 30 years and the first equipped with monumental fireplaces in luscious Siena marble, arched mahogany doorways with coiled dragons carved in high relief, knobs adorned by two-and-a-half-inch cherubim, and custom-built cases in which the city once stored stacks of oversized libers — the books recording deeds and mortgages.

    It will also be the first time the city’s cultural agency has been anywhere close to City Hall.

    Such proximity would be a boost to the agency, suggested Randall Bourscheidt, a former deputy commissioner who is now president of the Alliance for the Arts, “with all the symbolism that comes with that, as well as the convenience of seeing the mayor.”

    As a division of the Parks Department, its home was originally the Arsenal in Central Park, at Fifth Avenue and 64th Street. In 1976, when Mayor Abraham D. Beame established Cultural Affairs as a separate department, the agency was given the former Gallery of Modern Art at 2 Columbus Circle to serve as its headquarters. It moved in 1998 to the former McGraw-Hill Building at 330 West 42nd Street.

    There, it inhabits an inefficient and claustrophobic racecourse layout of offices, from which just about none of its 44 employees can see or find anyone else. “The amount of time you spend chasing someone really does sap energy that could otherwise be productive,” said Kate D. Levin, the commissioner of cultural affairs.

    The Surrogate’s Court building at 31 Chambers Street, also called the Hall of Records, was completed in 1907. Its elegant Beaux-Arts design belies the bare-knuckled politics behind its construction, which ran well over schedule and budget in the hands of a Tammany-connected architectural firm, Horgan & Slattery, successors to the original designer, John R. Thomas.

    Its second floor was used until 2001 by the city register’s office of the Finance Department for the registration and storage of deeds and mortgages. Since then, apart from once serving as a set for the television show “Law and Order,” the space has largely stood empty.

    Martha K. Hirst, the commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which maintains the building, approached Ms. Levin about moving. “It just seemed right that this beautiful space be inhabited by people who really appreciate being there and whose function is, in part, to celebrate such things,” Ms. Hirst said.

    The move also takes the agency out of private space. It is now paying about $690,000 a year in rent on 42nd Street. On paper, the department has more space uptown, but when unusable areas are deducted, like corridors, elevator shafts and walls, the two spaces are roughly comparable, about 13,000 square feet.

    The $4.1 million renovation of the second floor at the Surrogate’s Court building, designed by Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, is nearing completion and the agency expects to move there next month.

    Its new offices — wrapping around the balcony of the courthouse’s ornate central lobby — are arranged on the bullpen principle adopted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg at City Hall, with four large open rooms rather than a warren of small offices. Even Ms. Levin’s desk will sit out in the open. There are four conference rooms and an especially generous public meeting room.

    Anachronisms abound. The fireboxes in the nonworking fireplaces are ornamented either with symbols of justice or the seal of New Netherland (a beaver ringed by the words “Sigillum Novi Belgii”). Ornate doors mark the shaftways through which very small elevators once carried judges to their chambers upstairs. In a room on the Reade Street side of the building is a curving marble staircase that originally led to the third floor but now leads nowhere.

    These are all being preserved, as is the original height of the rooms: 15 feet 9 inches. Ms. Levin summed up the renovation philosophy simply: “No dropped ceilings.”

    “This clearly is a product of an age that cared about itself,” she added, as she led an inspection tour last week. “We have the opportunity to say: ‘Don’t take it down. Cherish it. Make it better.’ And not in a frivolous way. Cultural buildings are part of our heritage, and a tremendous financial engine.”

    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  3. #3
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    Also in the Surrogate's Court Building:


    Leonora Gidlund, Director
    31 Chambers Street, Room 103
    New York, NY 10007
    • Open to the public Monday through Thursday 9 AM to 4:30 PM, Friday 9 AM to 1 PM
    For more information, call 311 or (212) NEW-YORK if outside of NYC.
    You can also e-mail the Municipal Archives via the Contact Us form.


    Founded in 1950, the Municipal Archives preserves and makes available the historical records of New York City municipal government. Dating from the early seventeenth century to the present, the Municipal Archives holdings total approximately 160,000 cubic feet. Accessioned from more than one hundred city agencies, the collections comprise office records, manuscript material, still and moving images, ledger volumes, vital records, maps, blueprints, and sound recordings.

    Collection highlights include vital records, census, and city directories that are an essential resource for patrons conducting family history research, the number one hobby in America. Records pertaining to the administration of criminal justice, dating from 1684 to 1966, constitute the largest and most comprehensive collection of such material in the English-speaking world. There are more than one million photographic images in fifty collections including pictures of every house and building in the city, ca. 1940.

    Legislative branch records date back to the first Dutch colonial government in New Amsterdam. Robert Moses’ papers document the city’s vast infrastructure from 1934 through 1959, and the records of mayoral administrations provide extensive information about every aspect of New York City from 1849 to the present.

    The Municipal Archives is committed to long-term preservation of the materials in its care. The institution maintains a conservation unit that performs complex document treatments, a micrographics unit to reformat materials, and a photography unit that produces new prints, transparencies, negatives, and scans from vintage photographic materials for both in-house use and for patrons.

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    This building is a masterpiece. Nevertheless, I'd love to see the elimination of the empty lot to the west which is used by city employees for parking. It would be nice if it was transformed into a park.

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    Arguably one of the best buildings in NYC. Won't psot my pics of it as they were fairly unispiring/standard fodder.

  6. #6


    The Hall of Records of 1907: Taking Credit Where Little Is Due

    Published: December 16, 2007

    THE Surrogate’s Court building at Chambers and Centre Streets, erected in 1907 as the Hall of Records, is now covered with scaffolding, as the city proceeds with extensive facade repairs.

    Inland Architect/Office for Metropolitan History

    BY HORGAN & SLATTERY The Hall of Records in 1907, at Chambers and Centre Streets. Arthur J. Horgan and Vincent J. Slattery, Tammany Hall architects, had their names put on the cornerstone, but it appears that all they did was to select the building's sculptural decoration.

    The building was the biggest and most famous by Arthur J. Horgan and Vincent J. Slattery, architects with Tammany Hall connections whose appointment outraged political reformers.

    Mr. Horgan and Mr. Slattery first appeared in city directories around 1890, when they listed themselves as builders. Soon they referred to themselves as architects, but they had only relatively humble commissions. These included the 1895 row of houses at 329 to 343 West 71st Street, a lively if untutored riff on the tan brick and terra-cotta facade of Stanford White’s 1891 Century Association building at 7 West 43rd Street.

    But in the 1897 election they got a lucky break: Mr. Slattery was a longtime Tammany insider, and the Tammany candidate, Robert Van Wyck, won the mayor’s race. A New York Times editorial said Mayor Van Wyck asserted control over “every public building on which the divvy was not satisfactory to the organization.” This included reviewing proposals for the elaborate design of the new Hall of Records.

    The author of that design, John R. Thomas, was a leading architect and had detailed a sumptuous Beaux-Arts style building of granite, with extensive sculpture and decoration.

    But despite the unlikelihood of a small-scale firm’s actually having expertise in something as complicated as a major public building, Horgan & Slattery found multiple defects.

    Just as soon as Tammany Hall moved to alter municipal construction projects, the Republican-dominated State Legislature began to investigate. In August 1899, Mr. Horgan and Mr. Slattery were summoned to testify. The Times, in an article headlined “Horgan & Slattery, the Architects, on the Rack,” described Mr. Horgan as “a young man, about 35 years old, with black hair and mustache and a rosy complexion” and noted that Mr. Slattery was often “decidedly aggressive.”

    Investigators asked technical questions about beam sizes and other details, which both men sidestepped. Their reputation was not helped when, during unrelated bankruptcy proceedings, Mr. Horgan said he couldn’t remember how much money he made from their partnership.

    Although The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and The New York Tribune were critical, it was a Times editorial that pilloried Mr. Horgan and Mr. Slattery and deplored the administration’s “Horganization and Slatterification” of everything from garbage scows to monumental design.
    “The impudence of this Horgan & Slattery matter is really beyond anything we have experienced since the year 1871,”

    The Times editorial said, an allusion to the Tweed scandals three decades earlier.

    The Hall of Records was the most important project to cross the partners’ drafting boards, and their main chance seemed at hand when Mr. Thomas, the architect, died in 1901 before actual work began. Van Wyck quickly appointed Horgan & Slattery as successors.

    When, a few months later, the reformer Seth Low won the mayoral election, he almost immediately moved to discharge the firm. He was unable to prevent Horgan & Slattery from taking control of the building’s sculptural decoration, but his administration made use of the Art Commission, which repeatedly rejected designs by the sculptors that Horgan & Slattery retained.

    In 1903, The New York Sun reported that, to embarrass the commission, Mr. Horgan said that he and his partner had submitted copies of works by Michelangelo and Leonardo, which were duly rejected by the unsuspecting

    The next day, the partners denied the report, but the suggestion was that the Art Commission was carrying out a vendetta against Tammany’s architects.

    The Hall of Records was completed in 1907 — with the names of Mr. Horgan and Mr. Slattery carved into the cornerstone, beside that of Mr. Thomas.

    Mayor Low was able to wrest a few plum commissions from the firm, like the 69th Regiment Armory, at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street. But from 1901 on, Horgan & Slattery had at least a dozen city projects, most of which it carried out, like the First Battery Armory at 56 West 66th Street.

    The architects filed suit over the projects they were denied, and The Times reported that they won much of their $600,000 claim. Their firm was apparently dissolved in 1906.

    The career of Arthur Horgan and Vincent Slattery leaves several unanswered questions. First, the assumption at the time was that they arranged projects so that Tammany could manipulate kickbacks — but no specific allegations were ever even made, let alone proved. Second, their work rises far above the hack category into which it is are often dumped. The West 71st Street row houses, and firehouses like the one for Engine Company 73 at 655 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx are little gems when judged by 21st-century standards.

    Finally, there is the irony of the Hall of Records, their most prestigious commission. Mary B. Dierickx, a preservation architect, has studied the building extensively, and her research indicates that, except for the sculpture, Mr. Thomas’s design survived unscathed. Mr. Horgan and Mr. Slattery made few, if any, changes to the building to which they so proudly affixed their names.

    Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

  7. #7


    Philip Hone, mayor in 1826, gleams after an overdue cleaning, while the grimy Peter Stuyvesant waits his turn.

  8. #8


    More history buffed

  9. #9


    I always wondered why the empty lot directly across from this, next to the Emigrant Bank building (or is it adjacent to the Court building) was never developed. Something very tall and thin would look gorgeous there.
    Last edited by avngingandbright; April 7th, 2009 at 07:21 PM.

  10. #10


    I always thought 80 South Street would look great there.

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  13. #13
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    Construction of the Hall of Records, later renamed the Surrogate's Courthouse. It was built in 1899 - 1907 from a design by architect John R. Thomas, who died during construction. This building replaced the older Hall of Records that stood to the south near City Hall ...

    The old Hall of Records:

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    From Park Row to the south:

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    Nearly demolished:

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    The new Hall of Records rising:

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    The completed Hall of Records in 1907, with major entry on the east facade facing Centre Street (later removed when Centre Street was widened in 1961 "the two sculptures flanking the entrance were removed to the front of the New York County Courthouse at 60 Centre Street":

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    Across Reade Street to the north once stood the law office of Aaron Burr at 11 Reade Street. Within the building Burr and partners from the Bank of Manhattan had constructed a large tank for water collection & distribution (built of riveted iron plates, 25' feet high, 130' in circumference). The tank was connected by a pump to the water source in the old Collect Pond (in the area where Foley Square is now):

    At the age of 55, Burr re-opened his NYC law offices in June 1812. His offices on Reade Street just east of Broadway were where A.T. Stewart's Marble Palace building now stands. A later Burr law office was located by the Collect Pond, at 11 Reade Street just west of Centre Street, right across from the main water pump of his Manhattan Company.

    The four-story building was demolished in 1914.

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