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 our neighborhoods.
Since 1911, the majestic main branch of the New York Public Library has been watching over Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets, welcoming researchers, scholars, students, and tourists into its hallowed halls by the millions every year. Today known as the Steven A. Schwartzman Building, this central library was designated a New York City landmark in 1967, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission calling it “a magnificent civic monument [that] fully justifies the pride of its generation and ours.” And even though it sits in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the library owes its existence to a number of institutions that arose in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo during the 19th century.
On May 23, 1895, the New York Public Library was officially created to “establish and maintain a free public library and reading room in the City of New York.” The library’s first director, Dr. John Shaw Billings, started planning for a new, grand library to be located at the site of the Croton Reservoir on Fifth Avenue, which had been the city’s main water source decades earlier but had grown into disuse in the century’s waning years. The property uniquely broke up the city’s grid plan in this part of Manhattan, affording the new library a long two-block-long frontage that would make any structure built there quite noticeable to all. In 1897, the state legislature authorized the city to demolish the reservoir, paving the way for the site to become the library’s home.
That same year, Billings launched an architectural competition for the new building. He knew what he wanted for the library, sketching on a scrap of paper the familiar elements we know today, including a monumental, well-lit and airy reading room on the top floor to be built without columns directly above the stacks. The eventual winner of the contest was the relatively new firm of Carrere and Hastings, beating out McKim Mead & White (where John Merven Carrere and Thomas Hastings trained as draftsmen) and other contemporaries for the assignment.
Like many other New York architects of the day, the pair had been students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and thus applied their training “to express in facade the interior arrangement of the building,” as Hastings wrote, and build an elegant sequence of spaces into and throughout the building. The library’s steps from Fifth Avenue bring visitors past the stone lions designed by Edward Clark Potter and then up to the terrace, raised from street level to lift visitors up toward the monumental two-block-long facade and the main entrance’s central portico. The three large arches are reminiscent of Roman triumphal arches, symbolizing a grand ceremonial entrance into the institution and its exquisitely detailed Astor Hall lobby. The building’s design leads visitors through a series of rooms and staircases, on a journey that culminates with the third-floor reading room. The vast, column-free space — 297 ft long, 78 ft wide, and 51 ft tall — is airy and well-lit thanks to 15 massive windows on the eastern and western walls, and its Renaissance-style ceilings feature dramatic murals by James Wall Finn. Carrere and Hastings’ design thus takes library patrons from the noise of midtown Manhattan, elevates them, and ultimately leaves them in a grand but quiet space conducive to scholarly work and contemplation.
The library was dedicated by President William Howard Taft on May 23, 1911, 13 years after construction launched, and opened to the public the next day with a collection of 1 million books (today it houses some 15 million items). The first book requested from the main stacks was Delia Bacon’s Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, which was not in the catalog until a staff member donated the book two days afterwards; the first book delivered was Nravstvennye idealy nashego vremeni( Moral ideas of our time: Friedrich Nietzsche and Leo Tolstoy) by Nikolai I. Grot, requested just eight minutes after the building opened and handed to the visitor a swift seven minutes later.
“This building comes closer than any other in America to the complete realization of Beaux Arts design at its best,” the LPC wrote in its 1967 designation. “It has somehow managed to keep that light airy quality, so often seen in architectural drawings, so rarely achieved in execution.”
The firm of Carrere and Hastings would continue to design impressive Beaux Arts-style structures across the country. Sadly, Carrere himself never lived to see those or even his library open: he was killed in a car crash on March 1, 1911, and his body was allowed to lie in state in the Astor Hall entrance prior the institution opening to the public almost three months later.
The 1895 document that birthed the New York Public Library actually created a new corporation called “The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.” The agreement consolidated several predecessor institutions that had been located in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, to develop a larger lending system for the city as a whole.
The Astor Library was founded in 1848 as a private reference library by fur merchant and real estate baron John Jacob Astor. In 1854, the permanent home for the library was opened on Lafayette Place south of Astor Place, with knickerbocker scribe Washington Irving serving as its superintendent. Prior to the merger, the private library held 260,000 volumes, the largest in the metropolitan area. The eclectic building served as the flagship branch of the New York Public Library until the Carrere and Hastings site opened in 1911. The building at 425 Lafayette Street still survives and thrives as home for Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre.
Gilded Age millionaire James Lenox gathered one of the largest book collections in the nation by the middle of the 19th century, when he also built for himself one of the city’s largest and most imposing homes. The Lenox Mansion, built in 1846 at Fifth Avenue and 12th Street (long since razed), housed Lenox’s constantly growing collection in a private library. In 1877, Lenox relocated the library to the Upper East Side facing Central Park between East 70th and 71st Streets, becoming a semi-private institution. The building stayed in operation past its founder’s death in 1880, until the main branch on Fifth Avenue opened in 1911.
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, both the Astor and Lenox Libraries were facing severe financial difficulties, thanks to ever-expanding personal collections and dwindling endowments. When former presidential candidate Samuel Tilden (a resident of nearby Gramercy Park South) passed away in 1886 and left $5 million to fund a free public library, his trust and the two libraries formed a single organization that eventually built its main branch for approximately $9 million.
While the New York Public Library was in the midst of amassing its early collections and building the Fifth Avenue landmark, it also established a circulating department after it consolidated with the New York Free Circulating Library in 1901. The Free Library, founded in 1879 by a teacher from Greenwich Village’s Grace Church and other women and teachers in a building on 13th Street east of Fourth Avenue, became the first library designed to serve every New Yorker, especially the poor. With a growing collection coming from donations, the library moved to two rooms at 36 Bond Street in NoHo (since demolished) in 1880, then down the block in 1883 to a full building at 49 Bond Street, still standing in the NoHo Historic District.
In 1884, the Free Library constructed its first purpose-built library, at 135 Second Avenue. German-American newspaper editor Oswalt Ottendorfer built and donated the library branch to serve his local German-speaking community. The red brick and terra cotta structure continues to serve patrons as the Ottendorfer Branch Library, and is best distinguished by the inscription above its arched doorway, Freie Bibliothek u Lessehalle (Free Library and Reading Room). Three years later, the New York Free Circulating Library built its new Jackson Square Branch in a graceful Flemish-style building at 252 West 13th Street. The building, land, and books were a gift from George Washington Vanderbilt II, and was notable for its innovative use of open stacks that for the first time allowed visitors to choose books on their own. The high-windowed building served as a branch library through the 1960s, and was saved from demolition by painter, sculptor, and performance artist Robert Delford Brown for his First National Church of The Exquisite Panic.
With its history shaped by our communities’ 19th-century institutions, the New York Public Library was able to become one of the nation’s premier research institutions, but still reach readers at all levels throughout our city.