Want to know where Judge Joseph Force Crater had his last meal before disappearing forever? Robert Pigott can tell you. His just-completed book, “New York’s Legal Landmarks: A Guide to Legal Edifices, Institutions, Lore, History and Curiosities on the City’s Streets,” is stuffed with such trivia and more momentous events besides.
A history buff who enjoys walking the streets of his native city, Pigott, 54, has been practicing law in New York for more than 25 years.
The Columbia Law graduate is a specialist in nonprofit law who serves as vice president and general counsel of Phipps Houses, which develops, owns and manages low-income housing.
Pigott previously spent nearly 11 years as a section chief and bureau chief in the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau. For his book, he secured a cover endorsement from a former boss—Eliot Spitzer—who said he enjoyed the book but joked “it did make me a bit concerned that when we sent him to court on the Attorney General’s Business, he was more focused on the facades of the courthouse than the substance of the cases!”
The core of Pigott’s paperback guidebook is its descriptions of courthouses, accompanied by old photographs and drawings, that have served the city since its earliest days. He covers 88 in the book; 54 are still standing, and 35 are being used as courthouses. His narrative is peppered with references to the legal luminaries who have practiced in those “edifices” and to the legal milestones and juicy scandals that have played out inside their walls.
Pigott provides some useful maps, and he said he has just started leading walking tours of legal landmarks. He would like to do others, he said—subject, of course, to the demands of his “day job.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: How did you get the idea for this book?
A: A few years ago, I was on a “Discover Brooklyn” kick. On a warm, August Sunday afternoon, I was exploring the Sunset Park neighborhood. I was heading toward the water on 42nd Street. When I got to Fourth Avenue, I came upon a truly majestic building. An apparently recent sign out front said “Community Board 7.” But engraved in stone over the entrances on opposite sides of the building were the words “MAGISTRATES COURT” and “MUNICIPAL COURT.” I’d been practicing law for 25 years, but had no idea what those courts were. I was so intrigued by this forgotten courthouse in a remote corner of Brooklyn that I began researching New York City courthouses. On that Sunday afternoon, I first got the idea that for a book.
Q: Were you confident that there would be a market for “New York Legal Landmarks”?
A: There are so many specialized, niche books on New York City, ranging from guides to cemeteries, theaters, and houses of worship to dog-lover, movie-lover and beer-lover companions to the city. I was surprised that, given the number of lawyers in and around New York City, a historical guidebook written primarily for lawyers had not already been written. I didn’t intend to write a scholarly work (and don’t know if I could have). So the book is organized as a guidebook with each entry tied to an address in New York City. It has plenty of old photographs, and there are location maps in the back for anyone who wants to visit the locations in the book.
Q: How did you research the book? How long did it take to produce it?
A: There was a lot of walking and biking around to visit all the locations in the book. Two unanticipated documentary sources were tre-mendously useful: more than 100 years’ worth of Martindale- Hubbell lawyer directories and nearly as many years’ worth of the New York City Official Directory, the Green Book. Thus, by comparing the 1897 to the 1898 Martindale-Hubbell, I could ascertain when Benjamin Cardozo and his brother moved their law practice from 96 Broadway to 52 Broadway. Similarly, a comparison of the 1918 to the 1919 Green Book revealed the relocation of the old Essex Market Courthouse to Second Avenue and East 2nd Street (in a building that today functions as the home of the Film Anthology Archives). It took a little over a year to research and write 90 percent of the book, but I was continually discovering additional facts and images that I wanted to include—and I still am, even after it’s been published.
Q: Do the older courthouses have more charm than the more modern variety? How does trying a case in older courthouses compare to proceedings in newer ones?
A: I, of course, think the older courthouses have more charm. But the one lengthy trial for which I had principal responsibility was in a “post-war” courthouse, and, once a trial begins, I think you become so engrossed you lose sight of the physical setting.
Q: Do you ever give tours of historic courthouses?
A: I’ve just begun doing walking tours through lower Manhattan, centered around City Hall Park (the home of the Southern District from 1875 to 1937 and of the Tweed Courthouse), Foley Square and Collect Pond Park (where the old “Tombs” courthouse and jail stood until the early 1940s).
Q: Are most lawyers conscious of the physical surroundings in which they ply their trade?
A: I expect that during a long calendars call, even a lawyer not particularly interested in history or architecture will become aware, maybe painfully aware, of his surroundings. But many lawyers who have spoken to me about the book are deeply interested in the rich history of the buildings where they ply their trade.
Q: What is the most surprising thing you learned about New York courthouses?
A: One very interesting theme in the book, I think, is the disappearance of neighborhood courthouses. Until a 1962 amendment of the State Constitution, there were Magistrates’ Courts handling minor criminal matters and Municipal Courts for small civil cases. Their courthouses were spread out in every corner of the City (like the one in Sunset Park). By 1962, the city’s courthouses were mostly centralized in each Borough —primarily around Foley Square in Manhattan, Court Street in Brooklyn and the St. George area in Staten Island. But it’s funny to think that, in the first half 20th Century, a trip to court might not have involved travelling downtown, but rather a short walk in one’s neighborhood.
Q: What happened to these neighborhood courthouses?
A: Some were very modest structures that you wouldn’t expect have been preserved. For example, one Municipal Court had been above an old moviehouse on Broadway and 96th Street. But some were very grand structures that have been put to new uses, such as the Jefferson Market Courthouse (now a library), the Manhattan Children’s Court near Gramercy Park (now part of Baruch College) and the Flushing Town Hall (now home to the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts). Still, it’s sad to see buildings like the Bronx Borough Courthouse on 161st Street and Third Avenue and the Rockaway Beach Courthouse lying fallow.
Q: What about the better-known New York courthouses?
A: For these courthouses, both state and federal, I tried to identify the important trials that took place in them, such as the trials of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs in the federal courthouse at 40 Centre St. and of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owners and Stanford White’s killer, Henry Thaw, in the old Criminal Courts Building which had stood on the current site of the Civil Court at 111 Centre Street. I also tried to highlight tie-ins to movies and books. The New York County Courthouse at 60 Centre St. was the site of such fictional trials at opposite ends of the serious-to-silly spectrum as the ones in “Twelve Angry Men” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” The 1934 Bronx County Courthouse figures prominently in Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel, “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” I also tried to include quirky facts such as Judge Learned Hand’s need to dodge Broadway traffic as he shuttled between his courtroom in the old Post Office and Courthouse formerly at the foot of City Hall Park and his chambers in rented space in the Woolworth Building.
Q: Why do New York courthouses show up so often in movies and television? Are they that iconic?
A: Sometimes, a readily identifiable courthouse is needed for a scene. For example, when Juror No. 8 (Henry Fonda) says good-bye to the elderly Juror No. 9 in “Twelve Angry Men” after they’ve completed their jury duty, the scene is shot on the steps of 60 Centre St., the 1927 New York County Courthouse—perhaps New York City’s iconic courthouse. “Law & Order” always used actual city courthouses, but the show sometimes played a little fast and loose jurisdictionally. In many episodes, criminal defendants were tried in the Surrogate’s Court Courthouse on Chambers Street. Sometimes, a city courthouse doubles for a non-courthouse location and vice versa. For example, in the 2013 movie “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the ornate Surrogate’s Court lobby stood in for Chicago’s Union Station. Conversely, in an episode of the old TV show “Naked City,” a building that is not a courthouse was impressed into juridical duty: an acquitted defendant appears to emerge from the “courthouse” to hail a cab on Central Park West, where there are no courthouses to be found! (The show had used a church on Central Park West at 68th Street to film the scene.)
Q: Are there any courthouses to which you would particularly recommend a visit?
A: Definitely the Surrogate’s Court on Chambers Street behind City Hall. Its lobby transports you to the Paris Opera House. The Appellate Division Courthouse on Madison Avenue and 25th Street is a gem, with its façade statuary and stained glass rotunda in its courtroom. And to think the city was planning to move the court out of that building in the late 1930s! Another wonderful surprise is the Harlem Courthouse on 121st Street between Third and Lexington Avenues. It was built in 1893, but is still a functioning courthouse, rechristened the Harlem Community Justice Center.
Q: Does your book include information about non-courthouse locales that would be interesting to history-loving lawyers?
A: While courthouses are the core of the book, I was also drawn to other kinds of places associated with New York City’s legal history and community—the sorts of places I would point out if were walking the city’s streets with another lawyer I knew to be a history-lover. A lot of famous Americans, such as presidents and near-presidents, cabinet secretaries and U.S. senators practiced law in New York City at some point in their careers. I found it interesting to explore where, for example, FDR or John Foster Dulles or Richard Nixon practiced law. Also, many U. S. Supreme Court justices grew up in New York City. The story of Felix Frankfurter arriving from Vienna at the age of 12 speaking no English, settling with his family on the Lower East Side and making his way through the New York City public schools (including City College before it relocated to Harlem) to end up at Harvard Law School is one of the finest examples of the promise of the immigrant experience in America. Also, there was a rich tradition of New York City lawyers such as Henry Stimson and Elihu Root punctuating their legal careers with important government positions. I included the law firm locations for such individuals.
Q: What was the most satisfying thing about writing the book?
A: Well it’s nice to be able to say, without fear of contradiction, that I am the world’s foremost authority on the location of former New York City Magistrates’ and Municipal Courts. But, more seriously, it was wonderful to find a project that drew on two things very important to me: my love of New York City history and my pride in the traditions of the New York City legal community.
Q: Do you have any sequels in mind?
A: “New York’s Legal Landmarks” is probably the one book I had in me. But I’m sure I could be coaxed out of retirement by a clamoring readership.