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Queens Chronicle

Storied Courthouse Undergoes Restoration

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Posted: Thursday, August 24, 2006 12:00 am

A timeless Queens landmark is getting a $4.4 million facelift.

The Long Island City Courthouse at Thomson Avenue and Court Square was completed in 1876 and today houses the Queens branch of the New York State Supreme Court. The 59,300 square foot, four story building was redesigned and partially rebuilt following a fire in 1904.

The ornate courthouse began undergoing repairs in May that included renovations on its brick exterior and new roofing on the main building and its wings. Both are to protect against water damage.

A prominent third floor courtroom, noted for its two story stained glass ceiling, is also being restored, and will receive new wooden flooring similar to its original. The entire project is expected to take about a year.

The original courthouse, designed by architect George Hathorne, was only two stories and about half the size of the current building. It was later redesigned by Long Island architect Peter Coco in a neoclassical style using a variety of decorative flourishes.

The facade is currently covered in cloth sheathed scaffolding. Beyond the scaffolding, four columns support small balconies surrounding the stone archway at the building’s entrance. Scrolls resting atop the columns hold representations of helmeted heads. Each window is framed by intricately carved stone.

The inside of the courthouse is equally impressive, featuring a spiraling marble staircase with carved black banisters leading to the courtrooms.

“I felt the entrance was very classical,” noted Queens Historical Society curator Richard Houran. “It doesn’t overwhelm you. The proportions are wonderful.”

The courthouse was erected after Long Island City became the county seat in 1872, when Nassau and Queens counties functioned as one. It may have contributed to the eventual division of the counties as well, a local historian noted.

“That was actually one of the things that caused the split between the eastern and western townships,” said Greater Astoria Historical Society President Bob Singleton. “(Nassau County) decided they couldn’t put up with the corruption of Long Island City.”

In 1904, the courthouse was accidentally set ablaze by a tinsmith using a hand furnace on the roof. The dome came crashing down and destroyed the state Supreme Court chambers. It took five years to repair the building and the damages totaled $300,000—more than the initial cost of the structure. Additional stories were added to take care of the increased amount of court and political business.

Several noteworthy trials took place at the courthouse. Ruth Snyder was convicted of murder in 1927 and later electrocuted at Sing Sing Prison, along with her lover, for killing her husband. Bank robber Willie Sutton, famous for his disguises, was also tried at the courthouse.

“It’s a fabulous monument to the past,” Singleton said. “It’s an extraordinarily significant location.”

A jail was later added that once held birth control and women’s rights advocate Margaret Sanger in the first half of the century. It was also rumored that the architect who designed the building spent jail time there.

The jail was replaced with two parking garages in the late 1980s. The courthouse became a New York City landmark in 1976 and it is also listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

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