Brooklyn Carnegie Libraries:Pacific Branch
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, PACIFIC BRANCH
25 4th Avenue
New York, NY 11217
Block: 928 Lot: 6
Lot Area: 9,500 sq ft (100’ x 95’)
Number of floors: 2
Building Area: 6,000 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1903
Year opened: 1903
Architect(s): Raymond F. Almirall
Builder(s): Church Construction Company
Status: Library, no designation
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Classical Revival, Tudor Revival
Walls: Brick, Stone
Roof: Tile, Asphalt
Other: First Carnegie library to open in Brooklyn, unusual semi-circular plan, hipped and conical roof, original fireplace with tiles and carved wood, wooden reading nooks
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 construction 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.
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 Pacific Branch has played this civic role in Boerum Hill for over a century.[i]
The building 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 Pacific Branch was the first Carnegie library constructed in Brooklyn and continues to serve as a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.[ii] Land for the site was purchased in 1903 from Matilda Walling ($18,000), Georgiana Keep ($6,000), Emma Roberts ($5,250), and Carrie Lyons ($4,750). Construction and equipment cost $98,683.27.[iii] The branch, designed by architect Raymond F. Almirall[iv], officially opened on October 8, 1903. It was among the first five Brooklyn Carnegies, in addition to Bedford (1905), DeKalb (1905), Williamsburgh (1905), and Greenpoint (1906, demolished 1970). All five plans and elevations, each designed by a different architect, were publicly praised for their pragmatic approaches to having sufficient amounts of light, air and space for books and people. An article in the March 1903 edition of The Library Journal lauded the Pacific Branch for having ample light and a practical layout for efficient administration.[v]
After the building experienced damage as a result of subway construction in 1914 and a fire in 1917, Raymond Almirall was hired to restore it. The original cornice on the library’s rear wall was stripped away in 1951. The building suffered another fire in 1973 and was slated for demolition. However, the residents of Boerum Hill saved the Pacific Branch, and it was repaired by 1975. Although the front door, windows, entrance staircase and lanterns are non-historic, they are not recent. The 1939 WPA mural series above the attached bookcases is no longer extant.[vi]
Construction and Layout:
The Pacific Branch is located on a corner lot at the intersection of 4th Avenue and Pacific Street. This two-story, three-bay-wide building consists of a rectangular structure with a front entrance that faces 4th Avenue and a semi-circular rear section. The unusual apsidal plan was designed to allow the maximum amount of light into the reading rooms. The library’s unique hipped and conical roof features a dormer window at the ridgeline. A non-historic iron fence with a concrete base surrounds the lot. Two later period-style lanterns on stone bases flank the non-historic front steps and railing.
At the bottom of the library’s walls is a base of course masonry, above which is a smooth limestone band course. The library’s walls are clad in red bricks laid in a running bond. The facade facing 4th Avenue is composed of three bays. Projecting brick piers divide the bays and mark the corners of the building. Each pier features a carved stone capital with the symbol of the Brooklyn Public Library: a torch, which represents the light of learning.
The central entrance and flanking windows have Tudor-style arched keystone surrounds. The bottom half of each side bay is filled in with carved limestone panels, while non-historic mesh grilles cover the windows. Each light is framed by an arched brick surround with limestone trim on each end and a scrolled keystone. The entrance bay has a solid limestone surround with a richly carved keystone that features an open book and a curved leaf. Carved swags are draped above the arch on either side of the keystone. The non-historic front door has a limestone border with scrolled brackets with swags that support a lintel, which features the Brooklyn Public Library seal and the carved words “PACIFIC BRANCH.” The arched transom window also has a non-historic mesh grille.
The second floor contains three smaller square-shaped windows with stone sills and flat arches. The central window sill features two square-shaped fluted brackets. A stone band course parallel with the top of each window encircles the entire building. The facade is topped by a heavy stone cornice and parapet. The central section of the parapet, flanked by swag ornaments, contains the engraved words “BROOKLYN PVBLIC LIBRARY; ESTABLISHED 1897.”
The two side facades of the rectangular section have the same design as each side bay in the front. At the ridgeline between the rectangular and apsidal sections is a dormer with a brick wall and carved limestone border. The dormer features a central arched window with Roman lattice, a stone sill, and a projecting rounded keystone.
The library’s apsidal rear wall has eleven bays that alternate between single and tripartite windows. The bays are separated by brick piers with limestone bases and band courses near the top. Each double-height first-floor window features an arched brick window head, and is divided by a spandrel that indicates the two-level book stacks inside. The second-story windows are rectangular with stone flat arches. The facade is crowned by a severe stone cornice and a later brick parapet. There is a non-historic set of concrete steps and exit door on the rear wall.
Light streams into the more than 15,000 square foot interior from all sides. The first-floor apsidal space has original double-level book stacks arranged in a semi-circular configuration. The stacks feature carvings with floral designs and cornucopias. An open staircase with original dark wood wainscoting and thin wooden balusters leads to the spacious second-story reading room. In the middle of the apse are ornate reading nooks with wainscoting. Carved wooden piers frame the sitting area. In the center is an historic fireplace with green tiles and a small shelf. The structure is surrounded by a wooden hooded mantel and two carved wooden scrolls.
[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] Dierickx, 85.
[iii] William A. Prendergast, Comptroller, Record of Real Estate Owned by the City of New York, December 31, 1914 (NYC: Department of Finance, Bureau of Municipal Investigation and Statistics), 147.
[iv] Raymond F. Almirall, a native of Brooklyn, specialized in designing public buildings such as hospitals and banks, as well as religious structures. In addition to the Pacific (1903), Park Slope (1906), Bushwick (1908), and Eastern Parkway (1914) branches of the Brooklyn Public Library, Almirall designed St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church (1905) with its beehive cupola in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Fordham Hospital (1905), the Beaux Arts Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank Building (1908-1912) at 51 Chambers Street in Manhattan, numerous buildings for the Metropolitan Hospital (1906-1910) on Roosevelt Island, and the Seaview Hospital (1914) in central Staten Island. (Virginia Kurshan, Landmarks Preservation Commission, October 13, 1998, Designation List 298 LP-1994 (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 1998), 4-5. Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 71, 688, 921.)
[v] Dierickx, 85.
[vi] Dierickx, 85.