Brooklyn Carnegie Libraries: DeKalb Branch
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, DEKALB BRANCH
790 Bushwick Avenue (aka 1176 DeKalb Avenue)
Brooklyn, NY 11221
Block: 3241 Lot: 18
Lot Area: 13,400 sq ft (134.5’ x 100’)
Number of floors: 1
Building Area: 11,340 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1904-5
Year opened: 1905
Architect(s): William B. Tubby
Builder(s): F.J. Kelly’s Sons
Status: Library, New York City individual landmark
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Other: Open interior with double-level original book stacks in a curved, apsidal space in the building’s rear.
The Brooklyn Public Library was created through state legislation in 1892 and began functioning five years later. The formerly private Brooklyn Library collection, in addition to several small independent libraries, formed the core of the Brooklyn Public Library by 1902. These independent facilities, including Brownsville, Bedford, Fort Hamilton, Washington Irving, and Flatbush, were soon housed in Carnegie buildings. Although the Brooklyn system was an independent corporation, the New York City mayor, comptroller and borough president were on the board of trustees ex-officio, and its staff was in the civil service. The Brooklyn Public Library’s main central building was not completed until 1941.
The DeKalb Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is located in Bushwick. The building is situated on the southeast corner of Bushwick and DeKalb Avenues, and is set back from the street. Bushwick, an area originally settled in 1660 by Governor Peter Stuyvesant with the name Boswijk, or “heavy woods,” was incorporated into the city of Brooklyn in 1855. As a result of the completion of an elevated railway in 1889, the once predominantly rural area experienced rapid development in the form of row houses and tenements, home to mostly German immigrants. Bushwick’s population growth in the 1890s led to a demand for numerous civic institutions such as a public library.[i]
In 1901, Andrew Carnegie signed a contract guaranteeing the erection of new public libraries in Brooklyn. In November of that year, the Sites Committee posited the five areas in Brooklyn with the greatest need for Carnegie branches. The locations were Williamsburg, Fulton, Carroll Park, Bedford, and Stuyvesant (which included Bushwick Avenue, Broadway, Myrtle, and Central Avenues). The Sites Committee requested that the Board of Estimate obtain lots with an area of at least 100 square feet, which would be large enough to allow sufficient light and air on at least three sides of the library. The chosen site for the DeKalb Branch was formerly occupied by an Italianate villa built in 1854 for businessman William Porter. The lot was located along numerous streetcar routes and was a block away from the bustling commercial area along Broadway.
The architect William B. Tubby designed the DeKalb Branch in addition to three other Brooklyn libraries (Carroll Gardens (1905), Leonard (1908) and Stone (1914)), and served on the Architects’ commission for the Brooklyn Carnegie branches. Following the commission’s stylistic guidelines, Tubby’s design has several characteristics of the suburban Carnegie library type. Located 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. Frequently, the libraries feature brick walls with limestone trim. Typically built in a Classical Revival style, the buildings have a symmetrical layout, large windows to allow an abundance of light into the reading rooms, and a prominent, decorative entrance. The DeKalb Branch features double-height windows and an apse in the rear wall to house the book stacks.
The builder, F.J. Kelly’s sons, completed the Leonard and Stone Avenue Carnegie branches as well. Land for the site was purchased from David C. Porter in 1902 at a cost of $28,000. Construction and equipment cost $92,937, for a total of $120,937. Completing the project was reportedly delayed as a result of strikes. The library finally opened on February 11, 1905.
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 DeKalb Branch has played this civic role in Bushwick for over a century, especially since it was constructed across the street from a home for aged and next to a school. Today, the library is surrounded by three schools: the EBC Bushwick High School, the Bushwick Leaders High School, and P.S. 274. In addition, the branch is located nearly halfway between two elevated subway stops: the Kosciuszko Street Station and Central Avenue Station.[ii]
The DeKalb Branch is a New York City individual landmark and continues to operate as a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. In 1935, a cartouche was removed from above the door and a metal sign was added. The current fluorescent lighting structures were added in a 1950-51 rehabilitation, in addition to electrical, heating and plumbing renovations. A new series of front steps and terraces was added as well. After a case of vandalism in 1969, additional repairs were made. In 1999, a new ramp for handicapped accessibility was constructed and replacement doors were installed to replicate the original double-door entrance.
Construction and Layout:
The free-standing, single-story, three-bay rectangular structure is located on a corner lot bordered on three sides by a non-historic iron fence that rests on a low, non-historic brick and limestone wall along DeKalb and Bushwick Avenues. Non-historic steps and a ramp lead to the front door. A lawn with several small trees surrounds the building. The library is placed on a high basement with windows on the side and rear walls. A stone water table, which wraps around the entire façade, delineates the ground floor level. The front entrance bay projects slightly forward, while a curved, apsidal section projects more conspicuously outward from the center of the rear wall.
Although the interior is composed of a single open space, the library’s general scheme follows that of most other Brooklyn Carnegie Branches, with a central circulation desk flanked by one reading area for adults and one for children. The building is topped by a shallow hipped roof with standing seam metal roofing bordered by a brick and stone parapet.
The DeKalb Branch is faced in dark Harvard brick set in a Flemish Bond with stone and terra-cotta trim. The front façade is composed of three bays: a central doorway and two flanking double-height windows. The entrance features replacement mahogany doors with glass panels, which are bordered by a glass transom and glass sidelights. Above the doors is a replacement wood entablature that supports a replacement glass transom with the painted words “BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, DEKALB BRANCH.” A flat stone enframement with a keystone surrounds the doorway. The frame is then bordered by a modified Gibbs surround. At each side reveal are metal gates that function to seal the entrance. Non-historic lighting fixtures flank the doorway.
Flanking the main entrance are vertical panels with alternating bands of brick and stone set into the brick walls. Each panel is capped with a flat brick arch, above which is a small square-shaped panel of bricks set in a herringbone pattern. Above this is a carved stone panel supported by a small console table. The panel features a central roundel and the head of a lion, who’s open mouth holds a ring that supports two swags.
Each side double-height front window is enframed by a stone Gibbs surround, which rests atop a stone sill. The windows contain multiple panes, wood-sash, and fixed multi-paned sidelights and transom. A molded stone band course, which crowns all three bays, extends around the entire building façade. Above the course is a thin layer of brick interrupted only by limestone carvings above each bay. A projecting, modillioned cornice with a brick parapet caps the entire façade. The parapet features stone coping with stone balustrades placed above the three front bays.
The side façades are five bays wide and contain similar motifs to the front. The cornice, band course, and water table extend around the library’s sides and rear. Brick spandrels are located beneath the sill in each bay. The three central side bays are framed by stone Gibbs surrounds. The center-most bay is bricked in and features a thin, vertical stone panel. The two flanking bays contain double-height windows with the same sash pattern as those in the front. Each outside bay contains a narrow, unornamented opening with a stone sill and flat brick arch. Above each thin opening is a small stone panel with a blind oculus and keystone.
On the western façade, the narrow opening closest to the building’s rear was replaced by a narrow door with a wire-glass transom, which is accessible via a small staircase. In the bay closest to the front, there is an historic narrow basement door reached by a brick-lined staircase from the street. The three central bays contain a total of five basement-level windows. The eastern façade is almost identical to the western one, but has no doors.
The building’s rear façade contains a large apse that is flanked by two double-height windows with the same ornamentation and design as those on the front façade. The apse features six narrow, double-height windows with stone lintels and sills. At the building’s rear, the ground is terraced down and contains benches and mature trees. A fir tree may be original. A set of steps leads to a basement level doorway positioned in a single-story section in the center of the apse. The façade contains basement level windows.
The more than 12,000 square foot interior is completely open with no posts or walls that would create multiple rooms. The entire space consists of one main story, with double-level book stacks located in the apsidal section of the building’s rear. Recently restored, the interior contains several historic elements such as a fireplace and mantel with wood paneled reading nooks, an ornamental plaster ceiling, book stacks with L-shaped staircases, and decorative railings, which recall the original exterior wrought iron fence that is still extant on the north side of the property. The central delivery area was originally lit by a skylight that has since been roofed over. Additionally, there was a spacious lecture hall in the basement.
[i] Virginia Kurshan, Landmarks Preservation Commission, May 18, 2004, Designation List 353 LP-2054 (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2004), 4.
[ii] “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.