81 Devoe Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211
Block: 2762 Lot: 21
Lot Area: 11,875 sq ft (125’ x 100’)
Number of floors: 1
Building Area: 4,800 sq ft (estimated)
Year(s) built: 1908
Year opened: 1908
Architect(s): William B. Tubby
Builder(s): F.J. Kelly’s Sons
Status: Library, no designation
Late 19th & 20th Century Revivals
Walls: Brick, Stone
Other: Bricks arranged in an English Bond, panels with bricks in a basket weave pattern, tabbed stone surrounds, flat pediment with scrolled brackets, ornate stone keystone, high windows
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 construction 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.
The architect William B. Tubby designed the Leonard Branch in addition to three other Brooklyn libraries (DeKalb (1905), Carroll Gardens (1905) and Stone Avenue (1914)), and served on the Architects’ commission for the Brooklyn Carnegie branches. Following the commission’s stylistic guidelines, Tubby’s design has 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 trim. Typically built in a Classical Revival style, the buildings have a symmetrical layout, 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 Leonard Branch has played this civic role in Williamsburg for over a century.[i]
The library’s site was purchased from Realty Associates in 1906 $27,500. Construction and equipment cost $56,765.27 for a total of $84,265.27.[ii] The branch officially opened on December 1, 1908. The interior was decorated with a molded plaster ceiling, skylights, wood panels, and carved wooden window borders. Lighting fixtures in groups of three lamps were suspended from the ceiling. Since completion, the historic front steps were changed, the windows and entrance door were replaced, and the glass transom was filled in. After the ceiling was dropped, the molded ceiling and skylights were no longer visible. Additionally, the wood panelling is not visible. The original lighting fixtures were replaced with modern fluorescents, and a new vestibule was installed. A new roof and interior trim were constructed during a rehabilitation in the 1950s. Subsequent renovations occurred in 1966-69, 1978, and in 1980 when the roof was replaced again. Recently, a glass transom recalling the original was installed. The Leonard Branch continues to serve as a division of the Brooklyn Public Library.[iii]
Construction and Layout:
The library is situated on a corner lot at the intersection of Leonard and Devoe Streets, one block from the more commercial Metropolitan Avenue. A small lawn with at least four small trees borders the building along the south, east and north facades, and a non-historic iron fence surrounds the lot. The fence is similar to but taller than the original. The single-story five-bay rectangular structure rests on a brick water table and features an angled slate roof. The central rear bay projects outward from the rear wall. A period chimney is located between two bays on the west wall. A non-historic staircase bordered by brick plinths leads up to the front entrance, while modern staircases along the side facades lead down to doors at the basement level. There are basement level windows on the east facade.
The building’s walls are clad in red bricks arranged in an English Bond. A brick base capped with a stone course encircles the library. The front facade has five bays — a projecting central entrance with two slightly recessed windows on either side. Brick pilasters divide each bay. The center bay contains the main doorway with metal and glass double doors and a large glass transom. The entrance has a tabbed stone surround with decorative panel moldings. The enframement is crowned by an ornate keystone and a flat pediment with scrolled brackets.
The doorway is flanked by two recessed narrow windows with tabbed stone surrounds and Doric enframements. Simple panels placed directly above the lights. The two recessed windows are topped with flat arches with brick voussoirs and keystones. Above the entrance is a projecting single row of bricks and a metal and stone cornice, both of which encircle the building. Above the cornice is a brick parapet capped with an austere triangular pediment. Engraved on a stone panel within the parapet are the words “BROOKLYN PUBLIC LIBRARY, LEONARD BRANCH.”
Each side bay contains a high window similar to those on the Fort Hamilton Branch, designed by Lord & Hewlett.[iv] Every window features plain stone sills and window heads. Below each light is a slightly projecting panel (the width of the window) that contains a smaller panel with bricks arranged in a type of basket weave pattern. Topping each bay is a flat arch with brick voussoirs and keystones.
Each side facade is three bays wide and features the same window styles as those on the front, without the basket weave panels. The rear facade is five bays wide, with a central projecting bay and two windows on either side. The window bays have the same design as those on the side facades. The east and west walls of the projection are solid brick.
The once spacious interior now has a lowered ceiling. No original interior features remain.
[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), 139.
[iii] Dierickx, 81.
[iv] Dierickx, 81.
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