Brooklyn Carnegie Libraries:Macon Branch
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, MACON BRANCH
361 Lewis Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11233
Block: 1665 Lot: 1
Lot Area: 9,000 sq ft (100’ x 90’)
Number of floors: 2
Building Area: 9,000 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1907
Year opened: 1907
Architect(s): Richard A. Walker/Walker & Morris
Builder(s): Daniel Ryan
Status: Library, no designation
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Other: Two limestone obelisks in front that once held lamps, stone cartouche carved above entranceway, library built on a raised platform
The Brooklyn Public Library was created through state legislation in 1892 and began functioning five years later. 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).
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.
Designed by architect Richard A. Walker, the Macon library is located on the northeast corner of Lewis Avenue and Macon Street, with the main entrance facing Lewis Avenue. The building occupies most of its lot.
The structure’s site was purchased in 1905 from Frederic C. Scofield ($9,250), Albert H. Coyle ($6,750) and Wilfred Burr ($6,000). Construction and equipment cost $71,481, for a total of $93,481. The library opened on July 15, 1907, with addresses by Reverend Robert J. Kent and Robert H. Roy. David A. Brody, President of the Carnegie Committee, presented the library to Brooklyn Borough President Bird S. Coler, representing New York City and to Edward Kaufmann, representing the Brooklyn Public Library.
The Macon 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, 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 Macon Branch has played this civic role in Bedford-Stuyvesantfor over a century.[i]
The Macon Branch continues to operate as a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. The main door and windows have since been replaced, and the asphalt roof is most likely a non-historic material. Significant alterations took place in 1948-9. From 1973 to 1977 new fluorescent lighting was installed, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems were updated, and a new auditorium was constructed.
From 2006 to 2008, a major restoration project undertaken by Sen Architects recreated many aspects of the Macon Branch’s original aesthetic. The HVAC systems were upgraded once more in order to be less intrusive to the interior than the 1970s renovation. New lighting systems that replicated the library’s original lamps replaced the grid of suspended fluorescent bulbs, resulting in a significantly more open space.
Additionally, Sen Architects was responsible for the Macon Branch’s newest wing: the African American Heritage Center, which includes replicated period wood carvings. The section contains material on African, Caribbean and African American history and culture. The Macon Branch also includes a section called “Preserving Footsteps,” a collection of books on the history, famous landmarks and current state of Bedford-Stuyvesant.[ii]
Construction and Layout:
The freestanding library is situated in a small plot of land at an intersection. The whole structure rests on a platform that rises one step above the sidewalk. A simple non-historic iron fence surrounds the building and the front door. Two stone pillars that originally supported lamps are situated on either side of a flight of three steps in front of the entranceway. A larger flight of stairs leads to a second doorway facing Macon Street. The library’s interior space is composed of large reading rooms with smaller alcoves.
The two-story, three-bay Classical Revival library has façade composed of red brick laid in a Flemish Bond with a thick, stone base. The base is interrupted by two sets of basement windows and the doorway on the west façade, and five basement windows and a staircase on the south façade. The rectangular windows and door on the three-bay west façade are trimmed with decorative Indiana limestone. The central bay is composed of a wide center window flanked by two windows half its width. Carved limestone piers separate the three windows. On the five-bay south façade, only the second window from the left (the largest) receives as much limestone detail as the front. The remaining windows have only simple limestone sills.
The front entrance interrupts the center bay. The door is bordered by a thick limestone enframement with a cartouche featuring the seal of the Brooklyn Public Library – a torch encircled by the words “BROOKLYN PVBLIC LIBRARY, FOVNDED 1897.” A carved stone garland is draped over the cartouche and appears to protrude through two circular openings on either side.
Placed directly above the windows, a limestone band course surrounds the entire building. Above the band course is a frieze composed of bricks with the long sides positioned vertically, which is interrupted in the front center by a stone tablet with the words “BROOKLYN PVBLIC LIBRARY.” The frieze is capped by a dentillated cornice that supports a stone parapet. The parapet is then broken in the front center by a slightly decorated stone carving with the inscription “MACON BRANCH.” A hipped asphalt roof tops the library.
Much of the historic interior, including the large reading room and smaller alcoves with historic fireplaces, mantels and wooden benches remains intact. Originally, large frescoes were installed above the mantels and ornamental panels with axioms such as “No Gain Without Pain” used to flank the mantels. The frescoes are no longer extant. The original delivery desk is typically located in the main room’s center. The stacks, with historic decorative mezzanine metal railings, are at the back. Original oak paneling and bookshelves have also been retained.
[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] Brooklyn Public Library: http://www.brooklynpubliclibrary.org/branch_library_detail.jsp?branchpageid=181