The House That Tweed Built

Today among the soaring buildings of lower Manhattan huddles a shabby, squat pile of Massachusetts marble. It is the old New York County courthouse, a forlorn little building just three stories high. Only a few offices within its dirty gray walls are still used. There is nothing about this grotesque relic to suggest a raucous past or a grand scandal. But in its old rooms and along its corridors there is, for the knowledgeable, a roar of history as loud as the sound of the sea in shells.

The courthouse was designed with great expectations. It was to be a heroic example of Renaissance architecture. But by the time the Tweed Ring finished with the building, it was heroic only in the amount of money spent on it, enough money, according to one reformer, to build sixteen courthouses. It cost more than the Erie Canal, said the New York Times. These and other complaints indicate the impact of one of the most brazen and grandiose feats of graft in American municipal history. The house that Tweed built was the Boss’s legacy to New York, an Acropolis of graft, a shrine to boodle.

William Marcy Tweed looked like something that God had hacked out with a dull axe. His craggy hulk weighed nearly three hundred pounds. Everything about him was big: his brood of eight children; his fists; his shoulders; his head, with its reddish-brown hair carved into a mustache and beard; his eyes, foxy or “gritty,” as the reformers called them; his diamond, which glittered like a planet in his shirt front; and, finally, his nose. “His nose is half-Brougham, half-Roman,” said one observer, “and a man with a nose of that sort is not a man to be trifled with.”

Born in New York in 1823, the son of a chairmaker, Tweed began his rise to ill fame in 1851 when he was elected an alderman and became the leader of a corrupt, predatory band of aldermen and assistant aldermen, aptly called the Forty Thieves. After two singularly undistinguished years as a congressman in the mid-fifties, Tweed began a ten-year struggle for power that resulted in making him the first man to bear the title of Boss of New York.

In these years he clawed his way upward until he became both the Grand Sachem of Tammany and the chairman of the powerful New York County Democratic central committee. His growing power was soon felt within the New York city government, and he collected sinecures—school commissioner, deputy street commissioner, supervisor—as a gunslinger would add notches to his gun.

By 1866 Boss Tweed was on the threshold of being the greatest political force in New York. In the same year he formed his notorious Ring by joining forces with three capital rogues: the district attorney, Abraham Oakey Hall, who was to serve as mayor from 1868 to 1872; Peter Barr Sweeny, a lobbyist and ex-district attorney whom Tweed made city chamberlain; and a man later to be city comptroller, Richard Connolly. For the next five years the Tweed Ring smothered New York in its political embrace. Like an invading Attila, Tweed stormed the four fortresses of power in New York State: City Hall, Tammany Hall, the Hall of Justice, and the Capitol in Albany. There were soon 12,000 Tammany men placed in key city jobs. From Tweed’s Town—the lower part of New York, embracing Hell’s Kitchen, Satan’s Circus, the Bowery, Cat Alley, Cockroach Row, and the Five Points, with its spidery streets choked with garbage and the poor--came the votes of the floods of immigrants, in return for the Boss’s bounty of jobs and food. And on election day Tammany braves of the “shiny-hat brigade,” as they styled themselves, swooped down on election booths, early and often, their war whoops enlivened by firewater, to return to the wigwam that night with fresh political scalps. This political machine was run on strings of “wampum,” as the Ring picturesquely called hard cash, and one of the main sources of this much-needed wampum turned out to be the new county courthouse building.

The house that Tweed built was actually begun years before the Ring was formed. In 1858, the distinguished architect John Kellum, who had designed the New York Herald building, completed the plans for the new courthouse amidst a great burst of civic pride. Here was to be a Renaissance marvel proclaiming the greatness of New York and the sanctity of the law. Except for providing a site in City Hall Park, little was done until 1862, when, by no coincidence, William Tweed became president of the Board of Supervisors. There had been a wrangle over who should appropriate funds for the new building, the state’s Board of Commissioners or the city’s Board of Supervisors. Tweed tipped the scale in favor of making the city pay the bill, and suddenly appropriations became brisk.

The enactment law of 1858 stated specifically that the building, with all its furnishings, should not cost more than $250,000. But this was hardly enough, Tweed argued, to build a fitting tribute to the city and to the law. The Board of Supervisors agreed, and $1,000,000 more was authorized. In 1864 an additional $800,000 was granted. But even this was not enough. In 1865, $300,000 more was appropriated, yet the very next year still more money was needed, and Tweed lobbied successfully for an additional $300,000.