Manhattan Carnegie Libraries- Chatham Square Branch
33 East Broadway,
New York, NY 10002
Block: 280 Lot: 44
Lot Area: 3,750 sq ft (50’ x 75’)
Number of floors: 3
Building Area: 2,658.75 sq ft
Year(s) built: 1903
Year opened: 1903
Architect(s): McKim, Mead & White
Builder(s): Michael Reid & Company
Status: Library, New York City individual landmark
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Limestone
Other: Rusticated stone base with side bay entrance and two arched windows, row of Ionic columns divide windows on upper floors and supports a frieze
The Chatham Square library is located on the south side of East Broadway between Market Street and Catherine Street. The building’s area is 2,658.75 sq. ft. and it is set up against the sidewalk.
Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1903, the Chatham Square Branch was the first of twelve Carnegie libraries the preeminent architectural firm would build; the last was the 1923 Fordham Branch. It is the third Carnegie branch library constructed in New York City, and one of twenty built in Manhattan and one of sixty-seven throughout the whole city. The Builder, Michael Reid & Company, built all except two of the McKim, Mead & White Carnegie branches.
The Chatham Square Branch has several characteristics of the urban Carnegie library type. It has a classically-inspired style, three stories, an arched entrance that is not central, ornamental stone masonry – including a row of six Ionic columns that frame the two upper floors – 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 Chatham Square Branch has played this civic role in the Lower East Side for over a century.[i]
The Chatham Square Branch is a New York City Individual Landmark and continues to operate as a branch of the New York Public Library. The building was slightly altered in the mid-Twentieth Century, but remains one of the most intact Carnegie branches in New York.
Construction and Layout:
Typical of the urban Carnegie branches, the Chatham 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. Its structure is steel and cast iron, its walls are brick and the front is covered in Bedford, Indiana limestone. The library is topped by a flat roof. On each level, a large open space takes up approximately the eastern two-thirds of the floor plan, with the stairway and small restrooms in the western third.
The facade is designed in a Classical Revival style, with a combination of arched and rectangular windows, and a progression from rustication and larger windows on the bottom to smoother surfaces, ornamentation and smaller windows on the top. There are two rectangular window openings to the basement level, which has a deeply rusticated limestone surface with rounded edges. The first floor has more shallow rustication with crisply articulated edges. This rustication follows the line of three arched openings: a doorway and two windows. The basement and ground floor are separated by a limestone band that also functions as the sills for the first floor windows.
The 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. The entranceway contains a pedimented stone door enframement with a transom that fills in the arch above. Stone scrolls flank the enframement on either side and visually connect it to the larger opening. The pediment has a frieze with circles at each end. The entrance is flanked by two original bronze lanterns, and a pedimented bronze plaque is placed at the left of the first floor façade, with the words “The New York Public Library, Carnegie Gift, Chatham Square Branch.”
A stone band with a Greek fret design divides the first floor from the second and third. Five vertical, rectangular windows are framed by the stone pilasters beneath a denticulated cornice. Simple stone spandrels separate the second and third floor windows. The lower half of the third floor windows are covered with original wrought iron grilles. Six oversize Ionic columns are placed between the windows, and support the stone cornice with a frieze that reads “NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY” in the center, with low relief carvings of wreaths at either end. Above the cornice is a stepped stone parapet with a carved insignia – an open book placed on a shield draped by a garland. Topping the parapet center is a carved stone acanthus acroterion with scrolls on each side.
At an unknown date, the wood casement windows were replaced with aluminum fixed and double-hung windows. Prior to 1940, the steps, rail and post in front of the library were removed. Additionally, the wooden door was replaced with a replication. A non-historic flagpole is affixed to the sill of the second floor window that is fourth-from-east.
The Chatham Square Branch’s interior is fairly intact with a wood paneled entrance vestibule. On the third floor is a paneled oak screen, plaster Tuscan columns, and an original stair with a decorative iron rail. There are large circulating and reading rooms that take up most of the first three floors.
Nonetheless, the interior experienced two alterations in the mid-Twentieth Century. The year 1958 saw the removal of the roof skylight and a rehabilitation of the interior. In 1971, a large meeting room was built on the third floor.
[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.