Manhattan Carnegie Libraries- 125th Street Branch
New York Public Library 125th Street Branch
224 East 125th Street
New York, NY 10035
Block: 1789 Lot: 37
Lot Area: 5,046 sq ft (50’ x 100.92’)
Number of floors: 3
Building Area: 4,008.67 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1904
Year opened: 1904
Architect(s): McKim, Mead & White
Builder(s): Michael Reid & Company
Status: Library, New York City individual landmark
Late 19th and 20th Century Revivals:
Italian Renaissance Revival
Walls: Masonry, Limestone, Granite
Other: Rusticated façade, modillioned cornice, carved limestone tympanums in second- story windows, with anchors, laurels, Latin inscriptions and a shield featuring part of the seal of the City of New York
The 125th Street library was originally named the Harlem Branch, until the name was given to another Carnegie branch on West 124th Street in 1909 The building is located on the south side of East 125th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The building’s area is 4,008.67 sq. ft.
Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1904, the 125th Street Branch was one of twelve Carnegie libraries the preeminent architectural firm would build; the last was the 1923 Fordham Branch. It is one of twenty Carnegie branch libraries built in Manhattan and one of sixty-seven throughout the whole city. The builder, Michael Reid & Company, built eight additional branches with McKim, Mead & White.
The 125th Street Branch has several characteristics of the urban Carnegie library type. It has a classically-inspired style (a simplified Beaux-Arts model that was the preferred style for public structures in the early-Twentieth Century), three stories, an arched entrance that is not central, ornamental stone masonry, and tall, large arched windows on the first floor that allow an abundance of light into a relatively simple interior. The urban branches were located in densely populated Manhattan and in some neighborhoods in the Bronx.
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 125th Street Branch has played this civic role in Harlem for over a century.[i]
The 125th Street Branch is a New York City individual landmark and continues to operate as a branch of the New York Public Library. The structure was rehabilitated in 1953-4, and again in 2000 through the Adopt-A-Library Program.
Construction and Layout:
Typical of the urban Carnegie branches, the 125th Street library is a three-story, three-bay structure with only one side facing the street. The building is situated in mid-block in a densely built and heavily populated part of New York. The branch has masonry walls and the front is faced in Indiana limestone with a granite base. The library is topped by a flat roof. The front entrance is marked with two three-foot high granite bollards. A non-historic pressed-steel handicap accessible ramp joins with a four stair stoop in front of the doorway. Non-historic metal railings are attached to the ramp and steps.
The façade is designed in the style of an Italian Renaissance palazzo, with a combination of arched and rectangular windows that get progressively smaller towards the top. The entire façade features shallow rusticated Indiana limestone.
Rusticated voussoirs frame the arched first-floor and second-floor bays. The arched entrance doorway is situated in the right, as opposed to the center bay so that more light can circulate throughout the first floor reading room through two tall, adjacent windows. Non-historic steel-and-glass double leaf doors are placed below an original eight-light transom, which is separated by a steel sash. A non-historic alarm box is attached above the doors just inside the vestibule. The doorway is flanked by two non-historic lanterns. The two arched first-floor windows have been shortened and replaced. Non-historic wire mesh security fencing is placed in all the first-floor windows.
A stone denticulated cornice as wide as the façade separates the first two floors. It also functions as the sill for the rectangular second-story windows, each of which features non-historic, paired, nine-over-nine, double-hung wood windows and narrow, multi-light transoms. The second and third floors are divided vertically by four colossal engaged piers. A non-historic flagpole is attached to the central second-floor window.
Above each second-floor window is a tympanum with decorative stone carving. Each tympanum is enframed with a guilloche pattern, with acanthus leaves at the two bottom corners. The left and right tympanums contain roundels, which are also bordered by guilloche patterns. The negative space surrounding each roundel is bordered by a bead-and-reel pattern. Within each roundel is a symbol surrounded by eight coffers, each containing a rosette, arranged in a circle.
From left to right, the first tympanum contains an anchor and laurels with the Latin words “Anchora Spei” (Anchor of Hope). The central tympanum displays a shield with part of the seal of the City of New York: a four-blade windmill (representing the Dutch settlers), two beavers at the top and bottom and two flour barrels on the left and right (symbolizing the two most important exports of New Amsterdam: furs and flour). Rosettes and foliate designs are carved in the space around the shield. The right-most tympanum features a second anchor grasped by two hands beneath the Latin word “Concordia” (Peace). The anchor also serves as the “iota” in combination with the Christian symbols “Chi” and “Rho,” as well as the vertical part of a Christian cross symbol.
The third story contains three small square-shaped double-hung windows that create a clerestory. Crowning the façade is a wave (or Vitruvian) scroll fascia, below a projecting stone modillioned cornice with rosettes between the modillions and bellflowers carved directly above them. Above the cornice is a stone parapet with the inscription “NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY.” The east façade has no windows and is faced in red brick.
Each floor has a rectangular layout and the first and second stories contain large, spacious rooms filled with natural light. Typical of the Manhattan Carnegie libraries, round plaster columns with molded capitals and bases support the interior’s high, beamed plaster ceilings. The space contains several historic features, including a wood-paneled vestibule, book elevator and staircase with original iron railings. However, the historic incandescent lights were replaced by newer fluorescent light fixtures.
[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.