The Hudson Park Library, which opened on January 24, 1906, is one of Manhattan’s twenty remaining Carnegie libraries. This red brick structure was designed by the renowned architectural firm of Carrere & Hastings (who just a few years later would design and build the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street), and became a cornerstone of the Greenwich Village community from the day the library officially opened to the public.
The library’s benefactor was Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American businessman. In 1901, Carnegie sold his steel company, Carnegie Steel, to J.P. Morgan for $480 Million. He began using his tremendous profits from the business sale to contribute to civic philanthropy, eventually giving away nearly 90% of his fortune. One civic contribution he is best known for is the Carnegie libraries which he constructed worldwide, first starting in Dunfermline, Scotland, his birthplace. He then constructed libraries across the U.K., Ireland, Canada, and the United States. In New York City alone, he funded 65 libraries, 53 of which still exist today: 17 in Brooklyn, 20 in Manhattan, 8 in the Bronx, 4 in Staten Island, and 4 in Queens.
While Carnegie often chose places to construct a library based on a personal connection, such as Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the Carnegie Steel mills had been located, he chose other locations based on an evaluation. Before Carnegie would construct a library, he used a formula he established to determine the need and viability of a library in a particular town. First, the town or area was required to “demonstrate a need for a library.” The town receiving the library was obligated to donate the land required to construct the building. And the town had to “annually provide 10 percent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation.” Though this formula was used for library construction for all civic donations, pools, churches, parks, and universities, he felt the best place to donate was to an area willing and able to help themselves. He believed that municipal funding powered by civic engagement was better than wealthy benefactors funding these public spaces as he feared “cliques” being formed amongst the wealthy and excluding those who needed these resources.
His libraries were so important to the communities they were built in because they were free-standing buildings. The New York Public Library had only recently been incorporated through the Astor, Tilden, and Lenox libraries in 1895, and construction of the library began in 1902. Before this, libraries were typically small, private, and held within other buildings preventing them from becoming the linchpin of a neighborhood. And the Hudson Park Library, completed in 1906, became just that.
The Hudson Park Library is now an L-Shaped building, with two entrances, one at 66 Leroy Street and the other on Seventh Avenue South. The latter entrance was added fourteen years after the library opened, in 1920, when Seventh Avenue South was extended down from West 11th Street, where Seventh Avenue previously ended, to join with Varick Street just a few blocks south of here. That construction — to accommodate the building of the IRT subway line underneath and to allow car travel between downtown and midtown — destroyed dozens of buildings, but allowed the library to have something it never had before — access to a major avenue from which the public could enter the building (the library was previously located roughly in the middle of what was a very long block of St. Luke’s Place/Leroy Street that extended all the way from Hudson Street in the west to Bedford Street in the east).
From its early days, the library served the community of Greenwich Village in many ways. It contained an auditorium, which allowed the library to serve as a lecture hall for the community. The library was also home to a reading group for young boys, the Societa di Mutuo Beneficio fra le Donne Italiane” (the Mutual Benefit Society of Italian Women), and a mothers club. Marianne Moore, the poet, worked as an assistant in this library from 1921 to 1925.
In 2010, the Hudson Park Library gained landmark protections as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District Extension II proposed and advocated for by Village Preservation. This library, which sits overlooking the James J. Walker Park, is an example of the kind of philanthropy that made our city great at the turn of the century. It is also an example of the wonderful intertwining of great architecture and tremendous cultural history found throughout our neighborhoods.