Brooklyn Carnegie Libraries: Bedford Branch
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, BEDFORD BRANCH
496 Franklin Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11238
Block: 1997 Lot: 32
Lot Area: 14,888 sq ft (120’ x 125’)
Number of floors: 2
Building Area: 9,000 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1904-5
Year opened: 1905
Architect(s): Lord & Hewlett
Builder(s): Robert J. Mahoney, General Contractor
Status: Library, no designation
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Roof: Metal, Asphalt
Other: Brick façade with windows with monumental stone surrounds, restored period doors and lamp posts, original stoop, new side courtyard and wheelchair- accessible side door
The Bedford Library was the first branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, which opened in 1897 within the old P.S. 3 on Bedford Avenue. After moving to 26 Brevoort Place in 1899 and Avon Hall in 1902, the library finally had its own building in 1905.
The Bedford Branch is located on the west side of Franklin Avenue (at the intersection with Hancock Street) between Jefferson Avenue and Fulton Street in Brooklyn. The building is slightly set back from the street with a small, surrounding sidewalk surrounding the structure. Built in 1904-5, the library is one of the first five Carnegie branches constructed in Brooklyn, in addition to DeKalb, Greenpoint (demolished 1970), Pacific, and Williamsburgh. During their construction, the architectural plans and elevations of all five libraries were widely publicized and praised for their emphasis on light, air, and accommodation of people and stacks. The March 1903 issue of Library Journal featured an article that considered the Bedford and Williamsburgh plans as great examples of design.
The Bedford Branch has several characteristics of the suburban Carnegie library type. Located mostly in the less densely populated areas of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens, these branches are most often freestanding structures within a larger lot (most often they are surrounded by a lawn). Frequently, the libraries feature red brick walls accented with a minimum of limestone ornamentation. Most often built in a Classical Revival style, the buildings have a symmetrical layout, tall, large windows to allow an abundance of light into the reading rooms, and a prominent, decorative entrance.
The New York City Carnegie branch libraries were designed to be distinct structures, a new concept at the turn of the Twentieth Century when most branches were simply located in other buildings. They were intended to be important fixtures in the community and centrally located in a neighborhood. The Carnegie Committee had a policy to locate branches in close proximity to public buildings such as schools, social service centers, public baths, or YM/YWCA’s. The Bedford Branch has played this civic role in Bedford-Stuyvesant for over a century.[i] It is situated across the street from a public school built in 1949. The building, not landmarked, continues to operate as a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
The Bedford Library was designed by Lord & Hewlett, Architects, who were also responsible for the following Carnegie Libraries: Far Rockaway (1904, burned down 1966), South (1905, demolished 1970), Elmhurst (1906), Flushing (1906, demolished mid-1950s), Fort Hamilton (1907), and Brownsville (1908).
James Monroe Hewlett graduated from Columbia University in 1890, after which he joined the architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, and studied in Paris. In 1894, Hewlett came back to New York to help found an architecture firm with James Brown Lord.[ii]
Before and after he helped form the group, J. B. Lord completed numerous individual projects, including 153-159 West 74th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues (1887), the Delmonico’s building on 56 Beaver Street (1891), 202-250 West 138th Street and 2350-2354 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (1891-93), the Beaux-Arts New York Free Circulating Library (now the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences) (1898), the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court (1900-02) on Madison Avenue, and the Yorkville Branch (1902), the first Carnegie Library built in New York City, which was under construction the year he died.[iii]
The firm of Lord & Hewlett continued to design projects such as the City Club (c.1902-04),[iv] The Brooklyn Masonic Temple, 317 Claremont Ave (1906) (built along with Pell & Corbett, Architects),[v] the Smith College Library (1909), the Senator Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue, the Danbury (Connecticut) Hospital, St. John’s Hospital (now the site of the Citicorp office building) in Long Island City,[vi] and the initial branch of the Brooklyn Hospital (1920).[vii]
Construction and Layout:
The freestanding library is situated in a small plot of land that is located mid-block, adjacent to a vacant lot. An historic wrought iron fence surrounds the property. An original stoop with multiple steps and restored period lamp posts is placed in front of the doorway. Small lawns are on either side of the stoop. On the building’s right side is a courtyard made of brick and stone, leading to a wheelchair entrance. The two-story, three-bay rectangular building has a façade constructed of brick and stone with a sloped metal and asphalt roof.
The symmetrical, Classical Revival structure’s façade is composed of red and gray bricks laid in a Flemish bond with a thick, stone base. The front façade has three bays. On the ground floor, there is a central doorway with two flanking rectangular windows, all of which have monumental stone surrounds. Three rectangular panels are carved into the stone below the windows. Thin stone piers divide each window into three narrow window openings. Atop the windows and doorway are stone voussoirs with projecting keystones. Above each set of voussoirs is a slightly projecting stone tablet with a foliate molding on the top and sides. Triglyph-like brackets flank each tablet.
The central doorway is bordered by a stone foliate molding. The restored period doors and transom feature metal scalloped screens. Above the stone frame, the projecting keystone features a cartouche with a carved torch and the words “Brooklyn Public Library, Founded 1897.” The words “BROOKLYN PVBLIC LIBRARY” are carved in large letters in the tablet above the keystone.
A projecting horizontal stone band course envelopes the whole building and separates the first and second floors. The second floor brick façade has rectangular windows with monumental stone surrounds. The windows are shorter, and are also divided by thin stone piers into sets of three narrow openings. The three windows interrupt a plain stone frieze beneath a projecting dentillated stone cornice, which is below a plain brick parapet trimmed with stone on the top.
The main building’s two side elevations are identical to the front in design, except that each side is only two bays wide. On the right side is a wheelchair-accessible door with a scalloped screen. The door is bordered by a monumental surround with a foliate molding and dentillated cornice. Above the door is a square-shaped window with brick voussoirs and a flat stone keystone. On the building’s left is a stairway that leads to the basement entrance. Three restored period lamps on stone bases are positioned in front of each side.
The T-shaped rear section is only one story high and becomes less wide towards the back. The first rear segment is slightly narrower than the main section. Each side has a brick façade with two stone band courses near the base, a third course that is slightly below the main section’s band course. The second rear segment has a brick façade as well.
The Bedford Branch’s over 15,000 square foot floor plan has remained largely intact, with spacious, light-filled reading rooms on each floor. On the ground level, the delivery desk is positioned in the center with reading rooms on each side and book stacks at the rear. The reading rooms retain their historic fireplaces with stone mantelpieces. The library’s staircase and railing are original as well. Turnstiles at the front entrance are no longer extant. Now a learning center, the second floor was originally used for classrooms. The historic Clark & Baker furniture and Black & Boyd lighting fixtures have all subsequently been removed.
From February 1964 to January 1966, the library underwent numerous alterations inconsistent with the building’s original design. The original doors and scalloped metal screens in the front entrance were removed. Roughly half the entranceway was filled in with a white marble slab, creating a solid transom. Shorter, non-historic metal and glass doors were also installed. The original exterior lamp posts and arched vestibule entryway were also removed, and new fluorescent lighting and vinyl flooring were added. Over the years, the interior became more cluttered and lost its original sense of openness. In 1982, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems were updated.
In the 2000s, a major restoration project undertaken by Sen Architects recreated many aspects of the Bedford Branch’s original aesthetic. New period doors with metal scalloped screens replaced the white marble transom and 1960s doors. Replacement period lamp posts were added, and the original arched entrance that led from the vestibule into the central room was restored. To avoid replacing the library’s historic front stoop with a wheelchair ramp, Sen Architects constructed a side courtyard that leads to a wheelchair-accessible entrance on the building’s right. The whole interior was altered to restore the openness of the reading rooms and provide accessibility for the handicapped.
[i] “The Trustees are of the opinion that in establishing branch libraries it is of great importance to establish them, as far as possible, in conspicuous positions on well frequented streets. In some measure the same principles should be applied that would govern in the selection of a site for a retail store. 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.” George L. Rives, Secretary of The New York Public Library (1901). From the NYPL Executive Committee Minutes as quoted in Phyllis Dain, The New York Public Library (New York: New York Public Library, 1972), 237, in Mary B. Dierickx, The Architecture of Literacy: The Carnegie Libraries of New York City (New York: The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and The New York City Department of General Services, 1996), 27.
[ii] Lehman College Art Gallery: http://www.lehman.edu/vpadvance/artgallery/publicart/bio/hewlett.html
[iii] Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 16-17, 199, 343, 353, 447, 509.
[iv] “The City Club, by the way, is soon to move into new quarters. Organized in 1892, it has grown and prospered beyond expectation. Its first home was at 677 Fifth Avenue. At present it is in temporary headquarters. The new club-house, designed by Lord & Hewlett, is quite a model in its way. The interior decorations and furnishings are being done by the Coventry Blue Company, which I believe consists of Mrs. Mason Davidge (Bishop Potter’s daughter), with Mr. Everett Shinn as art adviser” (The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life (Vol. XLII, No. 3, March 1903), 202).
[v] “They took the word “temple” literally in 1909. Some of the vigorous polychromy that archaeologists believe was painted onto 5th century B.C. Greek temples is recalled here in fired terra-cotta” (White and Willensky, AIA Guide, 700).
[vi] Lehman College Art Gallery.
[vii] White and Willensky, AIA Guide, 699.