The Brooklyn Carnegie Library: Washington Irving Branch
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, WASHINGTON IRVING BRANCH
360 Irving Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11237
Block: 3362 Lot: 32
Lot Area: 10,000 sq ft (100’ x 100’)
Number of floors: 2
Building Area: 7,800 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1923
Year opened: 1923
Architect(s): Edward L. Tilton
Builder(s): F.G. Fearon Company
Status: Library, no designation
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Other: Last Carnegie Library constructed in Brooklyn, gabled roof, flat Elizabethan entrance arch, large multi-paned windows, original hooded mantels and carved wooden fireplace surrounds, historic iron railing
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.
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 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 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 Washington Irving Branch has played this civic role in Bushwick for nearly a century, especially since it is situated across the street from the Bushwick High School.[i]
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 public libraries.[ii]
The Washington Irving Branch 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. The buildings typically have a symmetrical layout, large windows to allow an abundance of light into the reading rooms, and a prominent, decorative entrance.
The building’s architect, Edward L. Tilton specialized in libraries and was highly looked upon by James Bertram at the Carnegie Corporation. Tilton most likely contributed to Bertram’s 1911 publication on library architecture, Notes on the Erection of Library Buildings. The total cost of construction was $62,370. The Washington Irving Branch, which replaced the Ridgewood Branch library, officially opened on May 16, 1923 with a performance by the Muller Music orchestra. David Boody, President of the Carnegie Committee, presented the building to the honorable Francis P. Bent, representing the Mayor and the city. Jared J. Chambers and the Reverend John L. York delivered speeches.[iii]
Since its completion, the library underwent a rehabilitation in 1960-63. The historic hanging incandescent lighting fixtures were replaced by suspended fluorescent lights. Aside from the replacement entrance doors, most of the building’s features are still intact.[iv] The Washington Irving Branch continues to serve as a division of the Brooklyn Public Library. To the east of the structure is the imposing red brick, Tudor Revival Bushwick High School. South of the library along Woodbine Street is a series of two-story houses with red brick walls arranged in a Flemish Bond, and small stone carvings featuring garlands, rosettes, and chalices.
Construction and Layout:
The rectangular, two story, five by two bay structure is situated in a large 10,000-square-foot lot with a lawn in front and small trees in the back. An iron fence surrounds the lot. An early or original staircase with a low brick border leads to the front entrance while a new handicap-accessible ramp leads down to an entrance doorway at the basement level. The library’s main section along Irving Avenue consists of a large space topped by a gabled slate roof, with a central protruding entrance bay with its own gabled roof. The smaller rear section contains two sections with gabled roofs that extend to the southwest. One roof features an original brick chimney. A narrower, central bay projects from the building’s rear wall.
The library’s walls are clad in dark Harvard bricks laid in in a Flemish Bond. The walls rest on a brick base crowned by a stone band course that encircles the building. Another stone course, which is parallel to the top of the first-floor windows, surrounds the library. The front facade contains five bays, which include the projecting central entrance and two pairs of windows. The sides of the entrance bay’s front wall are shaped in the manner of two stepped Gothic buttresses. The non-historic entrance doors are recessed under a flat Elizabethan arch flanked by two stone buttress ornaments and stone tabs. Above the arch is the inscription “Brooklyn Public Library; Irving Branch” engraved in a Gothic script. Topping the lettering is a tripartite window with a projecting stone sill, stone mullions, and a simple stone window head. In the center of the gabled section of the brick wall is a square stone panel with two torches wrapped in a ribbon, which flank a shield with an open book. This is a common decorative feature used at several Carnegie branches, including Chatham Square in Manhattan, Poppenhusen in Queens, and Stone Avenue in Brooklyn. A final stone course caps the gabled brick wall.
Stone tabs surround each window. The two windows to left of the entrance each have a vertical stone mullion that divides them into paired windows with six-over-six panel configurations. The two sets of paired windows to the right are taller and each features a stone mullion and transom bar, forming a cross pattern. The lights below the transom have six-over-six configurations while each transom window contains six panels. On the front facade’s basement level, there is one window parallel with each side bay. Flanking the entrance bay are two additional smaller windows with simple stone sills and heads.
Each gabled side facade contains a large, multi-paneled first floor tripartite window with a stone sill, stone tabs, and an arched stone window head. Each window is divided by two stone mullions and a transom bar. The lights below the transom have nine-over-nine configurations. Each transom window contains nine panels. However, the side windows are interrupted by the curvature of the arch. Directly above each large window is a thin second-story light with a plain stone sill and head. A stone course caps the gabled brick wall. Toward the rear facade is a rectangular window with a stone sill and six-over-six panel configuration. On each side facade’s basement level there are two windows: one parallel with the light closest to the rear wall and one almost directly below the large window.
The rear facade features a narrow projecting bay with a gabled roof. Directly below the top of the gabled brick wall is a rectangular vent. Flanking the bay are two sets of rectangular windows, one above the other. On either side of the bay are two rear sections with gabled roofs. The rear wall of each section contains two first-floor rectangular windows. All the rear windows and the vent have simple stone sills and window heads. A stone course caps each gabled brick wall. There is a basement-level window parallel with each individual rectangular window.
The more than 9,000 square foot interior is relatively simple, with an arched ceiling in the main section along Irving Avenue. The library retains its two original fireplaces with ceramic tiles with colorful floral and geometric designs, a carved wooden Tudor arched surround with intricate spandrels, and hooded, oak-paneled mantels with smaller Tudor arches with one flower carved in each spandrel. The second-floor balcony features part of the original iron railing with one curvilinear component in the center.
[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] Virginia Kurshan, Landmarks Preservation Commission, May 18, 2004, Designation List 353 LP-2054 (New York: Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2004), 4.
[iii] Dierickx, 99.
[iv] Dierickx, 99.