Queens Carnegie Libraries: Poppenhusen Branch
Queens Borough Public Library, Poppenhusen Branch
121-23 14th Avenue, and 13-16 College Point Boulevard
Queens, NY 11356
Block: 4042 Lot: 113
Lot Area: 10,100 sq ft (100.25’ x 97.25’)
Number of floors: 1
Building Area: 2,828 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1904
Year opened: 1904
Architect(s): Heins & La Farge
Builder(s): Thomas Williams
Designation: New York City individual landmark
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Masonry
Other: Yellow Roman brick facade, the main entrance features a broken pediment and a keystone-arched doorway, major expansion in 1937 through the WPA
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.
The Poppenhusen library is located within a large lot on the northwest corner of College Point Boulevard and 14th Avenue. Completed in 1904, it was the second Carnegie library completed in Queens; Poppenhusen opened after Astoria (the first) and before Far Rockaway (the third).[i] Heins & La Farge, the architectural firm that designed the building, is renowned for its plans for the earliest New York City Subway stations, the first section of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and seven buildings for the Bronx Zoo.
The Poppenhusen 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 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 Poppenhusen library’s unusual entrance ornament, heavy cornice, hipped roof and broad stone window enframements make it stand out among other branches.
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 civic buildings and public areas such as schools, social service centers, parks, public baths, or YM/YWCA’s. The Poppenhusen Branch has played this civic role in College Point for over a century, especially since the chosen site was close to a school and a park.[ii]
The College Point community donated the land for the library. In 1903 the Poppenhusen Institute donated its 3,250 books to the Queens Borough Library (with the condition that the new building bear the name Poppenhusen). Construction and equipment cost a total of $30,114. During the opening ceremony on October 5, 1904, presentations were given by Philip Frank, chair of the Queens Carnegie Committee, Joseph Cassidy, Queens Borough President, John Delany of the New York Corporation Counsel, and New York Public Library representative Arthur Bostwick.
The Poppenhusen Branch is a New York City individual landmark and continues to operate as a branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Its collection includes publications in Chinese, English, Hindi, Korean and Spanish.
Like all other Queens Carnegie branches, Poppenhusen was renovated in the 1930s with Works Progress Administration (WPA) funds. A singe-story rear addition that featured a children’s reading room was added in 1937. A World War II monument was placed in the library’s front lawn. In 1964 the branch was remodeled and in 1989 all the windows were replaced. All historic doors have been replaced as well. The Queens Borough Public Library has the biggest circulation of any metropolitan library system in the United States.
Construction and Layout:
The freestanding, single-story, five-bay masonry structure rests on a basement and has a double hipped roof made of non-historic copper standing seam sheet metal. The building’s original roof used shingles with standing seam metal at the outer edges. Originally T-shaped, with the wider section in the front and a narrower projection in the rear, the 1937 WPA rear addition made the library rectangular in plan.
The Poppenhusen Branch is sited on a landscaped lawn with trees and shrubs. A granite World War II monument sits on the lawn facing the street intersection. The entire lot is bordered by a low, coursed fieldstone wall with an ornate wrought iron fence that runs along 14th Avenue and College Point Boulevard. The wall and fence terminate at a stone pier at the western border of the lot. Judging from c. 1904 photographs, the wall did not originally feature a railing. The fence was most likely added by the 1930s at the latest.[iii] Architects of the Carnegie branches frequently employed an encircling wrought iron fence. A yellow brick wall, most likely added during the 1937 renovation, borders the side alley and part of the rear alley. A flight of stone stairs with non-historic railings leads from the surrounding wall to the front entrance. A wheelchair-accessible ramp was recently added to the front lawn.
Designed in the symmetrical Classical Revival style, the building’s facade is faced in yellow Roman brick with monumental limestone trim. The front facade, which faces 14th Avenue, contains five bays — two pairs of tall, rectangular double windows flanking a central doorway. Simple limestone mullions vertically divide each window. Two flat limestone band courses border the windows on the top and bottom. Yellow brick piers with molded stone capitals and bases (that join the bottom band course) divide each bay. Above the upper band course is a stone modillioned cornice that supports the roof.
The main entrance projects slightly outward and features a keystone-arched doorway with a molded enframement. Both the door frame and the flanking yellow brick piers are interrupted by heavy stone banding. The entrance is topped by a broken pediment trimmed with limestone with egg-and-dart and floral moldings on the raking cornice. Stone acroterions cap the pediment at the pinnacle and two edges. The pediment’s tympanum contains a stone plaque with the carved words “PUBLIC LIBRARY.” Below the horizontal cornice are additional egg-and-dart moldings and two stone cartouches that feature carved open books. The motif of open books carved in stone can be found on the facades of other New York Carnegie libraries such as the Chatham Square, Tompkins Square and 96th Street Branches. Two non-historic period metal lanterns flank the doorway.
The limestone banding at the bottom of the front facade divides the basement from the main level. The basement ends in a low water-table built of sandstone under the original building and of cast stone under the addition. There are rectangular windows, with the same width as those on the first floor, below each first floor bay.
The lateral (east and west) facades consist of two 1904 bays and two additional bays from 1937. The historic facades have the characteristic modillioned cornice, limestone banding and brick piers. The addition contains a simplified cornice without modillions that supports a brick parapet. At the northwest corner of the library there is a brick parapet with no cornice. In the center of each side facade there is a projecting single-story, single-bay addition dating from the WPA renovation. Each projecting segment features a doorway and non-historic metal on the parapet. The side bays are identical in size to those on the front. However, all the side windows were shortened to half their length during a renovation. The remaining sections of the bays were filled with yellow brick that resembles the original brick. Additionally, each lateral facade has one non-historic light fixture, two non-historic casings for light fixtures, and a non-historic vent pipe.
The rear facade contains four bays — two original bays in the center, which are flanked by two 1937 bays. The center bays feature the original modillioned cornice. The east bay displays a 1937 molded cornice while the west bay has a simple brick parapet. The eastern center bay features a triple window and the western center bay has a single window. All rear windows share the height and filled in brick spaces as the lateral windows. A central doorway dating from the WPA renovation is reached by a set of non-historic concrete steps.
The main reading room in the library’s original front section features a high ceiling with molded ribs. A molding with ananthus-leaf brackets beneath each rib separates the wall from the ceiling. The central rear section contains a new circulation desk, modern bookshelves, a portrait bust of Conrad Poppenhusen[iv], and an early or historic iron staircase that leads to the basement. The Depression-era east rear addition contains a secluded reading space, which houses the library’s teen literature. The first floor interior features ornate, period-inspired lighting fixtures either attached to or suspended from the ceiling. The basement interior, which houses the children’s library, was refurbished in the mid-2000s. The story room contains an historic fireplace that was subsequently filled in. The hearth is framed by a Gothic arch with voussoirs. The decorative stone surround features two sets of paired, fluted Tuscan pilasters, a molded frieze with floral motifs, and a cornice with an egg-and-dart band.
[i] In 1966, the Far Rockaway Branch burned down. (Mary Dierickx, Landmarks Consultant, Landmarks Preservation Commission. May 30, 2000, Designation List 314 LP-2045, 5).
[ii] “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.)
[iii] Landmarks Preservation Commission, 6.
[iv] Conrad Poppenhusen was a German immigrant who built a factory in College Point, Queens for manufacturing household products. His company provided employment and prosperity to the community, and he subsequently invested in public improvements. Poppenhusen took charge of draining College Point’s swamps, paving its roads, planting trees, installing water and gas lines, and building a cobblestone thoroughfare that led south to Flushing. Conrad Poppenhusen was one of the first owners of the Long Island Railroad, and founded the Poppenhusen Institute in 1868. The institution was established as a school for the children of working class mothers and as a communal center for College Point’s factory workers. The main building, an Italianate structure designed by Mundell & Teckritz, architects (1868-70), is located near the Poppenhusen Library and is also a designated New York City Landmark. (Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2.)