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The Tombs

Coordinates: 40°42′59.8″N 74°00′05″W / 40.716611°N 74.00139°W / 40.716611; -74.00139
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The Tombs
(Manhattan Detention Complex)
The North Tower of the complex as it appeared in 2013
LocationNew York City
Security classMunicipal Jail
Opened1838 (original building)
Former nameHalls of Justice, Manhattan House of Detention
Managed byNew York City Department of Corrections
DirectorCommissioner Joseph Ponte

The Tombs was the colloquial name for Manhattan Detention Complex[1] (formerly the Bernard B. Kerik Complex during 2001–2006[2]), a former municipal jail at 125 White Street in Lower Manhattan, New York City. It was also the nickname for three previous city-run jails in the former Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan, in an area now known as the Civic Center.

The original Tombs was officially known as the Halls of Justice, built in 1838 in an Egyptian Revival architectural style, similar in form to a mastaba.[1] It may have been this style that caused it to be called "the Tombs", although other theories exist. It was built as a replacement for the Colonial-era Bridewell Prison located in City Hall Park, built in 1735. The new structure incorporated material from the demolished Bridewell to save money.[3]

The four buildings known as The Tombs were:

  • 1838–1902, New York City Halls of Justice and House of Detention
  • 1902–1941, City Prison
  • 1941–2023, Manhattan House of Detention (became Manhattan Detention Complex South Tower in 1983)
  • 1990–2023, Manhattan Detention Complex North Tower

The two existing buildings began demolition in 2023, in preparation for a planned replacement jail building.


Halls of Justice and House of Detention, 1838–1902[edit]

An Egyptian-Revival-style building on a street corner; there are doric columns on the façade to the right of the image. There are men on the street, and work is being done using cranes, on an adjacent building out of frame to the right.
The original Egyptian-Revival-style Tombs building in a photograph from 1893. Leonard Street, left. Centre Street, right.
An etching of a man and a woman being married in a jail cell. Sunlight streams in through a small window.
Artist's depiction of the wedding of John C. Colt in The Tombs, 1842
Harry Kendall Thaw in his cell, 1912

The first complex to have the nickname was an Egyptian Revival design by John Haviland completed in 1838. There was a rumor at the time that the building was inspired by a picture of an Egyptian tomb that appeared in John Lloyd Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Egypt, although this appears to be untrue.[4][5] The building was 253 feet, 3 inches in length and 200 feet, 5 inches wide, and it occupied a full block, surrounded by Centre Street, Franklin Street, Elm Street (today's Lafayette), and Leonard Street. It initially accommodated about 300 prisoners, and $250,000 was allocated in 1835 to build it, but various cost overruns occurred prior to completion of the project.

The building site had been created by filling in the Collect Pond that was the principal water source for Colonial New York City. Industrialization and population density by the late 18th century resulted in the severe pollution of the Collect, so it was condemned, drained, and filled in by 1817. The landfill job was poorly done, however, and the ground began to subside in less than 10 years. The resulting swampy, foul-smelling conditions transformed the neighborhood into a slum known as Five Points by the time that prison construction started in 1838. The heavy masonry of Haviland's design was built atop vertical piles of lashed hemlock tree trunks in a bid for stability, but the entire structure began to sink soon after it was opened. This damp foundation was primarily responsible for its unsanitary conditions in the decades that followed. Charles Dickens wrote about the jail in American Notes: "Such indecent and disgusting dungeons as these cells, would bring disgrace upon the most despotic empire in the world!"[6]

The Tombs' formal title was The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, as it housed the city's courts, police, and detention facilities. It was a notable example of Egyptian Revival architecture, although opinion varied greatly concerning its actual merit. As Dickens wrote: "What is this dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter's palace in a melodrama?"

The prison was well known for its corruption and was the scene of numerous scandals and escapes during its early history. A fire destroyed part of the building on November 18, 1842, the same day that a notorious killer named John C. Colt was due to be hanged. Apparently it was an escape attempt on Colt's part that failed, and he fatally stabbed himself in his cell.[7] Convicted murderer and New York City politician William J. Sharkey earned national notoriety for escaping from the prison disguised as a woman on November 22, 1872. He was never captured and his fate is unknown.[8]

Rebecca Salome Foster, a prison relief worker and missionary, became known as "the Tombs Angel" for her efforts to help and advocate on behalf of the many poor people held in squalid conditions at the Tombs. A monument to her, built in 1902 and put in storage in 1940, was rededicated in 2019 in the New York State Supreme Court's lobby.[6]

City Prison, 1902–1941[edit]

The "Bridge of Sighs" connecting the 1902 Tombs prison at left with the 1894 Manhattan Criminal Courts building, looking west from Centre Street
The Bridge of Sighs c. 1896

In 1902, the 1838 building was replaced by a million-dollar City Prison featuring an eight-story Châteauesque facade with conical towers along Centre Street, bounded by Centre Street, White Street, Elm Street (today's Lafayette), and Leonard Street.[9]

The architects were Frederick Clarke Withers and Walter Dickson from Albany, who had been partners since the 1880s. This was their final major commission. In September 1900, the architects complained that construction would be delayed for a year and cost an additional $250,000 due to the unnecessary insertion of corrupt Tammany Hall architects Horgan and Slattery into the project.[10]

The building was connected to the 1892 Manhattan Criminal Courts Building with a "Bridge of Sighs", crossing four stories above Franklin Street. There was also an Annex with another 144 cells that was finished in 1884.

Manhattan House of Detention, 1941–1974[edit]

The Manhattan House of Detention (left) was built in 1941, at the same time as the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse (right). It became the South Tower of the expanded and renamed Manhattan Detention Complex once the new North Tower opened in 1990.

The 1902 prison was replaced in 1941 by a high-rise facility across the street on the east side of Centre Street. The 795,000 square foot[11] Art Deco architecture facility was designed by architects Harvey Wiley Corbett and Charles B. Meyers.[12][13]

The facility is the northernmost of the four 15-story towers of the New York City Criminal Courts Building at 100 Centre Street, bounded by Centre Street, White Street, Baxter Street, and Hogan Place. The three southern towers are wings of a single integrated structure sharing a five-story "crown"[14] which house the city's Criminal and Supreme Courts, city offices, and various departments, including the headquarters of the Department of Corrections. The northern tower is freestanding, with the separate address of 125 White Street. It was officially named the Manhattan House of Detention for Men (MHD), although it was still referred to popularly as The Tombs.

By 1969, the Tombs ranked as the worst of the city's jails, both in overall conditions and in overcrowding. It held an average of 2,000 inmates in spaces designed for 925.[15] Inmates rioted on August 10, 1970, after multiple warnings about falling budgets, aging facilities, and rising populations, and after an informational picket of City Hall by union correctional officers drawing attention to the pressures. Rioters took command of the entire ninth floor, and five officers were held hostage for eight hours, until state officials agreed to hear prisoner grievances and take no punitive action against the rioters.[16] Despite that promise, Mayor John Lindsay had the primary troublemakers shipped upstate to the state's Attica Correctional Facility which likely contributed to the Attica Prison riot about a year later.[17]

Within a month after the riot, the New York City Legal Aid Society filed a landmark class action suit on behalf of pre-trial detainees held in the Tombs. The city decided to close the Tombs on December 20, 1974, after years of litigation and after federal judge Morris E. Lasker agreed that the prison's conditions were so bad as to be unconstitutional. They shipped the remaining 400 inmates to Rikers Island, where conditions were not much better.[18]

Manhattan Detention Complex, 1983–2023[edit]

The Manhattan Detention Complex consisted of a South Tower, the former Manhattan House of Detention remodeled and reopened in 1983, and a North Tower across White Street, completed in 1990. The complex housed only male inmates, most of them pretrial detainees. The total capacity of the two buildings was nearly 900 people.[19]

The jail was named The Bernard B. Kerik Complex in December 2001 at the direction of New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.[2] Kerik was commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections from 1998 to 2000[20][1] before becoming police commissioner.[20] New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered Kerik's name removed after he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in 2006, committed during his tenure as a city employee.[1]

In 2019, the New York City Council announced plans to build four new jails citywide to replace Rikers Island, including a high-rise jail tower on the site of the Tombs.[21] The New York Daily News reported that the city planned to close the complex prior to the end of November 2020.[22] The demolition of the Tombs attracted criticism from landlords, local residents, and prison-reform advocates.[21][23] Opponents claimed the redevelopment would harm local residents and businesses.[21] An injunction preventing the jail tower's construction was issued by the New York Supreme Court in 2020 but was overturned the next year.[24] Two artists also filed a lawsuit to preserve artwork that was displayed on the Tombs' facade, but U.S. district judge Lewis A. Kaplan declined to grant an injunction,[25] and seven murals were subsequently removed.[26] The demolition of the Tombs was finally approved in April 2023[27][28] but was paused after further objections.[29] Demolition continued despite objection by local residents.[30]

Notable people[edit]

In November 2000, 16 people associated with the Opie and Anthony radio show were arrested and held in The Tombs overnight during a promotion for "The Voyeur Bus", a mostly glass bus carting topless women through Manhattan with a police escort.[31]



  1. ^ a b c d Chan, Sewell (July 3, 2006). "Disgraced and Penalized, Kerik Finds His Name Stripped Off Jail". New York Times. Retrieved February 16, 2021.
  2. ^ a b "Mayor Giuliani and Correction Commissioner Fraser rename the Manhattan Detention Complex 'The Bernard B. Kerik Complex'" (Press release). City of New York. December 12, 2001. Retrieved February 16, 2021.
  3. ^ Carrott, Richard G. (1978). The Egyptian revival: its sources, monuments, and meaning, 1808–1858. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 165. ISBN 978-0520033245. LCCN 76024579. OCLC 633069010.
  4. ^ "Doom of the Old Tombs; Soon to be Removed to Make Way for New Prison". The New York Times (July 4, 1896)
  5. ^ Carrott, Richard G. The Egyptian Revival: Its Sources, Monuments, and Meaning, 1808–1858. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1978. p. 165
  6. ^ a b Libbey, Peter (June 16, 2019). "New York's Tribute to the 'Tombs Angel': Lost, Found, Now Restored". The New York Times. Retrieved June 17, 2019.
  7. ^ Kernan, J. Frank. Reminiscences of the Old Fire Laddies and Volunteer Fire Departments of New York p. 220
  8. ^ Walling, George W. Recollections of a New York Chief of Police. New York: Caxton Book Concern, Ltd., 1887. pp. 292–296.
  9. ^ http://www.nyc-architecture.com/IM-111002/110927-GON072-04.jpg [bare URL image file]
  10. ^ "City Prison Alterations", The New York Times, September 7, 1900
  11. ^ http://www.newyorklawjournal.com/id=1202475526745/One-Month-After-Blaze-at-Key-NYC-Couthouse,-Miseries-Continue?slreturn=20140126031806 [dead link]
  12. ^ Wolfe, Gerard R. (2003) New York, 15 Walking Tours: An Architectural Guide to the Metropolis. (New York: McGraw-Hill Professional (ISBN 0071411852 ), p. 102
  13. ^ Department of Citywide Administrative Services, City of New York. "Manhattan Criminal Court Building". Archived from the original on February 21, 2009. Retrieved December 30, 2008.
  14. ^ "Criminal Courts Building, New York City". SkyscraperPage.com. Retrieved May 2, 2022.
  15. ^ Courts, Corrections, and the Constitution: The Impact of Judicial ... edited by John J. DiIulio, page 140
  16. ^ Courts, Corrections, and the Constitution: The Impact of Judicial ... edited by John J. DiIulio, page 143
  17. ^ States of Siege : U.S. Prison Riots, 1971–1986, by Public Safety Research at the Urban Research Institute University of Louisville, page 26
  18. ^ Courts, Corrections, and the Constitution: The Impact of Judicial ... edited by John J. DiIulio, page 149
  19. ^ "Facilities Overview – Department of Correction". City of New York. Archived from the original on April 20, 2014. Retrieved March 7, 2018. Manhattan Detention Complex – capacity: 898. This lower Manhattan command consists of two buildings designated the North and South Towers, connected by a bridge. The North Tower was opened in 1990. The South Tower, formerly the Manhattan House of Detention, or the "Tombs," was opened in 1983, after a complete remodeling. The complex houses male detainees, most of them undergoing the intake process or facing trial in New York County (Manhattan).
  20. ^ a b "Bernard Kerik Fast Facts". CNN. March 4, 2020. Retrieved February 16, 2021.
  21. ^ a b c Poon, Linda (June 17, 2022). "Rikers Jail Replacement Plan Pits Chinatown Against New York City". Bloomberg.com. Retrieved March 2, 2024.
  22. ^ Marcius, Chelsia Rose (October 9, 2020). "NYC to close two city jails by November: 'The Tombs' in Lower Manhattan and a jail on Rikers Island". New York Daily News. Retrieved October 18, 2020.
  23. ^ Chan, Wilfred (August 21, 2023). "New York is building the world's tallest jail in Chinatown. Can anyone stop it?". the Guardian. Retrieved March 2, 2024.
  24. ^ Insider, Business (April 22, 2022). "Residents fight plans for 'mega jail' in New York City's Chinatown". South China Morning Post. Retrieved March 2, 2024. {{cite web}}: |first= has generic name (help)
  25. ^ Small, Zachary (May 19, 2022). "Demolition for Jail Can Go Forward, Judge Rules in a Suit Brought by Artists". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 2, 2024.
  26. ^ Duddridge, Natalie (November 10, 2023). "Artists mourn loss of Manhattan Detention Center murals as buildings are demolished". CBS New York. Retrieved March 2, 2024.
  27. ^ "Demolition to start on White Street jails". Tribeca Citizen. April 20, 2023. Retrieved March 2, 2024.
  28. ^ Garber, Nick (April 20, 2023). "Teardown of Manhattan jail set to begin amid Rikers uncertainty". Crain's New York Business. Retrieved March 2, 2024.
  29. ^ Johnson, Stephon (April 26, 2023). "City Hits Pause on Demolition of Manhattan Detention Center After Outcry From Locals". THE CITY – NYC News. Retrieved March 2, 2024.
  30. ^ Chen, Stefanos; Chan, Mable (April 1, 2024). "Anger in New York Over Huge Chinatown Jail Project". The New York Times. Retrieved April 13, 2024.
  31. ^ Rashbaum, William (February 12, 2000). "Escort of Voyeur Bus Suspended by Police". The New York Times. Retrieved July 5, 2007.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

40°42′59.8″N 74°00′05″W / 40.716611°N 74.00139°W / 40.716611; -74.00139