Know Before You Go
Hidden away on a wall of the New York City Police Department Headquarters is a mysterious window. Embedded in the wall, and made of an ancient brick which doesn’t match the ones surrounding it, the window is set with a row of ominous, rusted iron bars. It is thought that this is the remnants of a horrendous prison dating back to the Revolutionary War that stood on the same site. The infamously brutal, Sugar House Prison.
The plaque underneath the iron-barred window explains that “this window was originally part of the five-story Sugar House built in 1763 at the corner of Duane and Rose Streets.” During the occupation of New York (1776-1783) by the English, the Sugar House was commandeered by the Redcoats and repurposed as a prison for American prisoners of war, and civilian collaborators.
As the website Correction History writes, the Sugar House Prison was operated as a place where “sanitary conditions were frightful, and starvation was a constant threat, so its evil reputation was well earned, and its death toll unbelievably high.” It is estimated that over 17,500 prisoners died in these conditions, more than twice the number to actually die on the battlefield.
Sugar houses proved ideal prisons for the British. Another on Liberty Street held around 500 wretched prisoners. An article in the New York Times in 1852 included a first-person account of conditions within the sugar houses by an ex-inmate. “Its appearance was dark and gloomy.....prisoners in an emaciated, starving, wretched condition, their numbers being constantly diminished by sickness and death.”
There is however some doubt as to the origins of the peculiar window preserved in the wall on Duane Street. As reported in Untapped Cities in 2013, recent research by Professor Edwin G. Burrows at Brooklyn College, claimed that the sugar house on Duane and Rose continued to operate during the occupation.
What is interesting though is that when the old Sugar House was demolished in 1892, someone had the foresight to preserve a window which undoubtedly looks prison like, and it was incorporated into the wall of the new Rhinelander building. When that too was demolished in 1968 to make way for the present day NYPD headquarters the old window was again preserved in the wall of the brutalist architecture of Police Plaza
Peculiarly enough, a section of the wall from the ancient sugar house, with an identical window embedded in it, found its way to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. If the origins of the strange window hidden away on the wall of the NYPD building are debatable, what is beyond doubt is the horrific conditions of the British Sugar House prisons, and the thousands of revolutionaries who died there, many of whom are rumored to haunt the memorial still.