The Brooklyn Carnegie Library:Walt Whitman Branch
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, WALT WHITMAN BRANCH
93 Saint Edwards Street
Brooklyn, NY 11205
Block: 2039 Lot: 1
Lot Area: 10,000 sq ft (100.42’ x 100’)
Number of floors: 1
Building Area: 7,000 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1908
Year opened: 1908
Architect(s): Rudolph L. Daus (Daus & Otto)
Builder(s): William L. Crow Construction Company
Status: Library, no designation
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Other: Foliated stone surround topped by a cartouche, denticulated cornice, original wooden book stacks, metal scalloped screens with Greek fret and egg-and-dart borders, original decorative metal railing
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 place branches in close proximity to public buildings such as schools, social service centers, public baths, or YM/YWCA’s. The Walt Whitman Branch has played this civic role in Fort Greene for over a century.[i]
The building, situated on the northeast corner of St. Edwards Street and Aubern Place, 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 present library replaced the older City Park storefront branch. Land for the site cost $59,600 and construction and equipment cost $41,855 for a total of $101,455. Rudolph L. Daus[ii], the architect, and the William L. Crow Construction Company, the builder, also completed the Saratoga Branch in eastern Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The building officially opened on September 1, 1908 with a performance by the Muller Music orchestra. David Boody, President of the Carnegie Committee, presented the edifice to Arthur Somers, representing the Board of Education and the city. Originally named the City Park Branch, the library became the Walt Whitman Branch in 1943 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the Brooklyn poet’s birth.[iii]
Since completion the building underwent several changes. The structure was rehabilitated from 1958 to 1960, and received a major upgrade in 1998. Modern fluorescent bulbs replaced the historic lighting fixtures. The original vestibule, entrance door, and windows were replaced as well. The two historic lamp posts flanking the door were removed, and the glass transom window was filled in with a marble slab.[iv] Non-historic security grilles cover each window. Recently, many of the aforementioned features have been faithfully restored. Period-inspired lighting fixtures now hang from the ceiling, and new globe lamp posts that resemble the originals are now located outside the entrance. The glass transom light was reinstalled, and the building now features period-inspired wood and glass double doors. The Walt Whitman Branch continues to serve as a division of the Brooklyn Public Library.
Construction and Layout:
The single-story three bay wide rectangular structure rests on a limestone base and is crowned by an asphalt hipped roof. The central entrance bay slightly projects forward, while the central rear section that contains the two tiered book stacks extends backward. On this section’s north side is a shaft containing a modern elevator. Two concrete steps lead to a non-historic metal door in the back wall. An original brick chimney is located between two bays on the north wall. The building is situated in a 10,000 square foot lot bordered by a non-historic iron fence in the front and on each side, and by a large chain link fence at the lot’s rear. A lawn with small trees and shrubs is located on the library’s front and right sides. The front doors are approachable by a central stone staircase with new period-inspired globe lights, and by a sloping, curved handicap-accessible ramp.
The building’s walls are clad in red and brown bricks arranged in a Flemish Bond. The remaining original portions of the facade contain roughly carved bricks. The front facade is composed of a protruding central entrance bay flanked by two recessed tripartite windows. Brick piers divide each bay. The new period-inspired double doors and transom window are framed by a foliated stone surround anchored by a cartouche with scrolls, a festoon, and a fasciated border. Above the surround are a simple stone band course, brick frieze, and denticulated stone cornice that encircle the entire structure with the exception of the rear wall. Crowning the entrance bay is an austere stone parapet with a central panel containing the carved inscription “BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY.”
The tripartite windows in the recessed side bays are divided by brick mullions and have plain stone sills. There is a small square stone panel directly beneath each individual window. A flat arch with brick voussoirs and a stone keystone tops each window, which features non-historic one-over-one double-hung sash with a transom light. The plain brick frieze that crowns the facade is interrupted with austere stone panels placed above each window — a design element characteristic of every window except for those on the rear wall.
Each side facade features three recessed bays separated by brick piers. Each bay contains non-historic paired windows with one-over-one double-hung sash with a transom light. In the same style as the front windows, square stone panels are positioned below each stone sill, and the lights are topped with brick flat arches with stone keystones. The rear wall features a brick base capped by a stone band course, as opposed to the solid limestone base characteristic of the building’s front and sides. The wall to the south of the section containing the book stacks contains two windows with stone sills and brick flat arches. To the north of the projecting section is the elevator shaft and a single window. The rear section’s east wall contains five full-height windows (except for the southern-most window that contains the rear door), each topped with a brick flat arch. The section’s south wall features one full-height window.
The 7,000 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 central protruding section of the building’s rear. The interior contains several historic elements such as decorative metal railing, wooden stacks with rectangular moldings, and metal scalloped screens with Greek fret and egg-and-dart borders.
[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] In addition to the Carnegie libraries, Rudolph L. Daus designed the Lincoln Club (now the Independent United Order of Mechanics of the Western Hemisphere) (1889) at 67 Putnam Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the 13th Regiment Armory, NY National Guard (1894) also in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the New York & New Jersey Telephone Company building (1898) on 81 Willoughby Street in Downtown Brooklyn, and the New York County National Bank (1906-7) at the corner of 14th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan. The architecture firm of Daus & Otto designed the Eglise de Notre Dame (1909-1910) on Morningside Drive and 114th Street in Manhattan. (Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 184, 467, 643, 732, 737.)
[iii] Dierickx, 97.
[iv] Dierickx, 97.