School is back in session for the 2017-2018 school year, but students aren’t the only ones who can benefit from a trip to our city’s culturally-rich institutions. Among the many museums and cultural opportunities housed among us is the public library system, officially founded in 1895. The public library system offers historic libraries with treasure troves of books, research collections, rare artifacts, diverse architecture, and (mostly) quiet, comfortable places to read. Additionally, the library system plays host to 93,000 community events every year including author talks and readings, exhibitions, film screenings, and educational workshops. Let’s take a page from the history books of NYC public libraries and explore some of the best places for bibliophiles to explore.
New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
476 Fifth Avenue (42nd St and Fifth Ave)
Originally called the Central Building, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is also known as the Main Branch of the New York Public Library and was the largest marble building in the United States upon completion. Construction began on this Beaux-Arts style building in 1902 and it opened to the public in 1911. The construction cost $9,000,000 at the time and the land $20,000,000. The architects John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings designed every detail down to the tables, chairs, lamps, and wastebaskets. The Library Lions which adorn the building were sculpted by Edward C. Potter in pink Tennessee marble, and have become a symbol for the entire New York Public Library. Upcoming events at the main branch include talks with CNN Commentator Van Jones, Preschool story time for children ages 3-5, community book clubs, and a course on how to research your ancestors’ naturalization records.
New York Public Library, Jefferson Market Branch
425 Avenue of the Americas (@ West 10th Street)
The Jefferson Market Library was originally a courthouse, but has always been a cornerstone of the Greenwich Village community. Constructed during the years of 1875 – 1877, the building was designed by architects Frederick Clark Withers and Calvert Vaux and cost the city only $360,000 to build (you’d be hard-pressed to find a small NYC studio in that price range today). While buildings aren’t generally known for their basements, the brick-arched Reference Room retains its original details. In the tower at the top of the building is a firewatcher’s balcony and a bell which used to summon volunteer firefighters. The building was voted one of the ten most beautiful buildings in America during the 1880s, and then gained national attention when Harry K. Thaw appeared before the magistrate for the murder of architect Stanford White. Then, in the 1900s, many of the trials for the women who went on strike at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory were tried and held at Jefferson Market. As a result of redistricting, fewer cases were tried at Jefferson Market over the years, until it remained empty in 1959. Village community members advocated for renovating and converting the building into a library. Construction began in 1965 and the library opened in 1967, when it began to collect interesting and rare books on New York City history. Be forewarned that this location does not have a public restroom. Upcoming events offered at Jefferson Market include French classes for children, sewing classes for adults, and Introduction to Playwriting, an eight session course.
New York Society Library
53 East 79th St (between Madison and Park Aves)
The New York Society founded this library in 1754, before any of the New York Public Library branches were built. A group of six “civic-minded individuals” believed the city would benefit from a subscription library that anyone could join. It opened in a room on Wall Street, and was known as “The City Library” until the founding of the public library system in 1895. The Library moved to a building at 33 Nassau Street in 1795 as it had outgrown its previous home after amassing more than 5,000 volumes. It continued to move uptown; first to Leonard Street and Broadway, then to 109 University Place, and in 1937 settled in its current location, an Italianate townhouse at 53 East 79th Street. Since the building was originally constructed as a large townhouse, the reading rooms at the front of the building feel like Upper East Side living rooms, with some reserved only for members of the library. Today, the New York Society Library holds 300,000 volumes and remains open to the public as New York’s oldest lending library. Upcoming events include workshops on “reading like a writer,” a reading group focused on John Milton’s early work, and lessons on the art of letter writing.
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center
40 Lincoln Center Plaza (@ 65th Street)
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is known for its collection of historic recordings, videotapes, manuscripts, sheet music, stage designs, and other artifacts related to dance, music, and theater. Originally, its collection was housed in the Main Branch of the NYPL, until Lincoln Center was incorporated in 1956 and the Library approved its move in 1959. Originally, the library was supposed to open in a separate building, but it was combined with the Vivian Beaumont Theater, occupying the 3rd floor of the building. The building closed between 1998 and 2001 for a $38 million renovation, bringing the library to the 21st century with computers and a Technology Training Room. Now, the interior of the library reflects the modern feel of Lincoln Center Plaza, with its abstract sculptures and scenic fountain. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts hosts a variety of cultural events, including a celebration of immigrant artists, a silent short film festival, and sing-alongs for favorite musicals.
10 River Terrace (@ Murray Street)
Poets House was founded in the 1980s by poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray as a “home for all who read and write poetry.” It was originally established in a New York City public high school and contained 600 books. Poets House moved to a loft in Soho in 1990, where it began to grow its collection and become a world-renowned literary center. In 2008 Poets House was designated a rent-free tenant by the Battery Park City Authority with a lease at its current location at 10 River Terrace. The new location has retained the open, light-filled feel of a Soho loft. What started as a modest effort to nurture a love of poetry in the NYC community has grown to an 11,000 square foot space with a collection of more than 70,000 volumes. Poets House is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, so if you haven’t visited yet, now is a great time to check it out. Upcoming events include a reading by acclaimed poet Patricia Smith, poetry master classes with Pulitzer Prize winner Gregory Pardlo, and creative writing workshops.
New York Public Library, Yorkville Branch
222 East 79th Street
Inspired by Palladian architecture, the Yorkville Branch of the New York Public Library was designed by James Brown Lord. As one of the first 39 branches built with funds from Andrew Carnegie in the 1900s, it opened to the public in 1902. It is a designated landmark on city, state, and national levels. The library’s interior underwent a significant renovation in 1986-1987, and has seen the Yorkville neighborhood’s progression from a sleepy enclave in the Upper East Side to a desirable neighborhood for families and young professionals. This NYPL branch regularly hosts community events for patrons of all ages, including story time and craft making, training for budding political activists, and workshops for retirees who want to make the most out of the next chapter of their lives.
The Morgan Library
225 Madison Avenue
The Morgan Library & Museum began as the private library of Pierpont Morgan, and was built between 1902 and 1906. It was designed by Charles McKim and built adjacent to Morgan’s home at Madison Avenue and 36th Street. The Italian Renaissance-style structure was considered McKim’s masterpiece, and Pierpont Morgan’s son donated the library eleven years after his death, having realized the beauty of the building and importance of its collection. In 2006, an expansion adding 75,000 square feet to the Morgan was completed, including a new entrance on Madison Avenue and an opulent yet comfortable reading room. In addition to ongoing exhibitions, the Morgan Library hosts musical performances, lectures, readings, films, and family programs. In the coming weeks, events will include chamber music concerts, a young artist concert series, and a workshop on how to enjoy art with children.
NYC’s abundance of libraries is part of what makes it a global center for arts, culture, and learning. The next time you find yourself near your neighborhood library, I recommend stopping in to learn about its history and support its efforts to remain an important cultural institution.