October 27, 2020
The old New York County Courthouse, also known as the Tweed Courthouse is New York City’s second permanent government building. It housed the New York County Supreme Court until 1929. The 20 plus years of construction began in 1861 and the final product was touted as “one of the city’s grandest and most important civic landmarks.” Today the building is home to the New York City Department of Education and the ghost of William “Boss” Tweed.
Tweed’s Courthouse features an interior octagonal rotunda capped by a skylight flanked by east, west, and south wings. The rotunda includes stair halls with iron staircases designed to look like wood earning the building a designation as a New York City landmark. The design garnered accolades despite the original 1858 $250K cost ballooning to $13M by 1871 ($7.9M to $276.9M in 2020 dollars). Amid scandal, and an unfinished roof, Boss Tweed was pushed out of office, further slowing construction. Almost 100 years passed before the roof was finally completed in the 1950s.
In 1865, with spending nearing $7M, a committee was established to investigate the increasing budget. A second committee then investigated the investigating committee. Neither reported fraud, but 1871 brought renewed interest in the project’s spending. This investigation discovered Tweed was embezzling large sums of money through the project. $13M bought New Yorkers an unfinished building with gloomy rooms, fake marble, rooms without roofs, and oilcloth where carpets were supposed to lie. It was described having an ancient tenement feel.
In 1873, in a still unfinished courtroom, Boss Tweed was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 12 years, later reduced to one year. Released in 1875, Boss was rearrested in an action to recover $6M of the stolen dollars. Allowed to return home on the weekends, Boss fled to Cuba and then Spain. Thanks to the many caricatures of him, Boss Tweed was recognized and sent back to New York in 1876 and died in jail in 1878.
According to reports, noises and ghostly figures in the corridors of the courthouse so frightened night watchmen they refused to enter the building. The story was recounted by George F. Lyons, a jury clerk at the Tweed Courthouse.
No longer a court, the Tweed Courthouse is open for tours. While Boss Tweed may be a dead end for budgeting advice, the National Center for State Courts remains dedicated to helping courts navigate the financial waters. Visit our Budget Resource Center, launching in early November to find resources on funding, information from other courts to help navigate pandemic related budget concerns, and more. For more information on general budgeting also view The Budgeting and Financial Administration page. For help designing or renovating please view see The Courthouse: A Guide to Planning & Design’s Preliminary Budget Estimates . Also make sure to read Retrospectives of Courthouse Design, the only publication dedicated exclusively to courthouse architecture.
For more information on this or other topics impacting state courts, contact Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164.