Queens Carnegie Libraries: Elmhurst Branch
Queens Borough Public Library, Elmhurst Branch
Queens, NY 11373
Block: 1837 Lot: 1
Lot Area: 21,605 (103.99’ x 213.61’)
Number of floors: 1
Building Area: 5,500 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1906
Year opened: 1906
Architect(s): Lord & Hewlett
Builder(s): H.F. Quinn & Sons
Status: Library, no designation, demolished in 2012
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Other: Facade of orange bricks laid in a Flemish bond with English corners. Original plaster ceilings and Colonial Revival fireplace.
The genesis of the Queens library corporation was the Long Island City Public Library, established from the collection of William Nelson in 1896. After the consolidation of the five boroughs into Greater New York in 1898, the library was known as the Queens Borough Library, and was responsible for the entire borough. Independent libraries such as Flushing, Poppenhusen and Richmond Hill merged with the new municipal library, and were eventually housed in Carnegie buildings. The Queens Borough Library acquired its current name, the Queens Borough Public Library, in 1907. Similar to the Brooklyn Public Library, the Queens system was an independent corporation whose trustees were appointed by the mayor and whose staff was in the civil service. Of the seven Carnegie Branches constructed in Queens, five remain and continue to operate. (Now four since Elmhurst has been demolished)
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 Elmhurst Branch has played this civic role in the heart of Elmhurst for over a century.[i]
Land for the site was purchased in 1903 from Elizabeth P. Furman ($8,000) and J.A. Backus et al ($2,000). Construction and equipment cost $36,246.75.[ii]
This single-story orange brick building had 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 ornamentation. 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 library was located on the southeast corner of Broadway and 51st Avenue in Queens, amid a combination of nineteenth and twentieth century residential buildings. At some point during the post-war years, two large housing developments, including the Continental Apartments, were constructed around the building. A community garden surrouned the library, and an original landscaped rear garden with rustic furniture was eventually cleared and replaced with a parking lot. Additionally, original cone shaped evergreen trees, spaced one bay apart and planted in front of the structure, were since removed.
The branch ad undergone several renovations over the course of the past century. All windows and entrance doors are modern. Two historic lanterns that flanked the front entrance have since been removed. A children’s room wing was added to the rear, and a modern handicapped-accessible ramp as well as concrete steps with aluminum railing were installed. The Federal Civil Works Administration, a Depression-era work relief project, completed additional renovations in the 1930s. In 1961, new mechanical systems, windows, and a new roof were added and the interior was remodeled. Renovations in 1980 ensured that the historic plaster ceiling remained intact and the Colonial Revival style wooden mantel still decorated the Children’s Room. Lighted display shelves, a new circulation desk, and an adult learning center were completed in 1985.
The building continued to serve as the Elmhurst Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library until its demolition in 2012. Its collection includes publications in Bengali, Chinese, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog and Urdu. It was slated for demolition in 2007, though no immediate action has been taken.
The structure was designed by Lord & Hewlett, Architects, who were also responsible for the following Carnegie Libraries: Far Rockaway (1904, burned down 1966), Bedford (1905), South (1905, demolished 1970), Flushing (1906, demolished mid-1950s), Fort Hamilton (1907), and Brownsville (1908).
James Monroe Hewlett graduated from Columbia University in 1890, after which he joined the architecture firm McKim, Mead & White, and studied in Paris. In 1894, Hewlett came back to New York to help found an architecture firm with James Brown Lord.[iii]
Before and after he helped form the group, J. B. Lord completed numerous individual projects, including 153-159 West 74th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues (1887), the Delmonico’s building on 56 Beaver Street (1891), 202-250 West 138th Street and 2350-2354 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard (1891-93), the Beaux-Arts New York Free Circulating Library (now the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences) (1898), the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court (1900-02) on Madison Avenue, and the Yorkville Branch (1902), the first Carnegie Library built in New York City, which was under construction the year he died.[iv]
The firm of Lord & Hewlett continued to design projects such as the City Club (c.1902-04),[v] The Brooklyn Masonic Temple, 317 Claremont Ave (1906) (built along with Pell & Corbett, Architects),[vi] the Smith College Library (1909), the Senator Clark mansion on Fifth Avenue, the Danbury (Connecticut) Hospital, St. John’s Hospital (now the site of the Citicorp office building) in Long Island City,[vii] and the initial branch of the Brooklyn Hospital (1920).[viii]
Narrative Description: (As of 2009)
Construction and Layout:
The Elmhurst Library is located within a large lot encircled by a simple wrought iron fence. The building has a deep front yard with several mature trees and plantings. A wide concrete path leads from the gate on Broadway to a modern set of concrete steps in front of the library’s main entrance. A modern handicap-accessible ramp with metal railing extends to the left down to the gate on 51st Avenue. The stone balustrade that originally bordered the raised platform in front of the library has since been removed.
The building rests on a stone plinth, which separates the basement from the ground floor. The entire library is one story high and rectangular in shape with two annexes protruding from the rear facade. The front section is five bays wide and four bays deep. The left rear section housing the Children’s Room was added not long after the library’s completion. As a result, the building’s 51st Avenue side is six bays long. The rear addition to the right was constructed later. A small driveway and parking area abut the library’s rear facade. A staircase along the 51st Avenue side leads from the sidewalk to the basement. The building is topped by a flat roof.
The facade of this Georgian Revival building is composed of orange bricks laid in a Flemish bond. The front facade features a central doorway flanked by two sets of tripartite windows. The non-historic glass and aluminum entrance door and transom is bordered by a stone surround with a flat pediment. Above the door head is a narrow, horizontal space that originally contained a stone panel and has since been bricked in. In the panel’s place are modern mounted metal letters that read “QUEENS BOROUGH PUBLIC LIBRARY, ELMHURST BRANCH.”
Each side bay contains a slightly recessed tripartite window with a stone sill. There is a brick flat arch above each individual opening. In the center of the spandrel below each window, there were originally small single windows that have since been filled in with orange bricks. Individual pilasters composed of bricks in a Flemish bond with English corners divide each bay. The facade’s edges feature paired pilasters. Each pilaster has a carved stone capital. Above the doors and windows is a metal frieze and cornice with an egg-and-dart pattern, which supports a orange brick parapet with an oxidized copper banding. The cornice and parapet continue around the sides of the building’s front section. The library was originally crowned with a modillioned cornice and stone balustraded parapet.
The facade that faces 51st Avenue is composed of three segments: the front section, the rear Children’s Room, and a shorter-roofed section that bridges them together. The front section is one bay wide and has the same brick and window style as on the facade that faces Broadway, except the window is bordered by paired pilasters on both sides. The shorter, recessed middle section contains three bays – a central door and two windows with stone sills. A staircase with two brick plinths capped with stone leads to the entrance. The door is flanked by two brick pilasters with stone capitals that support a metal frieze and cornice. Whereas the frieze does not extend over either window, the thin cornice does. Crowning the middle section is a brick parapet similar to the one in front. The facade of the Children’s Room is two bays wide with features identical to those on the front facade, except that paired pilasters divide each tripartite window. In addition, there is no residual evidence of a small window in the center of each spandrel, as on the front. A metal cornice and brick parapet identical to those on the front section surround the rear segment.
The Children’s Room’s rear facade is anchored by paired pilasters at each corner. Two double windows with the same design as the aforementioned tripartite windows flank a central solid brick wall, behind which is the fireplace. The facade that faces away from 51st Avenue is identical to the street facade. The rear wall of the library’s front section is solid orange brick with a single door. The building’s additional rear annex, which contains staff rooms, is clad in orange brick. The facade that faces the Children’s Room has a single door and two windows. The walls that are perpendicular to and facing away from 51st Avenue each contain two windows. Every window is slightly recessed, has a stone sill, and is topped by a brick flat arch.
The library’s interior contains many original features such as historic plaster moldings on the ceiling, and two double-height Tuscan pilasters that flank the vestibule. Historic square floor-to-ceiling Tuscan columns screen the double-tiered book stacks off from the central reading room and circulation desk. A central staircase leads up to the second floor bookshelves, which are early or original. In the rear right section of the stacks is an early or original book lift.
In the library’s left rear section is the Children’s Reading Room, which was an early rear addition to the building. The room has original plaster moldings on the ceiling as well as an historic brick fireplace with a carved wooden Colonial Revival mantel. The brick surround is flanked by two thin Tuscan pilasters, which are topped by Ionic fasciae, a frieze with the Queens Borough Public Library seal (a central panel depicting a lit oil lamp, which most likely symbolizes the light of knowledge and learning), and a denticulated mantelpiece.
All other aspects of the building’s interior have been modernized. These features include fluorescent lights suspended from the ceiling, new HVAC systems, and a modern circulation desk to the left of a non-historic glass-paneled vestibule.
[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] William A. Prendergast, Comptroller, Record of Real Estate Owned by the City of New York, December 31, 1914 (NYC: Department of Finance, Bureau of Municipal Investigation and Statistics), 149.
[iii] Lehman College Art Gallery: http://www.lehman.edu/vpadvance/artgallery/publicart/bio/hewlett.html
[iv] Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York City, 4th ed. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 16-17, 199, 343, 353, 447, 509.
[v] “The City Club, by the way, is soon to move into new quarters. Organized in 1892, it has grown and prospered beyond expectation. Its first home was at 677 Fifth Avenue. At present it is in temporary headquarters. The new club-house, designed by Lord & Hewlett, is quite a model in its way. The interior decorations and furnishings are being done by the Coventry Blue Company, which I believe consists of Mrs. Mason Davidge (Bishop Potter’s daughter), with Mr. Everett Shinn as art adviser” (The Critic: An Illustrated Monthly Review of Literature, Art and Life (Vol. XLII, No. 3, March 1903), 202).
[vi] “They took the word “temple” literally in 1909. Some of the vigorous polychromy that archaeologists believe was painted onto 5th century B.C. Greek temples is recalled here in fired terra-cotta” (White and Willensky, AIA Guide, 700).
[vii] Lehman College Art Gallery.
[viii] White and Willensky, AIA Guide, 699.