Brooklyn Carnegie Libraries:Park Slope Branch
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, PARK SLOPE BRANCH
431 Sixth Avenue (aka 427-441 Sixth Avenue)
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Block: 1006 Lot: 1
Lot Area: 17,600 sq ft (180’ x 97.83’)
Number of floors: 2
Building Area: 7,852 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1905-6
Year opened: 1906
Architect(s): Raymond F. Almirall
Builder(s): Church Construction Company
Status: Library, New York City individual landmark
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Other: Central entrance portico with Doric columns, double-height rectangular windows, decorative interior with stained glass windows, arched stained glass ceiling, wood paneling, marble and mosaic floors, and tiled fireplaces with decorative relief plaques
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.
The Park Slope library is located on the east side of Sixth Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets in Brooklyn. The building is set back from the street on the eastern portion of the site. Originally named the Prospect Branch, the library became the Park Slope Branch in 1975. Built in 1905-1906, the library is one of the earliest Carnegie branches constructed in Brooklyn. It was one of four Brooklyn branches (including Pacific, Bushwick, and Eastern Parkway) designed by Raymond F. Almirall, who in 1908 was hired to plan the central Brooklyn Public Library building, and who was the secretary on the Brooklyn Carnegie Committee’s Architects’ Advisory Commission.[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 Park Slope Branch features three large, rectangular windows on either side of an entrance portico with Doric columns.
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 Park Slope Branch has played this civic role in Park Slope for over a century.[ii]
The Park Slope Branch is a New York City individual landmark and continues to operate as a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. The entrance steps and platforms were replaced in the early 1940s, along with the surrounding iron fence. A lack of maintenance resulted in the building’s closure for significant repairs from January 1948 through July 1949. After a longer period of neglect, the building began to deteriorate once again. A major rehabilitation from 1978 to 1981 included new heating, cooling, and plumbing systems. In addition, the walls and roof were repaired and security gates were added to close off the building’s main entrance. The building reopened in June 1981 with new furnishings, while retaining many original features such as wall paneling and fireplaces.
Construction and Layout:
The Park Slope Branch is sited on a raised and bermed lot, which composes the entire blockfront of Sixth Avenue between 8th and 9th Streets. The building rests on a limestone basement, which the berm conceals from street view. Following a T-shaped plan, two large wings flank a projecting entrance portico. Each wing contains one of the two principal reading rooms, one for children and the other for adults.
The impressive two-story, seven-bay brick Classical Revival structure has three double-height rectangular windows on either side of the central portico. The stone pediment atop the projecting entranceway is supported by two pairs of non-fluted Doric columns, each with an egg-and-dart pattern on the echinus. The columns support an entablature with a foliate molding for a frieze, which is interrupted by four triglyphs, one directly above each pillar. Above the entablature is a parapet with the engraved words “BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY/ESTABLISHED 1897.” A staircase leads to two non-historic entrance doors within the portico. Another foliate molding enframes the doors and a transom panel with the incised words “PROSPECT BRANCH.” The molding is interrupted at the center top with a stone keystone with a carved torch, symbolizing the light of learning. Against the front wall underneath the portico, paired, engaged pilasters support an egg-and-dart cornice.
The front windows are topped with brick voussoirs and the same carved torch keystones. Each opening features a tripartite replacement window with a three-part transom on top, as well as non-historic metal grilles. Although the windows are non-historic, they retain the original fenestration pattern. A slightly recessed brick panel fills the spandrel beneath each window. A stone bandcourse surrounds the whole building, touching the top of each keystone. Directly above the course are flat stone panels parallel with each window.
The identical, limestone-faced, gable-ended side facades feature triangular pediments atop paired, engaged pilasters. Between each set of pilasters is a flat panel enframed by a foliate molding. A carved open book is featured within each pediment.
The library’s rear, visible from the street, has much simpler motifs. The main rear section has the same double-size rectangular windows, with the same ornamentation, as the front. Toward the center, the library then extends back in two components. The first section has two stories with smaller windows as opposed to one level with large windows. The two floor windows are separated by spandrels with stone-edged panels, whereas the top floor windows are crowned by wide stone lintels. The second section contains windows with continuous stone sills and lintels.
The entire building is crowned with a stone parapet, which conceals a shallow-sloping standing seam metal roof. The exterior steps have been replaced, and a barrier-free access ramp was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2006.
The exceptionally ornate interior is largely intact. The entrance vestibule has a mosaic floor with red, green, and yellow tesserae arranged in geometric patterns against a white background, which is then bordered by black tesserae. In the entrance to each of the main reading rooms are two wooden Doric columns in antis, which are attached to two wooden piers. The piers support a wooden Doric frieze, upon which rests an arched stained glass window. The yellow glass is then divided by two carved wooden scrolls that are parallel to the columns.
In the reading rooms, wooden wainscoting extends from the floor to the height of the windows. Each window has a wooden pedimented trim. At the end of each room is a tiled fireplace. One (with turquoise tiles) is framed by a pair of wooden Doric columns and a wooden Doric frieze, while the other (with ochre tiles) is bordered by wooden Corinthian piers and consoles that support a wooden entablature with a dentilated cornice. There are vaulted stained glass ceilings in the vestibule and the mezzanine. An additional fireplace with yellow tiles and two sets of paired, engaged wooden pilasters.
[i] 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), 1, 4-5. Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 71, 688, 921.)
[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.)