In this day and age, information about nearly any topic is at our fingertips. A quick internet search can reveal any number of facts we might need. This wasn’t always the case, however. For decades, it was libraries and their books that provided such knowledge. In Greenwich Village, several fantastic libraries provided neighborhood residents the chance to learn.
The former Astor Library was first established in 1848 and was named for John Jacob Astor, who provided the funds to build the library. The Astor Library was dedicated to educating the general public from its inception. At a time when many did not enjoy access to libraries, the Astor Library was, according to the LPC designation report, “the first great classical library broadly accessible to the public and set the example for such institutions as the Morgan Library and the Huntington Library.” In 1895, the Astor Library joined the Tilden and Lennox Libraries to form the New York Public Library, one of the largest in the world. The building faced demolition in the 1960s, but it was saved when The Public Theater convinced the city to purchase the building and turn it into a theater, which it remains to this day.
The Jefferson Market Library was established, not as a library, but rather as a courthouse, in 1874. Architects Frederick Withers and Calvert Vaux had originally included a jail to accompany the courthouse. Withers was able to confine the market, courthouse, jail, and fire observatory in one convenient form in what has been described as “one of the nation’s best-thought-through urban renewal projects.” Like the Astor Library, the Jefferson Market Courthouse faced demolition when it ceased to be a courthouse in 1945. A group of preservationists led the charge to protect the building, and in 1961, the New York Public Library agreed to purchase the building and convert it into a library. Its new life as a library represents a marvelous example of adaptive reuse.
A reminder of Kleindeutschland — once the largest German-speaking community outside of Berlin and Vienna, found in what is today the East Village — can be found on Second Avenue just north of St. Mark’s Place. The Ottendorfer Library opened in 1884 as a gift from Oswald Ottendorfer, the owner of New-Yorker Staats-Zeitung, a large German-language newspaper. Cultivating minds was Ottendorfer’s goal from the beginning and he hoped that the library’s books, half in German and half in English, would allow the neighborhood’s German population to assimilate into American culture. While the Ottendorfer Library did not face demolition, by the late 20th century, it was run down until renovations to the building were completed in 2009.
Just a few blocks northeast of the Offendorfer Library is the Tompkins Square Library. The three-story classical revival building, constructed in 1904, features a limestone façade and is one of the oldest of the twenty-seven Carnegie libraries built in New York. Andrew Carnegie donated $5.2 million in an effort to build branch libraries so as to make the library system more accessible to the general public. The library is one of many landmarked institutional buildings in the East Village, along with the free public baths one block north, the Boys’ Club Building on Avenue A and 10th Street, and PS 64 on East 5th Street.
These four libraries demonstrate the desire of some to provide neighborhood residents access to books and knowledge. They also show the fruits of preservation work, as several of these libraries would have been demolished without efforts to preserve them. So, the next time you need to recall a date or fact, maybe instead of checking your smartphone, you can stop in one of these neighborhood libraries. They’re here for a reason.