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"Rededication of Queens Supreme Court House Highlights Its 60th Anniversary"—by Jeff Gottlieb

courthouse photoThe Queens Supreme Court House, located at 88-11 Sutphin Boulevard, Jamaica, will be rededicated on its 60th Anniversary, on Monday, March 1, 1999, at 9:30 A.M., in Room 25. An assemblage of Supreme and Civil Court Judges will be present along with invited guests. The general public will be admitted.

Considered the finest example of neo-classic architecture in Queens, the courthouse has Corinthian columns, seven types of marble adorning its interior lobby, a grand staircase and acclaimed murals depicting Mosaic Law and Constitutional Law.

Dedicated on March 1, 1939, by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, it was the most expensive ($5,637,189) and tallest (equivalent to 12 stories) public building ever erected in Queens.

Its status and beauty remain undiminished and will be enhanced by a $40,000,000 renovation to begin in a few weeks.

Hosted by the Honorable Steven W. Fisher, Administrative Judge of Queens County, the ceremony speakers list includes Keynote Speaker Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, Guy J. Mangano, Presiding Judge of the New York State Appellate Division, Second Department, Jonathan Lippman, Chief Administrative Judge of the Courts, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown.

A collation will follow the one hour ceremony. At the end of the collation there will be a tour of the Supreme Court House and forecourt by Jeff Gottlieb and Mark Haken of the Central Queens Historical Association and Andrew Walsh, an officer of the courts.

The 60th Anniversary organizing committee includes Judge Fisher, Supreme Court Judges Robert T. Groh, Arthur W. Lonschein and Sidney Leviss; Paul Lewis, Executive Assistant to Judge Fisher; Mark Haken, Jeff Gottlieb and Andrew Walsh.

Due to the work of Judge Groh and courtesy of the Queens Borough Public Library, enlarged photographs of the early courthouse and public personalities will be hung outside of Room 25 for viewing.

For further information, please contact Paul Weiss at (718) 520-3798 or Jeff Gottlieb, at (718) 793-2255.

ORIGINS OF THE NEW YORK STATE SUPREME COURT BUILDING, JAMAICA, QUEENS

The beginnings of the magnificent New York state Supreme Court building in Jamaica, Queens was a victory for cooperation and vision.

At its inception, it was known as the General Court House. The General Court House lot, at 88th Avenue and Sutphin Boulevard, became city property under condemnation proceedings from the Diocese of Brooklyn, on July 15, 1935, for $350.000. Bishop Molloy had allowed it to be used as a playing field, on loan to the city, after its use as a driving license test area for city residents. It had been approved as a potential court site in 1931.

There was a need for a new court site. Potential areas included Long Island City (where the old 25-10 Court Square courthouse was considered an antiquated fire trap); Rego Park, near the present-day Burger King, on Queens Boulevard at 62nd Avenue; the Parental School (now Queens College); the Jamaica Normal School (now Hillcrest High School and P.S. 82), on Highland Avenue off Parsons Boulevard, Jamaica; opposite King Park, at Ray Street (153rd Street), Jamaica; next to Jamaica Town Hall, at Parsons Boulevard and Jamaica Avenue, facing the elevated line; and 175th Street, north of Hillside Avenue.

Leading Jamaica citizens formed the Jamaica Committee for the Retention of Public Buildings, later the Jamaica Civic Center Committee. It included architect George H. Bruns, Warren H. Hastings as chairman, clothing store owner Harry Binderoff, attorney (later judge) Herbert H. O'Brien, developer George M. Gross, store owner Harry Gertz, philanthropist Robert W. Higbie, Jr., Robert Taishoff and clothing store owner Walter Burden. Through Judge Charles Colden, they won the ear of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who picked Jamaica as the general site of the facility.

The Sutphin Boulevard location was selected because it was close to the Jamaica station of the Long Island Railroad, near the major shopping center in Queens, and a block from the proposed IND subway station at Sutphin Boulevard and Hillside Avenue. Being at the nexus of transportation was important. The Q44 bus from Flushing was brought on route in 1938.

Jamaica had a role in the origination of two Queens legal institutions.

The Queens County Bar Association had called for a new court house for at least ten years prior to 1935. The association had been formed on July 15, 1876, at the Garden City Hotel, and held its second meeting at the Jamaica Town Hall on November 15, 1876.

Queens District Attorney Charles P. Sullivan was also anxious to move, since the county and city courts and the Supreme Court were crammed into the inadequate English Renaissance-style Long Island City Supreme Court building. The New York State Attorney General had represented the people in Queens courts until 1801, when the Queens District Attorney's office was created. The first postmaster of Jamaica, Elphalet Wickes, became the first Queens District Attorney in 1801.

The county court house had been located in Jamaica from early colonial days to 1764. A new courthouse was build in 1764, which lasted until 1787, when the court was relocated to Mineola. (Queens County included the present-day area of Nassau County until 1899.) In 1877, the court moved to the populous industrial area of Long Island City, into a French Second Empire-style, mansard-roofed building. Between the burning of the Long Island City facility, in 1903, and its reopening, in 1908, judicial facilities were moved to Flushing Town Hall, at present-day 137-35 Northern Boulevard.

The new courthouse was located on a complete city block, with a 366-foot frontage on Sutphin Boulevard and 285 feet in depth on 88th and 89th Avenues. Its eastern boundary was 148th Street.

The Works Progress Administration gave an outright grant of $2,175,930, with the total estimated cost for the building being $4,850,000, exclusive of the $350,000 land purchase. The state director of the Public Works Administration said it was the most expensive building in Queens. When the court was finally in operation, the costs were totaled, with $4,960,171 spent on construction and $5,637,189 figured as total costs.

Selected architects were Alfred H. Eccles (born in Astoria, known for the BethEl Synagogue in Astoria and the Tudor-style Grosvenor Square Apartments, at 150 Burns Street, in Forest Hills Gardens) and William Knowles, with offices in Long Island City. Knowles had designed the Children's Shelter in Jamaica and, with James Dwight Baum, the classical, Ionic-columned Flushing Post office on Main Street.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Burt Jay Humphrey worked with the architects on the General Court House plans.

John J. Kennedy, head of the John Kennedy and Company construction firm, which had done several public schools of worth, including P.S. 144 in Forest Hills and the magnificent Art Deco Queens General Hospital, was given the contact for the courthouse and went to work almost immediately.

Ground breaking occurred on October 5, 1936, with Mayor LaGuardia presiding and prayers offered by Father John Gresser (Presentation Church), Reverend Andrew Magill (First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica) and Rabbi William S. Malev (Jamaica Jewish Center). A reception was held, sponsored by the architects, at the Franklin Hotel in Jamaica. Eccles and Knowles received $157,218 for their labors.

The cornerstone laying ceremony was on October 22, 1937, with John Adikes, President of the Chamber of Commerce of the Borough of Queens presiding and Judge Charles Colden, Mayor LaGuardia and Queens Borough President George Upton Harvey speaking. The National Anthem was sung by the Jamaica High School glee club and a reproduction of the United States Constitution placed in the cornerstone.

And what a month for LaGuardia! From late September to late October 1937, he opened the new campus of Brooklyn College, saw the opening of Queens College in Flushing and installed the cornerstone for the Queens General Court House. Was it a coincidence, or was it timing for his reelection efforts, with the general election set for early November 1937?

The completed court house dedication date was Wednesday, March 1, 1939. Mayor LaGuardia, in an untypical, self-effacing mood, said, "I don't care who claims the paternity so long as Queens County has the baby."

Reverend Andrew Magill gave the Invocation and Father Joseph A. Murphy, of St. Bonaventure Church, gave the Benediction. A flag was raised by the Major John W. Mark Post, American Legion. The Queens County Bar Association gave a reception at the Forest Hills Inn.

On Tuesday, March 7, 1939, the Supreme Court, Part 1 Trial Term, opened its first case.

All civil cases in the borough would be handled in the big building. It housed the offices of the District Attorney, County Clerk, Civil Court, Supreme Court and Surrogate's Court. Located within the air-conditioned building was the naturalization bureau, a motor vehicle bureau, the bar association and a law library.

Jamaica would have to wait a few years for a new court. In 1966, when the new central library opened at Merrick Boulevard and 89th Avenue, plans were put into motion to create another court house in Queens. The site of family court for forty years (1931-1971, at 105-35 Union Hall Street, was considered "obsolete and inadequate." The old central Queens Borough Public Library, on 89th Avenue and Parsons Boulevard, was converted into a Family Court for $4.6 million.

After 400,000 cubic feet of earth was moved and an average of 800 men a day worked a total of 1,235,000 hours putting into place 120,000 cubic feet of marble, 5,400 tons of heavy steel for framework and 450,000 pounds of steel rods in the concrete, what did the new General Court House look like?

The forecourt leading to the building was eighty feet deep and included the full block front. It led to an eight-foot flight of stairs and the front of the seven-story limestone structure, with a facade highlighted by a Corinthian colonnade of eight fluted, freestanding columns, terminating in coupled, engaged pilasters. Bas reliefs over the door showed protectors and divine authors of the law. The bronze doors featured outstanding lawgivers: Hammurabi, Confucius, Moses, Manu, Gaius, Mohammed, Edward I and Grotius.

The main lobby, running the full length of the building, was 184 feet long and 25 feet wide. The walls, floors, columns and pilasters were of several varieties of marble. All other lobbies and corridors were paved in terrazzo. A seven-story building, the sixth and seventh floors were set back from the main body of the building on all sides.

The grand jury rooms and the county clerk's office opened onto the main lobby. The second floor had grand jury rooms and seven city courtrooms. Judges' chambers and general offices for the city courts filled the third floor. The fourth floor had seven Supreme Courtrooms. The fifth floor had judges' chambers and offices. The Supreme Court Library was on the sixth floor, as were four more Supreme Courtrooms, the Surrogate's Court and the Surrogate's offices. The seventh floor housed public offices for the Surrogate and a large public space for all offices. Private elevators and stairs were reserved for judges.

Lofty ceilings for the court rooms meant that the building was equal in height to a twelve-story structure. It was and still is one of the tallest public buildings in Queens. The stairways, in the rear of the main lobby, are highlighted by wall murals drawn by Vincent Aderente of Bayside in 1942, denoting Mosaic law and Constitutional law.

The court house was finished in March 1942. It was a great building, which became, in Queens Borough President George Upton Harvey's words, "A Shrine of American Justice, a Temple to inspire and rekindle in our people that reverence for justice and right and respect for law and order that has been part of the heritage of the real America since the days of the founding fathers."

—Jeff Gottlieb
December 28, 1998

This article was used with permission.

Central Queens Historical Association, Inc. 
P.O. Box N, Kew Gardens, New York 11415
February 20, 1999

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