Tweed Courthouse – a Building that Cost More than Alaska

Not known for its architectural merits, the Tweed Courthouse stands as a monument to the enormous grid and epic corruption.

The Tweed Courthouse was a pet project of Boss Tweed, who, without ever holding an official city government position, controlled just about every office in the city from transportation to the press. He was an alderman of Tammany Hall – a powerful social and political organization governing every aspect of New York City life. Its members were New York’s most prominent politicians and businessmen, and holding an alderman position in Tammany Hall afforded unrestricted control over the city’s resources.

Boss Tweed, holding his position as Tammany’s “Grand Sachem” since 1863, relished in his power. He arranged cushy jobs for his people in exchange for kickbacks, placing them in every office, including the courts.

Caricature of Boss Tweed and election fraud by Thomas Nast

The Tweed Courthouse, Boss Tweed’s masterpiece of thievery, became his final undoing. Planned as the New York County Courthouse, it was approved for an expense not exceeding $250,000. It took 20 years to build and ended up costing somewhere between $11 and $13 million! Incidentally, about $5 million ended up in Tweed’s personal deep pockets. To put things in perspective, at around the same time, Alaska was purchased from Russia for $7.2 million, and the St Patrick’s Cathedral was built for $2 million. Construction of the Tweed Courthouse cost more than the United States Capitol! The Courthouse, the second-oldest city government building in Manhattan after City Hall, was the costliest public building that had yet been built in the United States.

In 1871, after a campaign led by cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harper’s Weekly, Boss Tweed was arrested. In a poetic justice twist of fate, his trial was held in the still-incomplete Courthouse. Boss Tweed was found guilty and, after some time in prison and colorful escapes, died in 1878.

In 1999 the Tweed Courthouse was restored to its original grandeur and now houses the Department of Education.

Architect: John Kellum
Style: Neo-Classicism
Built: 1861-1881

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