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Beyond the Village and Back: The Aguilar Free Circulating Library

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 impressive Aguilar Branch of the New York Public Library, originally known as the Aguilar Free Circulating Library, stands at 110th Street in East Harlem, between Lexington and Third Avenues. One of East Harlem’s few landmarked structures (there’s only about a dozen in the entire neighborhood — among the least of any in Manhattan), it’s not only a striking work of architecture, but it’s rooted in a movement to educate a group of recent immigrants to this country — but perhaps not the group you might assume. And that movement has roots that go deep in our neighborhood.

When the Aguilar Branch was landmarked in 1991, the Landmarks Preservation Commission noted that it was designed in “an almost theatrical manner, as if the proscenium arch were framing a stage.” This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the building’s architects, Herts & Tallant, were best known for designing theaters, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New Amsterdam, the Liberty, and the Lyceum. 

The Aguilar Library stands at 174 East 110th Street. Photo courtesy of Google.

The duo constructed this building in 1898-1899 for the Aguilar Free Library Society. The library itself had been at this location since 1896, but by the end of the decade, due to its great success and popularity, an upgrade of its building’s “cramped quarters” became urgent. The Board of Directors of the Free Library Society enlisted the help of Professor William R. Ware, the founder of the School of Architecture at Columbia University, in staging a competition to select the designer of the new building. Among the competitors were architects Oscar Lewinson, Henri Fouchaux, and Robert D. Kohn, but Herts & Tallants’ late Romanesque Revival/Art Nouveau style won the judges over. They deemed the building plan to be “extremely simple,” “severely bold,” and altogether a “purely original design.” Notable especially was Herts & Tallant’s innovative use of cast iron, an industrial material, to create a decorative facade.

The building boasts a cast-iron facade. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In the Aguilar Free Library Society’s Annual report, its directors celebrated “the transfer of the library at 110th Street from a little store to a well equipped library building, built in accordance with the latest library ideals. Herein a well-lit and pleasantly decorated building may be found and a collection of the best literature in the best of environments.”  There was a “great demand for a library” in the neighborhood, due in large part to the establishment of the Second and Third Avenue railroad lines nearby.

However, unlike today, the library’s patrons were largely working-class recent Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to this country from the surrounding neighborhood, which had a large Jewish population before becoming more predominantly Italian in the early 20th century and Puerto Rican in the later 20th century. And that’s no coincidence, as the Aguilar Free Library Society was established to spread education and a love of reading in working-class Jewish communities.

The Society’s namesake was Grace Aguilar, a widely-published Jewish woman of letters. Originally Sephardic Jews, Aguilar’s family had relocated to Britain after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the mid-seventeenth century. After publishing a volume of poetry at only age fourteen, Aguilar’s career as a poet, historical romance writer, domestic novelist, Jewish emancipator, religious reformer, educator, social historian, theologian, and liturgist blossomed. She was especially well-known for her book The Spirit of Judaism, which she published at age 26. In the text, she called for a vernacular translation of the Bible, for changes in Jewish childhood education, and advocated for the spiritual needs of women, especially Jewish women.

The pioneering Grace Aguilar was the inspiration for the Aguilar Free Library Society’s name. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.
The Spirit of Judaism, or  שמע ישראל, was one of Aguilar’s best-known works. Photo courtesy of Kline Books.

Aguilar’s legacy flourished by way of the highly-patronized Aguilar Free Library. Henry Leipziger, the chairman of the Library Committee, stated in an annual report that the circulation of the Library was “the largest of any library in the State, being about ten to one.” But the Library’s success and popularity came from much more than just the branch at East 110th Street. In fact, the Society was founded in 1886, well before the establishment of the present-day New York Public Library system, and much of its early work, and locations, were found in the East Village and Lower East Side neighborhoods, which were then far and away the center of Jewish life and the Jewish population in New York. The Society’s earliest branches were located at 624 East Fifth Street, 106 Avenue C, and 206 East Broadway. Due to the generous donations of international financier and trustee of the Society Jacob Schiff, the Society had purchased the East Broadway and East Fifth Street buildings from the Hebrew Free School (read more about the Hebrew Free School movement in our neighborhoods here.)  Thanks to these branches of the Aguilar Library, the Jewish community, many of whom lived outside of the local reach of the Bond Street and Ottendorfer branches of the NY Free Circulating library, another charitable free library system which operated at this time before the establishment of the NYPL, had access to books right in their neighborhood. 

Judge Samuel Greenbaum, who served on the Board of the Society, emphasized to the public in an annual report that “the influence of wholesome literature [was] a most important factor in uplifting the mental and moral tone of a class that woefully lacks refining influences.” He remarked that while “the larger portion of the circulation is as a rule confined to popular books, the Library, however does some of its best work when it furnishes great books in all the departments to the earnest seekers of knowledge.” As such, “the addition to our libraries of large numbers of books, notably in the departments of history, political and social science and literature is demanded.” 

The Society operated four branches in total throughout New York. Photo courtesy of the Annual Report of the Aguilar Free Library Society. 

Henry Leipziger emphasized in another report the need for developing and adding to the library’s collection of art books, as “a taste for art is one that is the most desirable to develop among our people. Through the medium of finely illustrated books… that taste can be awakened.” On the whole, Leipziger was pleased to note, “our readers are becoming rapidly Americanized through the influence of our Reading-room.”

Librarians visited local public schools to foster engagement with youth. And “during the summer months,” wrote Librarian Pauline Leipziger, “teachers were allowed to take four books for the season.” Books were also sent from the library to other Jewish philanthropic organizations, such as the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society and the Jewish Working Girls Vacation Society.

In 1903 the Free Library was absorbed into the newly-established New York Public Library system of libraries. The Aguilar 110th Street building was altered with a new facade in 1904-1905. Herts & Tallant were brought back to design a new facade, higher and wider than the existing one, with new floors. Andrew Carnegie contributed funds to the renovation efforts. According to the LPC’s report, the building is significant as it demonstrates the “reminder of the legacy of private philanthropic support of the city’s libraries during the late 19th century.”

Patrons browse the Aguilar Free Circulating Library. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Today, none of the original Aguilar libraries of the East Village and Lower East Side survive, all their buildings having been demolished, in some cases as much as a hundred years ago. But the 110th Street Aguilar Branch survives and thrives to this day. The residents of the neighborhood around the library are now predominantly Puerto Rican, Mexican, Dominican, and African-American. After World War II, an influx of Puerto Rican and Latinx residents to the neighborhood influenced the creation of a large collection of materials in Spanish. The Aguilar Library continues to uphold the words of Henry Leipziger, “A popular library should be a thing of beauty as well as a joy forever.”

To learn more on the New York Public Library’s downtown origins, read our Executive Director Andrew Berman’s article here.

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