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The City’s First Public Library Becomes Its First Public Theater, via Preservation

John Jacob Astor was the wealthiest American by the time he passed in 1848, earning his fortune of $20 million (about $800 million in today’s dollars) first in the fur trade and then in New York City real estate. Toward the end of his life, he began thinking about his legacy and giving back to the city he helped build. The idea he developed was a library for the public, a new concept in an era when all literary collections were privately held. The institution he established opened on January 9, 1854, and grew into the largest public library in the United States. It would later became a founding piece of today’s New York Public Library, and the building it was housed in would become one of the first designated landmarks in New York City.

Prior to his death, Astor worked with book collector, educator, and librarian Joseph Green Cogswell to lay the groundwork for the library and start building a collection. Cogswell was able to purchase books cheaply mostly due to unrest in Europe in the late 1840s. Astor bequeathed $400,000 toward building this library, and within two months of his passing, a board of trustees was formed that included Cogswell, Astor’s son William Backhouse Astor, author Washington Irving (who served as board president from 1849 to 1854), and other notables. The Astor Library was incorporated in January 1849, and housed its private, temporary collection for the next five years at 32 Bond Street, a site no longer extant between Lafayette Street and the Bowery.

The Astor Library upon completion in late 1853, but it officially opened to the public a few days into the start of 1854; courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The newly formed board also began to develop a site for the library on Lafayette Street (then known as Lafayette Place) as required in Astor’s will. German-born architect Alexander Saeltzer was hired to design the new structure; locally, he was then best known as the architect for the Ansche Chesad Synagogue at 172 Norfolk Street (Houston/Stanton Streets), today home to the Angel Orensanz Center performance space. Saeltzer designed the library in the German Neo-Romanesque style known as Rundbogenstil, then prevalent for German civic buildings. The first floor of rusticated brownstone formed a solid base for the two red brick stories above, accentuated with brownstone trim and arched windows. A wonderfully open two-story-high interior showcased gilded balconies, floor-to-ceiling cast-iron bookshelves, and alcoves for readers.

When it opened, the library on Lafayette Street between East 4th Street and Astor Place offered visitors some 80,000 volumes, shelves for which would have stretched almost two miles according to The New York Times. “The trustees of the Astor Library have erected a noble monument to the rich old gentlemen whose name it bears,” they wrote. “They have built a handsome house in a handsome place, and so contributed to adorn the city.” The building was well used by researchers, and sparked the growth of printers and publishers moving into the area.

The library’s interior, 1854; courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The building as completed in 1854 was just one-third of the structure we know today. While the existing library remained on the southern portion of the site, extensions were opened in 1859, the current central section of the building designed by Griffin Thomas, and in 1881, the northernmost part of the library with Thomas Stent as architect. All followed the same style as the original building, resulting in seamless extensions.

The institution, however, drew many complaints from the general public about its policies. While it was a public library, it offered no circulating collection, and visitors had to apply to librarians in order to access published works. It was only open during daylight hours, excluding the working class and poor from its use. A lack of any well-organized catalog befuddled even hardcore daytime researchers for decades; “[the] public,” the Times wrote, “have no idea how completely books are buried in a great library without the right sort of catalogue.” The library also forbade anyone under 14 from visiting. Interest in the library declined significantly over the decades, even after a few modifications to improve accessibility. In 1894, The New York Daily Tribune noted that a reader generally still felt “like an interloper and intruder” against the staff’s “reputation for churlishness and indifference.”

This cartoon from Life Magazine in 1892 showcased some of the issues library-goers had with Astor over the decades.

As an institution funded by a single family, the Astor Library faced financial difficulties from its beginning. In 1894, it entered into talks to consolidate with the Tilden Trust. On May 23, 1895, the trustees of the Astor and Lenox Libraries and the Tilden Trust reached an agreement to consolidate and establish the New York Public Library (one of several local institutions that helped form the three-borough-wide library system). The Astor Library remained open to the public until 1911, shortly before its entire collection of well over 200,000 volumes was moved to the newly completed Central Building on Fifth Avenue between East 40th and 42nd Street.

New York Public Library Main Branch, via Creative Commons (Razimantv at Malayalam Wikipedia)

In 1920, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society purchased the building to be used as a receiving station, aid center, dormitory, and synagogue. From 1921 to 1958, the agency sheltered 250,000 immigrants, many of whom were refugees from Nazi Germany. By the late 1950s, the organization found the building to be too large and inefficient for its purposes at the time, and by the mid-1960s the site was virtually abandoned.

In 1965, the building was sold to a developer who was planning to demolish the historic structure. The newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) then stepped in to preserve the building, which was among the first group of sites in the city to be reviewed for landmark designation. The LPC voted to approve landmark status for the Astor Library on October 26, 1965. The agency worked with Joseph Papp — then best known for Shakespeare performances in Central Park — to buy the building from the developer for $560,000, save it from destruction, and establish the Public Theater that still calls the Lafayette Street structure its home.

The Public Theater

“Many people had said that landmarks could not be saved in a city like New York,” one-time LPC executive director Frank B. Gilbert wrote shortly after the producer passed in 1991. “Joseph Papp gave new life to an old landmark and created a great theatrical center in the Astor Library. It was the first building saved from demolition under the New York City landmarks preservation law.”

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