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Beyond the Village and Back: The New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

The New York Society Library at 53 East 79th Street

While the New York Public Library’s founding dates back to 1895 and has deep roots in our neighborhood, the NYPL is neither the oldest library in New York nor the only one with roots in Greenwich Village. Founded way back in 1754, New York City’s oldest library is the New York Society Library, which is so old, it actually witnessed the inauguration of George Washington as our nation’s first President (literally, not figuratively) and even lent him a few books (which he was quite tardy on returning!) and amazingly still functions today. Located today at 53 East 79th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, the library is now housed in a stunning individual New York City landmark built in 1916 — one of the very first landmarks designated on the Upper East Side and one of the first in New York. Such venerated writers have walked through its doors as W.H. Auden, Clarence Day, Lillian Hellman, Barbara Tuchman, David Halberstam, Wendy Wasserstein, Shirley Hazzard, P.G. Wodehouse, and Mary McCarthy, among many others.  Still a private library to this day, it has a storied history that crosses four centuries and includes a full lifetime – 81 years – in Greenwich Village. With libraries in mind, we say: keep reading! 

The New York Society Library’s Founding 

The New York Society Library, drawn ca. 1840, from the Museum of the City of New York

In 1754, there was no library in New York. There wasn’t even a street grid system yet, in what was a different city in many ways.  But even then, New York was full of civic-minded people. Six such individuals came together in that year to create a library which  “would be very useful as well as ornamental to the City” — the very first in the colonial burg.  The setup: anyone could join, and joining gave one the ability to check out a broad range of books, or enjoy the books on-site. Books included fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and reference books.

The Original Home of the Society Library

Federal Hall, 1790 hand-colored engraving by Amos Doolittle, depicting Washington's April 30, 1789 inauguration
Federal Hall, 1790 hand-colored engraving by Amos Doolittle, depicting Washington’s April 30, 1789 inauguration

The library originally occupied one room in the old City Hall at 26 Wall Street, which eventually came to be known as  Federal Hall after George Washington’s inauguration there in 1789 (that building has long since been demolished and replaced with today’s Federal Hall National Monument). It was called “the City Library” until the New York Public Library was founded in 1895. According to the Society Library

 In 1789 and 1790, when New York was the nation’s capital and Congress occupied the building—then renamed Federal Hall—it served as the first Library of Congress; it was used by George Washington and John Jay. It was at this point that two books were charged out to George Washington but were never returned. In 2010, representatives from Mount Vernon formally presented the Library with another volume of one of the missing books, The Law of Nations by Emer de Vattel.

Read more from the Society about how the library was looted and used during the Revolution, and more. The collection was severely diminished but worked its way back up, and in 1795, with a catalog of 5,000 books, the NY Society Library finally moved out of Federal Hall and became the sole resident of 33 Nassau Street, where it hosted the likes of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. In 1840 the Society moved to Leonard Street and Broadway, where Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon were members. In that space, they combined with the New York Athenaeum, a literary and scientific club of the day. As the library’s collection increased to thirty-five thousand volumes by 1856, it became necessary to build a larger building.

Building on University Place 

1862 map showing the Library

And so in 1856, the New York Library Society moved to Greenwich Village. They built and took up residence in their beautiful building located at 67 University Place between 12th and 13th Streets. The street numbers were changed in 1895, and 67 University Place became 109 University Place. Here they remained for eighty-one years, until 1937. 

The Library Society on University Place, 1936, from MCNY

The Italianate brick building had a stone rusticated base and stone quoins, round-arched windows that were surrounded by bracketed pediments on the second floor. The building declared its name, creating a grand but welcoming facade on University Place. Pictured above, the building was frequented by famed readers and writers like Herman Melville and Willa Cather.

In 1937, the library moved out and uptown again, to its current location. Sadly, their magnificent building on University Place was demolished, and in 1940 was replaced with the Art Deco apartment building found there today. 

107-109 University Place

The New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street 

53 E 79th Street, 1895, from the Museum of the City of New York 

According to the building’s Landmark designation report, this “five-story limestone structure in the Italian Renaissance Style has great dignity.” 

Trowbridge and Livingston, architects for many structures of outstanding merit in New York City, completed this mansion in 1917 for the John S Rogers family. The front facade is four stories high and three bays wide, terminating in a rich stone frieze and cornice topped by a balustrade. The face of the fifth floor, set back a few feet behind this balustrade, provides an open terrace, while a tile roof with wide overhang provides partial protection. At the ground floor level, the entrance doorway is interestingly framed by Doric pilasters which support a horizontal lintel surmounted by a balustrade at the second-floor level. Each Window in this facade has a handsome stone frame. The second floor windows are notably higher and wader than the others and are crowned with pediments carried on carved brackets.

The current New York Society Library, with its new awning

The building was a residence until 1937 when the New York Society Library purchased the building and made updates to how the building looks now. No longer the only library system in town, the NYSL is still membership-based. They now charge modest fees for membership in order for users to be able to check out books. However, the building is still open to the public, with plenty of space to sit all day and read and write. 

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