On August 11, 1981, the interior first floor of the Ottendorfer Library received landmark designation from the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission. The building is a prime example of work commissioned for and utilized by the primarily German population of the late 19th and early 20th century, when the East Village was known as Kleine Deutschland, or “Little Germany.” The East Village was at one point one of the largest German-speaking communities in the world; many manifestations of that era remain in the neighborhood, and recently the subject of a tour lead by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
The history of the building itself was discussed in a previous post that examined the busts affixed to the adjoining German Dispensary building:
“The Ottendorfer Library-German Dispensary on 135 and 137 2nd Avenue was built in 1883-4 and funded by library namesake Oswald Ottendorfer, a media mogul at the time. Ottendorfer believed in the importance of nourishing both the body and the mind, which is why the library was built in conjunction with the dispensary. The library would become incorporated into the New York Public Library in 1901 and continues to be in use…”
This designation, which again is only limited to the first floor, includes:
“…the entry vestibule, the reading room, the bookstacks, the staircase leading from the first floor to the mezzanine level bookstacks, the staircase leading from the first floor to the second floor; mezzanine level interior consisting of the bookstacks; second floor interior consisting of the two reading rooms; and the fixtures and interior components of these spaces, including but not limited to, wall and ceiling surfaces, floor surfaces, doors, windows, window seats, bookstacks, fireplace, staircase railings, and circulation counter…”
Interior landmarks, such as the Ottendorfer Library, are very rare in New York City. In fact, out of more than 33,00 landmarked properties in the entire city, only 117 are interior landmarks. Interior landmarks can only be spaces customarily open to the public, and cannot be located in private residences or religious edifices. Like all landmarks, they must contain some special architectural or historic significance to the City of New York.
Entering the landmarked ground floor of the Ottendorfer Library, one walks through a wood and glass vestibule before entering another door on the left into the first floor interior. Flanking the vestibule are two wooden benches that are affixed to the interior wall that corresponds to the front of the building. Immediately in front of them is the stairs to the second floor on the left and the circulation desk on the right. Wainscoting extends along the walls surrounding the vestibule and up to the staircase and circulation desk. These stairs have a balustrade with alternating square and spiral columns; the balustrade pattern is interrupted midway by a landing that supports thicker circular columns that flank a large square panel that sits in an open square lattice. The door under the staircase was originally the office of the head librarian.
Behind the stairs and desk is a large, open reading area with tables and chairs in the center surrounded by bookshelves. Along the left wall of this reading area is a dumbwaiter, which was originally utilized as part of the library circulation system.
Behind this reading area are the stacks; these two-level stacks are made of wrought iron, though only the first level is still utilized. The stacks each have a cornucopia and ribbon motif molded into panels on their sides, and a double cornucopia on the sides above the signs that state which book genres are in that section of shelves. The ceilings/floors of these stacks are made of glass; iron railings make balconies at the second level, and in the rear of the stacks are work stations with built in cupboards and book shelves. Part of these stacks in the rear of the first floor have been converted into bathrooms, and on the far back is a wall with a door that reads “staff only” and has large, frosted glass windows that extend from the top of the door to the ceiling. The stacks were made by Hopkins & Co.
The Ottendorfer Library is free and open to the public and we encourage all of our readers to visit this remarkable space, which continues to operate while also retaining its historical character.