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Jackson Square Library: An Exquisite Building, and once a church of ‘Exquisite Panic’

At 251 West 13th Street, just east of Greenwich and 8th Avenues, sits one of the most beautiful and interesting structures in our neighborhood.  What was once the Jackson Square Library, one of New York City’s first free circulating libraries, was was built starting in 1887 by architect Richard Morris Hunt. Designed with a Flemish gable design, it reflects the look of a 17th century Dutch guildhall. The library was a gift to the New York Free Circulating Library, predecessor of the public library system, from George W. Vanderbilt III, perhaps best known as the man who built the largest home in the United States — the 250 room Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.  Richard Morris Hunt, a legendary figure of the Beaux-Arts period, also served as the architect for the Biltmore Estate, as well as for the the main entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  One of only 2 free circulating libraries at the time, the Jackson Square Library opened its doors to the public on July 6th, 1888.

The evolution of the free circulation library system is a story that is rooted in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo.  Prior to the establishment of the The New York Free Circulating Library, libraries in New York City were privately owned reference or non-circulating libraries.  Founded by the German-born American fur merchant and real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor, one of the first of such libraries was the Astor Library whose permanent home was built on Lafayette Place, now known as Lafayette Street.

What would eventually become the New York Free Circulating Library (NYFCL) was started in 1879 by a teacher at Grace Church along with a group of other women and teachers. The New York Free Circulating Library was established to serve every New Yorker, especially the poor, and to allow them to not only read a wide range of literature, but bring it home and share it with their families. Though initially open only two hours a week and containing only 500 books, the free public reading room was so popular there were often lines around the block, and as few as two books were left at the end of a lending day.

The extreme popularity of this lending library caught the attention of George Washington Vanderbilt III, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the youngest son of William Henry Vanderbilt.  The youngest of eight children, he was a quiet person with a strong interest in culture and the life of the mind, who had created and catalogued his own collection of books beginning at age 12. The growing desire for a free circulating library in New York was just the sort of worthy project that captured the bibliophile’s imagination.  His family’s long tradition of philanthropy was ingrained in Vanderbilt and he decided as a part of his legacy to fund a branch of the newly evolving lending library system.  He chose his spot in Greenwich Village, opposite Jackson Square, gifting the land, the building, and the books to the people of New York.

New York Tribune March 24, 1901 (copyright expired)

This particular library — one of the very first purpose-built free and open public library buildings in New York (only the Ottendorfer Library on Second Avenue in the East Village is extant and older) — was also one of the very first libraries to introduce the innovation of open stacks. This allowed the public to actually pick books off the shelves themselves, rather than having to find a card number in a catalog and ask a librarian to retrieve the book for them, which was to this point standard practice, based in part upon fear of theft.  

The Adult Reading Room at the Jackson Square Library-photo NYPL Collection
The Children’s Reading Room- photo NYPL Collection

The building continued to operate as a library until it was decommissioned in the early 1960s. However, the end of the line for the Jackson Square Library is intertwined with a second life for a another much beloved local landmark — the Jefferson Market Courthouse building and its subsequent adaptive reuse as The Jefferson Market Library.

L: Historic view in 1963, courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery; R: Today

The Jefferson Market Courthouse was designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux (who also assisted in the design of Central Park) in High Victorian Gothic style. It was erected (along with an adjacent prison and market) from1875 to 1877. By 1945, the building was no longer needed as a courthouse, and after being used by the Police Department for several years, it was left abandoned. Slated for demolition in the late 1950s, Village community members, led by Carol Greitzer, Margot Gayle and Philip Wittenberg, and including Lewis Mumford, E.E. Cummings (who lived across the street in Patchin Place) and actor Maurice Evans, rallied to save the building from the wrecking ball.

Which brings us back to the fate of the elegant Jackson Square Library, which had long been considered to be too small for the growing population of Greenwich Village. In 1961, the community achieved victory when Mayor Robert F. Wagner announced that “Old Jeff” would at last be preserved and converted into a larger public library, replacing the services of the Jackson Square Branch.

But 251 West 13th Street also was granted new life! Slated for demolition after its decommission, the building caught the eye of the avant-garde painter, sculptor, and performance artist Robert Delford Brown. He acquired it in 1967 for a reported $125,000 and commissioned modernist architect Paul Rudolph, chair of the Yale School of Architecture, to create what he called his First National Church of the Exquisite Panic. The building passed hands to the television producer Tom Fontana in 1995, who lives and has his offices there to this day.

As an important footnote, this year, the New York Public Library is celebrating its 125th anniversary. With 53 million items and 92 locations across Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island, the NYPL is the largest municipal library system in the world. It’s also the steward of some of New York’s greatest landmarks, reflecting a century and a quarter of Gotham’s history.

NYPL July 4, 2020 “Fortitude”

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