The Brooklyn Carnegie Library: Williamsburgh Branch
BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, WILLIAMSBURGH BRANCH
240 Division Avenue, aka 226-246 Division Avenue, 197-213 Marcy Avenue, and 241-251 Rodney Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Block: 2189 Lot: 1
Lot Area: 17,100 sq ft (197.67’ x 233.67’)
Number of floors: 2
Building Area: 10,000 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1903-1905
Year opened: 1905
Architect(s): Richard A. Walker
Builder(s): Remington Construction Company
Status: Library, New York City individual landmark
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Roof: Copper (rear)
Other: Y-shaped with a semi-circular rear pavilion and two angled wings, two stories high, brick fireplace with carved wooden border, original wainscoting and mantelpieces in reading rooms, basement auditorium with stage and proscenium.
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.
At the time of its construction, the Williamsburgh Branch was the largest of the New York City Carnegie libraries. It is also considered the first Brooklyn Carnegie, as its cornerstone was laid in 1903. The 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, tall, 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 Williamsburgh Branch has played this civic role in Williamsburg for over a century.[i]
The Williamsburgh Branch is a New York City individual landmark and continues to operate as a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Since the structure’s completion, oversized copper lanterns have been added on either side of the front door. The building was renovated from 1953 to 1955, and underwent more recent changes in 2003-2004 to improve accessibility.
Construction and Layout:
The Y-shaped building is situated on a raised, grassy triangular plot of land at the intersection of Division Avenue, Marcy Avenue and Rodney Street. An historic iron fence encloses the property. The library rests on a raised basement and is two-stories high. The center section with a semi-circular rear pavilion is flanked by two wings angled slightly in towards Division Avenue. The structure as a whole is topped by a flat, conventional roof, while the first tier of the curved rear section has a copper roof.
The Williamsburgh branch is designed in a Classical Revival style with the façade faced in brick with a limestone trim. The front façade (facing Division Avenue) has a three-bay center section with a slightly projecting large middle bay, which contains the main entrance to the small lobby. Large stone quoins define the corners of the entrance pavilion. The first floor is marked by a tall archway framed in stone and topped with a fluted keystone. Within the arch is a glass transom and two wood and glass doors, both of which are separated by a stone panel with the engraved word “WILLIAMSBURGH.” Square-shaped copper lanterns flank each side of the doorway.
On the second story is a tripartite window, which is placed on a continuous projecting stone sill with two block modillions. The central second-floor window is topped by a stone frieze and a cornice supported by block modillions, which is then crowned with a stone parapet with the engraved words, “BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY.” On each side of the center section are recessed narrow bays with single, rectangular windows on each story. The first-floor windows have lintels with stone corners and keystones, with brick voussoirs between them. The second-floor windows have plain stone lintels and sills.
Historic drainpipes indicate the point at which the central section and two wings join. On the front, northern side, each angled wing contains three bays with large, arched first-floor windows, which indicate expansive reading rooms. Each opening is bordered with a brick archivolt, and a keystone and impost blocks made of limestone. Below each archway are centered flat stone panels set into the recessed brick. On the second floor of the two wings are paired, rectangular windows with plain limestone sills and lintels. A continuous, wide stone frieze and cornice caps the paired windows and encircles building’s entire second floor. The cornice is further topped by a continuous brick parapet, adding variation to the texture of the materials.
Each wing terminates with a small one-story, single-bay extension, which is slightly bowed at each end. Each curved end has a tripartite window, with an alternating brick and stone lintel. Flat stone panels are inset beneath the middle section of the two windows.
On the rear, southern side, the wings have the same arched and rectangular window patterns as on the front. The only exception is that each first-floor center bay is bricked in. The second-floor center window facing Marcy Avenue has been converted into two narrow windows divided by brick. The second-floor center window facing Rodney Avenue is completely filled with bricks, while retaining its stone lintel and sill.
Another projecting, central bay connects the two angled wings to the curved rear section. On the bay’s two narrow sides are narrow arched windows placed between the first and second stories. The windows are set within brick archivolts with stone impost blocks and keystones. South of this section, the two-tiered semi-circular rear pavilion houses the library’s book stacks. The first floor contains thirteen window openings, each composed of two rectangular windows connected vertically with a paneled copper spandrel. Whereas every lower window rests directly upon a stone water table, every upper window is capped by a stone and brick lintel.
The first floor of the semi-circular space is crowned by a shallow conical roof made of standing seam copper. The roof slopes up towards a much smaller circular section parallel with the second floor of the wings. This cupola-like structure has three bays – each containing three square-shaped windows. Similar to the two wings, the stone frieze and cornice and brick parapet surround the top of the rear section.
The semicircular, two-story stack room retains an austere metal staircase and a mezzanine. Staircases to the upstairs reading room on either side of the central circulation desk have elaborate metal and wood balustrades. However, walls have since been built to separate the stairwells from the circulation desk. Each reading room houses a brick fireplace with an orange tiled floor, which is framed by original wood wainscoting and mantelpieces. The first floor of the curved rear section features Tuscan columns. The small rounded second floor rear section houses the children’s reading room. A basement auditorium with a stage, wainscoting and a proscenium arch is intact as well.
[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.