Campaign to preserve the Carnegie
steel magnate Andrew Carnegie sought to donate much of his wealth
to worthy causes, he made the clear distinction between philanthropy
and charity. Carnegie only favored the former and had no interest
in helping anyone who would not help themselves. of The construction
of public libraries was a perfect focus for his philanthropy for,
as Carnegie explained, libraries gave “nothing for nothing.
Youths must acquire knowledge themselves.” In total over 2500
libraries throughout the English speaking world were built with
his funding, 1600 of them in the United States. The day after he
sold his corporation in 1901 to J.P. Morgan for $500 million, Carnegie
announced a $5.2 million donation to the construction of public
library buildings throughout New York City.
Carnegie’s grant came at the perfect time
for New York City and its three separate library corporations, the
Brooklyn Public Library, The New York Public Library and The Queens
Borough Public Library. Each had been established for less than
a decade primarily by combining smaller, free libraries established
earlier in the 19th century. The developing professional library
field was anxious to revamp these old-fashioned institutions, while
the city’s rapidly expanding immigrant and native-born population
was a willing audience.
The gift was not a free one though. Going along
with Carnegie’s ideal of philanthropy, he helped cities that
helped themselves. The grant did not include the $1.6 million New
York City would eventually spend for property on which to place
the libraries, nor did it cover the cost of books or staffing. Nonetheless,
the grant did provide 67 exquisite branch buildings opened between
1902 and 1929.
York City’s neighborhoods clamored to be part of the lucky
group of beneficiaries. The New York Public Library’s Secretary
George L. Rives summed up the general plan for situating and designing
the branches when he wrote in 1901, “The fact that a branch
library is constantly before the eyes of the neighboring residents
so that all are familiar with its location will undoubtedly tend
to increase its usefulness.” The branches were built in central
locations, wherever possible near other neighborhood institutions
such as schools and YMCAs. With large, shop-like windows looking
into their reading rooms and seals and names carved into their facades,
the buildings were designed to advertise themselves as libraries.
Top architects and their firms including McKim, Mead & White,
Carrere & Hastings, Babb, Cook & Willard, Raymond F. Almiral,
William Tubby and Lord & Hewlett were hired to design the branches
primarily in the popular Beaux Arts
style, a favorite of the City Beautiful movement. Their interior
plans were designed in cooperation with librarians reflecting progressive
library developments with components such as easily accessible stacks,
central circulation desks, separate children’s rooms, and
large, open reading rooms.
New York City’s collection
of Carnegie libraries is the largest of any city in the country.
Of the 67 built, 57 branches are still standing. The 54 that remain
in operation make up one quarter of the city’s public library
branches. While there have been additions, roof replacements and
window changes over the years, most of the libraries still maintain
their distinctly “Carnegie” look. 13 branches have been
designated New York City individual landmarks (Mott Haven, Park
Slope, Aguilar, Chatham Square, Hamilton Grange, Harlem, Muhlenberg,
the Schomburg Collection, Tompkins Square, Yorkville, Poppenhusen,
Port Richmond and Tottenville) while two are part of city historic
districts (Mott Haven and St. Agnes). Two (Hamilton Grange and the
Schomburg Collection) are also on the National Register of Historic
Places. The entire group are monuments to philanthropy and education,
and all deserve protection for their architectural and cultural
Questions should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
or by calling
The launch of this campaign coincides with
the threatened demolition of the Carnegie library in Elmhurst, Queens.
Click here to read HDC
adviser Dr. Jeffrey A. Kroessler's views on why we should preserve
the Elmhurst branch.
Read about the libraries